LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE

 Ruang rak noi nid mahasan

Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Japan. 2003.


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In the offbeat comedy/drama Last Life in the Universe by Pen-Ek Ratananaruang, a strange suicidal Japanese librarian develops a relationship with a young Thai woman who has just experienced a personal tragedy. Neither can speak the other's language but both communicate as best they can in broken English, their language barrier a metaphor for the cultural and emotional distance between them. Beautifully photographed by Hong-Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Last Life is a slow-paced, meditative film about loss and loneliness and the power of love to heal. The film, though dark in places, has a playfully surreal touch that leaves considerable doubt as to whether events take place in real life or in the mind of the characters. 

Alienated from his surroundings, Kenji, brilliantly portrayed by Tadanobu Asano (Zatoichi, Ichi The Killer), spends his time between his job at the Japanese Cultural Center and his apartment where he lives with his brother, a Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) member. He is compulsive about order and cleanliness and his house is neatly arranged with books and clothes systematically piled and labeled. Kenji is fascinated with suicide, not because of money problems, a failed relationship, or an unsatisfying job, but simply because he thinks dying would be very relaxing. "Just close your eyes", he muses, "and go to sleep then wake up in another life". His suicide note says simply, "this is bliss". Whenever he starts to follow through, however, he is interrupted at a crucial moment by a telephone, doorbell, or other intrusion. 

When another gang member kills his brother in his apartment and Kenji kills the gunman in self-defence, he matter-of-factly leaves his apartment and begins to wander the streets of Bangkok, ending up poised on the railing of a bridge. As he is about to jump, he is distracted by the sight of Nid (Laila Boonyasaki), a Thai bar girl that he works with at the library, being struck down by a hit and run driver right in front of him and her sister Noi (Sinitta Boonyasaki). Seeking to escape from his bullet-ridden apartment that has defied his compulsion for order, Kenji asks to go with Noi to her country home, To his dismay, he finds her house disheveled and filthy with dishes scattered on the sofa, floors, everywhere but the kitchen sink. 

The two make attempts to get to know each other but, because of the language barriers, there are long pauses between questions and answers. What little conversation there is takes place with a background drone of a Japanese language tape that, along with the softly beautiful music of Hua-Lampong Riddim, creates a soothing dreamlike state. As the relationship between Kenji and Noi becomes warmer, Doyle deepens the colors in the house and Pen-Ek stimulates our senses by showing the house cleaning itself as books fly onto shelves and papers flutter through the air to their resting place. When Noi tells him that she is planning to move to Osaka the following week, Kenji asks with deadpan humor to remain at her house because his apartment smells bad as a result of having two dead bodies inside. 

Their relationship is complicated by angry phone calls from her boyfriend/pimp and in one sequence, Kenji, showing a departure from his usual inertness, comes to her rescue when he physically assaults her. Meanwhile, we learn that he is being pursued by Yakuzas himself (there are hints that Kenji is hiding in Bangkok to escape his own Yakuza past) and the two unlikely friends must cling to each other more desperately out of fear and isolation. Last Life in the Universe, while punctuated with Kitano-like outbursts of violence, has an atmosphere of spiritual calm that works to reduce the significance of things and allows us simply to be with each moment and observe the flow. Though the ambiguous ending leaves room for interpretation about the durability of their connection, the characters come a long way from thoughts of death to dealing with plans for living. With its mixture of black comedy and romantic drama, Last Life in the Universe leaves us with a quiet celebration of the unpredictable wonder of life.
 

GRADE: A-

Howard Schumann
 
 
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