June 16, 2004

SIFF V: Seattle Maggie Lives!

In her final Seattle International Film Festival report of the year for Cinecultist.com, Seattle Maggie goes searching for a good cry but finds an even more satisfying cinematic experience with a little Thai film about unlikely lovers.

In past years at SIFF, I have been lucky enough to find at least one film that was good enough to reduce me into a tissue-sniveling wreck. For example, there was 2003's Last Scene, a sweetly sentimental turn by Ringu horror-master Hideo Nakata, or 2001's Joint Security Area, with director Park Chan-wook's final potent image leaving me sobbing in the darkness like a little girl, sympathetic patrons shuffling their way out of the theater around me. This year, while I didn't shed a single tear during any of my screenings, I did find a certain solace in Last Life in the Universe. Emerging from the Saturday afternoon screening, I felt as though I had just had a good cry - I felt emptied out, emotionally spent, but also refreshed in a quiet sort of way. It was a perfect way to end my SIFF screenings for the year.

[Ed Note: It appears that Palm Pictures is distributing this film, but has no general theatrical release dates on their site as of now. You can also visit the film's official site for interviews with the director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Anyone from Palm have an update for Cinecultist's readers on when we can get a chance to see Last Life?]

The film tells the age-old story of two outsiders finding comfort in each other. Kenji is a Japanese librarian living in Thailand, whose quest for neatness borders on obsessive-compulsive (his shoes are sorted and labeled for every day of the week, including slippers for Everyday). He is preoccupied with thoughts of suicide, which creep into every aspect of his life - stack of books become a perfect stepstool for a hanging, or a bridge becomes an opportunity for jumping. His monotone life is disrupted by a visit from his brother, a shady character from Osaka, and the events that ensue shake up the quiet life that has been pressing in on Kenji like a coffin.

Through a twist of fate, manifested as a terrible street accident, he meets his polar opposite in Noi, a Thai free spirit, whose rusted VW convertible and messy ways both attract and repel him. She is all bare feet and beery rings on countertops, lazily tapping the ashes of her cigarettes into anything and everything, including her own dinner. Through feelings of loss, guilt and loneliness, the mismatched pair find comfort in each other. The relationship never quite reaches a sexual context, but instead shoots way beyond that - there is a fragile beauty captured in the ordinary, with Kenji and Noi casually sharing a bowl of noodles, or curling up on the couch to watch TV. The plot throws in scuffles with Noi's philandering ex-boyfriend, two dead bodies and a trio of Japanese gangsters, but the real sentiment of the film lies in the relationship of the two lead characters, a spark of hope that loneliness is not the final answer for anyone, not even the most broken and desperate of souls.

Needless to say, I liked this movie quite a lot, although its slow pacing might not be for everyone. I especially liked the use of subtitles in this film - Kenji speaks little Thai and Noi speaks little Japanese, so they communicate mostly in broken English; however, sometimes there are no subtitles provided, which helps the viewer connect with the characters' feelings of "huh?" when faced with a foreign language. Also, the cinematography is gorgeous, a serene meditation on anything from a dribble of shocking red blood on the pristine pages of a book to a beautiful sunset beach strewn with the discarded trash of modern Thailand. The two leads have that certain chemistry that speaks to each other without having to say anything, and the viewer feels privileged to be witnessing something so precious. As Kenji's unused Post-It suicide note says so simply, "This is Bliss."

I give Last Life in the Universe 5 out of 5 Golden Space Needles, and please give it a chance when it wanders into your local cinema or video store. Happy movie-watching until next year's SIFF and many thanks to our beloved Cinecultist for posting these reviews. Until next time, this is Seattle Maggie signing off!

Posted by karen at June 16, 2004 8:04 AM