[1 October 2004]
Recalling the heartbreaking restraint of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), or the almost-romance of Lost in Translation (2003), Last Life in the Universe offers a quiet celebration of the awkward pleasures of unlikely human connections. It’s just hip, comic, and violent enough to dismiss accusations of sentimentality.
Quiet, obsessive-compulsive Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a Japanese librarian living in Bangkok. He is about to hang himself when the doorbell rings. It’s his brother (Yutaka Matsushige), a cocky Yakuza, arrived to hide out in Thailand. Two more suicide attempts (by smothering and gunshot) are likewise thwarted by a buzzing alarm clock and his brother’s murder by a fellow gangster (Riki Takeuchi). Kenji shoots the gangster, carefully cleans the blood from the walls, and departs for work, leaving the two dead bodies neatly packaged under the dining room table.
At the Japanese library where he works, he is intrigued by Thai bar girl Nid (Laila Boonyasak), who’s perusing a book in the children’s section. Later that evening, as he attempts to jump off a bridge, he is distracted by her argument with her sister, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), in a car nearby. Nid recognizes him and exits the car, only to be struck dead by a passing motorist.
From that fateful moment, Kenji and the headstrong, grieving Noi strike up a tenuous, language-challenged friendship. He speaks little Thai; Noi, who plans to emigrate to Japan, is learning Japanese. As a middle ground, they communicate mostly in broken English. Not wanting to return to his apartment-cum-graveyard, Kenji asks Noi to stay at her house, a ramshackle edifice as crumbling, cluttered, and disorganized as Kenji’s is spartan and orderly. Several charming, mostly dialogue-less scenes follow: in an effort to bridge the gap, Noi plays Thai-Japanese language tapes and buys expensive sushi. In gratitude (and compulsion), Kenji washes mountains of dirty dishes, cleans the house, and does laundry.
These quiet scenes embody the awkward ebb and flow of communication and silence between two people yearning for connection, yet adrift in their own loneliness. The incommensurability of languages is an analogue for the distance, both cultural and emotional, that separates them. Yet, Last Life finds an unexpected beauty in this gap: the soothing, rhythmic drone of language instruction tapes—speech out of context—becomes a symbolic soundtrack for Noi and Kenji’s relationship. In one scene, they eat from the same bowl of noodles, passing it back and forth as they trade phrases in one another’s languages. Listing all of the Thai phrases he knows, Kenji lets slip that Noi is “pretty.”
But the film stops short of melodrama by punctuating these tender scenes with the specter of violence and decay. Angered by Kenji’s presence, Noi’s possessive boyfriend (Thiti Phum-Orn)—or pimp? Noi is evasive about her job—beats her fiercely with his belt. In another scene, Kenji and Noi take a break on the beach, where she reminisces about her sister, as a bloated, headless animal carcass bobs in the background tide.
Even these scenes possess a perverse charm, born of Christopher Doyle’s trademark lush cinematography. Tides of language and silence are echoed in exquisitely composed shots of undulating waves or flapping curtains. As the relationship between Kenji and Noi deepens, colors get richer and fuller, an effect heightened by a surprising magical realism. As Kenji cleans house, books fly onto shelves, papers flutter through the air like butterflies, and goldfish, long dead, are resurrected in a shimmering, crystal clean aquarium.
Just so, it’s often difficult to separate reality from fantasy. In the opening sequence, Last Life suggests Kenji’s suicide attempt is a fait accompli, only to take us back to “reality” in which he is still alive. Alternating seamlessly between action and imagination, the film takes place almost as much in the minds of the characters as it does in their physical world, suggesting that reality is composed, dream-like, between the two.
Noi and Kenji’s relationship also exists in this “in between” state, not only linguistically, but also economically. Underlying their interaction is the backdrop of Japanese-Thai relations. Like all the girls in the bar where she works, Nid wears a Japanese student’s sailor suit, catering to the infamously pedophilic tastes of Japanese sex tourists. Kenji’s brother comes to Thailand to hide from the wrath of his Yakuza boss. To the Japanese, Thailand is a lawless, licentious escape from the strictures of Japanese life. Conversely, Noi is leaving Thailand because she aspires to a “first world” life in Japan. But her relationship with Kenji inverts the international power imbalance: she’s in control, even kicking Kenji out of the house at one point, while Kenji takes on the role of dependent servant, scrubbing like a houseboy.
Through this unusual relationship, the film creates complex, idiosyncratic characters and explores the loneliness that brings them together. In place of despair, Last Life in the Universe finds hope, suggesting that we needn’t be the same to find something in common.