Take it from a man who's listened to hundreds upon hundreds of them: this movie's DVD has one of the smartest, most fascinating commentary tracks ever recorded. And it's not even by the director: at the official commenting microphone — and presumably wearing the official commenting cans — is cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the Sino-Aussie — or Aussie-Sino, or whatever even more complicated and unusual combination of nations bred that accent — titan of the lens known for shooting a bunch of Kar-Wai Wong and Gus Van Sant's stuff, as well as latter-day Jim Jarmusch. (I periodically entertain thoughts a complete Doyle career watchthrough.) On it, he describes Last Life in the Universe as one of his favorite films to have worked on, and several times points out elements of it as indicative of the direction in which cinema "must go."
I agree with Doyle, maybe even more than he agrees with himself. While I hesitate to lay down any absolute imperatives for an art form, the picture points the way to where cinema could do excellently indeed to go. One of his main points has to do, if I've properly digested and regurgitated the cinematographer's words, with the creation and presentation of the image itself as content, rather than just a visual adaptation of two or three sentences on a page somewhere. Doyle would have films viewed the same way that paintings are viewed, as indivisible aesthetic wholes of which it typically makes no sense to ask for an explanation or fixed, underlying "meaning," as if its sounds and images were merely the means of encoding a message. This clicks with an idea I've dubbed Colin's Inverse Boiling Law of Suckage: the easier it is to reduce a work to something less than itself, the more it sucks. Thus, the greater a work's resistance to reduction, the more it rocks.
And make no mistake, Last Life in the Universe rocks. Its story emerges from the collision of Kenji, a shy Japanese librarian working at Bangkok's Japan Foundation while hoping for his own death, and Noi, the Thai sister of Nid, a sailor-suited bar hostess who visits Kenji's library and draws his attention like a tractor beam. Too obsessive and ineffectual to pull off any suicide attempt thus far, Kenji one night decides to end it decisively by jumping from a bridge, but hesitates when he spots Nid approaching. This, unfortunately, provides occasion for another collision: between Nid and a speeding vehicle. It's not until Kenji's yakuza brother shows up and brews serious trouble that he finds himself in a position where it actually makes sense to impose his own exile by inviting himself to Noi's countryside house.
While other characters stand on the periphery — a jealous thug hell-bent on beating Noi up, a trio of goofy Japanese gangsters out to shoot Kenji, an amorous middle-aged receptionist looking as if she's stepped straight out of 1983 — the core from which the picture derives the bulk of its richness — and it derives quite a lot, all across the continuum of subtlety — from Kenji and Noi's interaction. Notably, both are to some extent trilingual, a condition that contracts more than it expands their conversational bandwidth. Whether speaking in faltering Japanese, phoenetically memorized Thai or oddly-pronounced English, the pair are forced to assume a certain purity of communication, stripped of the capacity to send or receive the usual hojillion thin layers of linguistic implication. The film even uses the trappings of this situation in unexpected ways; Noi's "Lessons in Japanese" cassette, for instance, scores a several-minute stretch of the action.
Which brings me to the sound design. Anything shot by Christopher Doyle can get by on its looks — not that it worked for M. Night — but Last Life in the Universe had about as much attention paid to its audio as its visuals. Watching it actually clarified a hazy gripe I've had about movie soundtacks — this includes non-lyrical scores, background sounds, foley work, etc. — for some now, which turns out to be that they usually seem to be crafted with a one-size-fits-all mindset, heedless of the need to suit the film's substance. This movie does not elicit that gripe. Not only does it use the sonic environment of Thailand — both urban Bangkok and rural wherever — creatively and sometimes surprisingly, but its unintrusive minimalist score couldn't fit (or develop) the picture's overall nature more perfectly. This trailer, which happens to be one of the finer short trailers I've seen in some time (though the Thai theatrical trailer, of a slightly longer form, is exemplary of the sort of trailer of which I'd like to see much more), features the theme, of which I can't get enough:
Throwing caution and the golden wisdom of Robert McKee to the wind — indeed, the "screenplay," or at least the dialogue in its entirety, fits on a single modest web page — Last Life in the Universe explores its select material in satisfying detail, with satisfying ambiguity. This is a film that knows what it doesn't need to do. It knows not to roll out some psychologized criminal past when it can give but a single glimpse of Kenji's full-back tattoo. It knows not to have Kenji and Noi fall into bed when it can leave the issue open and instead focus on their interaction with one another's lifestyles, often with only one in the scene at a time. It knows not to provide an explcit justification for the middle period where Noi is replaced by the deceased Nid: invoking fantasy, hallucination or the supernatural would all be impoverishing, not enriching, choices. It knows when final scenes are best left interpretable as sequential, parallel or imagined. It knows, and isn't afraid to use, the unique abstract power of its medium. It's not, perhaps for the usual technical and/or marketing reasons, one of the decade's best known films. But, right alongside Paranoid Park, it's one of its very strongest.