Something Not Seen
What is the point in living if we don’t have anyone to talk to?
—Kenji (Tadanobu Asano), Last Life in the Universe
Christopher Doyle describes himself as “cinematographer, DOP, operator of the camera, dilettante, etc.” in his commentary for Palm’s DVD of Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan). As the production lacked “sponsorship,” he admits, “It’s not the best film I’ve ever made, but it’s the film I’m most proud about, I think. My first Thai film. Purely Thai, except for me and the main actor, Asano.” As he goes on to explain, Thailand appears in many films, but used for other purposes. What makes him proud is that Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s movie is “Thai.”
For Doyle, the “great challenge” is shooting any emotion, “taking ideas and turning them into images.” In Last Life, the images are instantly striking: a set of seeming still lifes, chairs, shoes, books on a shelf, books spilled onto the floor, and then the camera gravitates upward, handheld, as a a leg dangles in the frame, the body unseen and hanged. As a policeman enters from the back of the frame (stepping over a woman who faints at the sight before them), the camera pulls back and hovers just a little, showing his face as he comes into focus, and revealing slightly more context, more space. The voiceover, by librarian Kenji (Tadanobu Asano), notes, “This could be me three hours from now.” Doyle adds, “Yeah, this could be any of us here hours from now. I guess that’s the point.”
For admirers of Doyle’s work—Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), Infernal Affairs (2002), Hero (2002)—hearing his ruminations on space, movement, and music is frankly thrilling. And he’s a good talker, occasionally repetitive, always careful and intent. He pauses briefly near the film’s opening, to “let Kenji talk a bit, because this is important,” so you can listen, as the camera offers a series of seemingly simple, domestic images—kitchen counter with knives perfectly arranged, apartment walls lined with books in all manner of stacks and shelving—Kenji’s mediation on death, the possibility that it is relaxing, a chance at last to not have to “keep pace with the rest of the world. No more email, no more telephone.” A nap and a chance to wake again, refreshed.
The scene shifts abruptly, showing that Kenji is not dead, but still only thinking about it. You see the noose just behind his head, which he turns to try on. A cut to his feet shows the stack of books beneath him, the last items keeping him from death. Doyle picks up again. “The reality of the film is the reality of Kenji,” he says, “The reality is his changing perception of the space in which he is forced to move. And that’s the reality of cinematography, for me.”
Kenji’s contemplation is interrupted here by the door buzzer and so, as Doyle puts it, he must depart his austere space and encounter “another space.” Enter Kenji’s brother (Yutaka Matsushige) with Heinekens, all set to relax on the sofa until he spots the noose. Even then, the two characters persist in their separate realities: the brother prepares to shower (“It’s fucking hot!”), and Kenji—for your eyes and in his head—is back to where he started, hanging. Doyle helpfully observes, “Asian films, they jump narratively, they do innovative things because you have an energy that comes from the space in which you work and move. It comes from the energy of the culture itself.”
The film’s evocation of Kenji’s “last life” (previous or final) combines melancholy and allure. Kenji reads over a note that says, “This is bliss”—whether he has arrived or continues to search is unclear. While watching Kenji move through his spaces (his apartment, the library), Doyle recalls the ideal nature of the shoot, “the engagement of all the members of the filmmaking experience… I think that does lead to a certain kind of filmmaking which is very organic.” The camera pauses briefly, pans gently over a window—one shot looking out at rain, the other looking in at Kenji through rain—and Doyle describes it: “Even a rather abstract idea can actually have its resonance, abstract ideas become like music… [The film] can contain implications rather than explications of ideas.” Because viewers make their own… “what do you call them,” Doyle ponders… “home movie,” they are more sophisticated about how the camera might work, and so push filmmakers to “be more articulate in the… dance between the actors and the camera.”
In Bangkok’s Japanese cultural library, the Osaka-born Kenji spots Nid (Laila Boonyasak), dressed in a schoolgirl’s blouse and skirt, a “slight dissonance in his ordered world,” according to Doyle. “I hope it works in the sense that there is something outside the frame,” Doyle says of the film. “What you see inside the frame implies something bigger outside… There is always an implication that there is something not seen.” And so, as the characters are looking outside, they express themselves, and come to find each other.
When Kenji witnesses his brother’s murder by a yakuza (and so becomes a target himself, wit the leader played by director Takashi Miike), he ends up staying with Nid’s sister, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) (this following Nid’s bloody and traumatizing death in a road accident). Though they are wholly different—she’s noisy and he “reads too much,” she’s open and he seems closed—the two share a sense of loss, if not precisely grief. While she misses her sister, Kenji admits he doesn’t really miss his brother. Evoking their mutual loneliness, Doyle’s “volatile” camera pans through empty rooms, floors increasingly cleared of clutter as Kenji spends more time with Noi, pausing to peer through doorways as they eat or watch tv.
They don’t talk much (their shared language is a fractured English), but their growing intimacy is conveyed by the space they inhabit, quite specifically Noi’s house, which Doyle describes as “a third character.” Noi feels her home changing, as Kenji begins to clean up. In one fanciful scene, Noi smokes pot, and the house quite comes alive, as books float from the floor where she’s left them to the shelves where they belong. Is it Kenji’s sense of order manifesting itself? Is her self-understanding shifting, following her loss? Doyle asks as he watches, “How does one engage another form of consciousness, how does one engage another experience? I think you have to open yourself to the possibilities of the environment in which you work.” As she looks on a photo of Nid and herself as children and the camera slowly circles her, languid and reflective, Doyle proposes possible meanings: “So I’m not sure if the house is Nid, or the house is Noi or the house is youth lost, or the house is time, but it’s certainly something.”
While the two share quiet moments, their space fluid and evocative, they are also within reach of danger, as the plot bears down. The relationship develops musically, as each imagines the other. At times, this mutual imagining appears to turn Noi into Nid, within his or her perspective. Nid’s boyfriend/pimp Jon (Thiti Rhumorn) appears in these moments, repeating his abuses as of old, violence that is only redoubled in the threat posed by the gangsters (whose arrival on the scene, some 90 minutes into the film, prompts Doyle’s observation that Miike just showed up, essentially in costume—shiny jacket, bad hat, sunglasses—and the shoot commenced, all low, wide angles shot from across rooms and furniture. And space, at once familiar and altered, so that you see it again. “It’s repetition as theme,” say Doyle. But different every time.