Last Life in the Universe

Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Starring: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Year: 2003

In this languorous melancholic film the only thing that seems to happen suddenly is death. It happens in the blink of an eye. One second you are alive, the next moment dead and you barely see it coming. It’s not neat. It’s not clean. Instead it is bloody and messy. And it smells. Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) thinks often of death. His own. He contemplates suicide constantly and often seems on the verge of doing so only to be interrupted by fate. In his anti-septic lonely world it seems to be his answer – his note simply reads “This is bliss”. Much of these thoughts though are almost masturbatory in nature – mental releases – and when the chance comes to die by simply doing nothing, he fights for his life.

From Osaka, he has somehow ended up buried in Bangkok working in a Japanese library and avoiding as much social interaction as possible as he surrounds himself in his apartment with piles of books – many of them the same ones. His life is neat and orderly – his socks and shirts organized by color – and very empty. His favorite book is  “The Last Lizard”, a children’s book that tells the tale of the last lizard in the world. Hints about his past life slowly seep out. Two events fall into his isolated orbit that force him to come to the surface of life. His Yakuza brother comes to visit – exiled to Thailand because he screwed the boss’s daughter. He thinks they have forgiven him – they haven’t. Another tragedy brings about his acquaintance with a Thai bar girl (Sinitta Boonyasak) and he spends a few desultory days with her staying at her ramshackle disheveled home on the beach. She is going to Osaka in a few days to work, he has some angry Osaka gangsters waiting for him at home. They start falling in love.
The style of this film is nothing like the director’s previous work that I have seen – Monrak Transistor and 6ixtynin9. Both of those films had strong story lines and large elements of black humor. His last film Monrak was at times very bleak and yet underneath it was a very humanistic and warm sentiment. This film is cool to the touch. Sleek, distant and dreamlike. The plot is secondary to the mood, atmosphere and visuals that are created. With the lush cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the back and forth time jumps, the cleaning of the apartment, the hypnotically slow pace and the characters emotional void, it almost has to remind one of the work of Wong Kar-wai – and most critics have pointed this out. The comparison – at least regarding this film – seems valid though Pen-ek Ratanaruang shows a sly sense of humor that Wong’s films generally lack and he finishes his films much quicker!
The compositions in the film are stunning – opaque colors infuse the scenes - it opens with a shot of a lime green lizard on a green wall – then to two chairs against the wall – then to a man hanging from a noose – all beautifully framed. Later a blood-splattered wall begins to almost take on the look of a Japanese water painting as it drips down and takes form. It is a beautiful film that at times might test your patience with its suffocating stillness, but it is at the same time fascinating and clearly one of the best films from Thailand yet.
The performance from Asano Tadanobu is very good, very subtle – as different as his role in Ichi the Killer as one could imagine. In a tongue in cheek joke, the camera pans by a poster of Ichi on the library wall. He completely dominates this film with his quiet yet shyly charming portrayal of this man. Look also for the cameo from Miike Takashi as a yakuza. If you were wondering as I was, there is a section in the film in which the main actress is interchanged with another actress – the one who plays her sister in the film and is in fact her real life sister (Laila Boonyasak). Whether this was a winking homage to David Lynch I am not sure – but it adds to the unease and dreamy atmosphere of the film. At times you wonder if much of it is a surreal dream or real.
The film’s dialogue is in Thai, Japanese and English and so on the DVD be sure to choose the “Original” soundtrack option as opposed to the Thai soundtrack that is all dubbed into Thai.

My rating for this film: 8.5