Life, the Universe and Everything

Last night I rented the remarkable film, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang,Last Life in the Universe, which Filmbrain called the best film of 2004 and wrote a nice essay about.

I didn’t love the film altogether. I thought the shock effect of the first 15 minutes or so to be unnecessary manipulation, and I didn’t really need the violent shooting backstory to make sense of the characters and the situations. But I loved the stillness of the film, how characters just seemed to be sitting around, waiting for things to happen. I also liked how at times the film seemed to rely on static longshots to convey this sense that physical structures seemed to overshadow the characters themselves. There was a sexual/romantic chemistry between the boy and girl, and yet would anything result from it? The accident that occurs in the film seems almost surreal and isn’t directly commented on for quite a while (although obviously it produced a devastating emotional reaction never actually shown in the film). Everything important seems to be just outside the camera frame. Certain dreamlike sequences occur, and we are never sure which is actually happening. Certain bits of humor (using English as an intermediary language for communication between the Japanese boy and the Thai girl, and the boy feeding to the dog the sushi which the girl paid a lot of money for). A lot of questions pop up: why is the Japanese boy so disconnected from reality (and from the norms of the law)? why is the Thai girl going to Japan? Why the library book about the lizard (great final image of it, by the way). We don’t quite know what happened or what is going on, but all we can do is gaze at the scenery, the palm trees on the road, the abandoned swimming pool, the kitchen table.

On one scene, the girl lays her head on the boy’s lap, but the TV blocks a view of it, preventing us from understanding the context of their interaction. Is she just relaxing? seeking solace? Making sexual advances? The way the scene is shot, we see them both watching TV, although we can no longer see their facial expressions or their attitude towards that sudden gesture of intimacy.

(The film relates somewhat to my own life; I have a messy apartment which never becomes clean, and one theme of the film is each character’s relative sense of order in relation to their surroundings. The Japanese boy organizes beer cans in the fridge, while the girl seems not to have washed dishes in weeks. For me, the time to clean up doesn’t exist; I always put off housechores off until a later date and ultimately they never get done. Yes, it bothers me, but I’ve come to accept that some periods during my life I just won’t have time to keep things clean. The most wonderful moment of the film comes when the girl walks around the apartment and finds that books and personal belongings are flying in the air to their proper places on shelves and bookcases. It is a totally unnecessary moment and takes away from the film (much as the dream sequences of the rose petals take away from the urban realism of American Beauty), and yet for a moment, we lose ourselves in the sudden restoration of order, as if imposed by some smiling deity.