Dir: Penek Rattanaruang. Thailand/US/Netherlands. 2003. 110 mins.
There is a lot to be said for the theory that a territory only really comes of age when it develops a credible arthouse cinema. If this is true, then Thailand can finally join the big boys. Last Life In The Universe is the first Thai film to have made it into competition at a major festival. It is in the parallel Controcorrente section at Venice, rather than the main Venezia 60 selection - but in this bumper year, that's no stigma.
Penek Rattanaruang's third feature is one of those modern Asian films which manages to be compelling without giving very much away. It is a mood piece which nods at the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai - not just because it is lit and framed by the Hong Kong director's faithful sidekick, the former merchant sailor and snake-oil seller Chris Doyle. Rattanaruang, whose last film, Monrak Transitor, garnered festival plaudits and a degree of international arthouse distribution (though its poor performance in most territories stung many buyers) owes at least as much to contemporary Japanese masters like Takeshi Kitano and Kiroshi Kurosawa. The link is underlined by the presence of Asano Tadanobu - Japan's Ewan McGregor - as co-lead, while Takashi Miike - another of Rattanaruang's influences - is drafted in to play a cameo role as a yakuza gangster.
Tadanobu plays Kenji, a shy and solitary librarian who works at the Japanese cultural institute in Bangkok. This is not the Bangkok of sex clubs, floating markets and seven-lane highways jammed with auto-rickshaws: we see little outside of Kenji's disturbingly tidy flat, and the library he works in. The few outdoor scenes in the first part of the film take place in an anonymous global cityscape. More interesting is the life within, which consists of Kenji's recreational attempts at suicide (being Japanese, he takes hari-kiri champ Yukio Mishima as his model, rather than Kurt Cobain), and the obsessive-compulsive disorder that leads him to clean, polish and tidy up wherever he goes.
Hardly promising material for a hero, you'd think. On paper, Kenji's love interests don't have much going for them either. Nid, who he first sees in the library, wears sailor suits and sells her body. When she is suddenly, and shockingly, removed from the scene, Kenji takes up with her sister Noi, a modern Thai girl in the same line of work. They go to Noi's house in the country, whose strewn magazines, dirty plates and clogged swimming pool almost give Kenji a heart attack. The two communicate in halting English, interlaced with words in Thai and Japanese. Nothing much is said, but the fascination of this film is in the way Rattanaruang, egged on by Doyle's exquisitely meditative camerawork, with its sharp spot-lighting, grainy feel and painterly veneer, is able to conjure mystery and intrigue out of the slightest of resources. He is helped in this by the two leads: Tadanobu closed up in his shell until we are screaming to drag him out, and Sinitta Boonyasak all sharp temper and common-sense cool until she begins to warm to her houseguest.
Last Life will not be everybody's cup of Thai. Its fragmented narrative structure - which teases us with the possibility that everything after that first sighting in the library might be Kenji's fantasy - will irritate some. But like In The Mood For Love, this is a film one wants to watch at least twice - if only to work out some of the plot details that escaped us the first time. With its sophisticated, urban arthouse target, Last Life could make boutique distributors happy in several territories.
Prod co: Cinemasia (Thailand)
Co-prods: Bohemian Films (US), Fortissimo Film Sales (Neth), Cathay Asia Films, Five Star Production, Pioneer LDC
Int'l sales: Fortissimo Film Sales
Prods: Nonze Nimibutr, Duangkamol Limchaoren, Wouter Barendrecht
Scr: Prabda Yoon, Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Cinematography: Chris Doyle
Prod des: Saksiri Chungtarangsri
Ed: Patamanadda Yukol
Music: Small Room, Hualampong Riddim
Main cast: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Matsushige Yutaka, Takeuchi Riki.