Film

Last Life in the Universe (2003)

Sharon Mizota

The soothing, rhythmic drone of language instruction tapes -- speech out of context -- becomes a symbolic soundtrack for Noi and Kenji's relationship.


Last Life in the Universe (ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan)

Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Yutaka Matsushige, Riki Takeuchi, Thiti Phum-Orn
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Cinemasia
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-09-17 (Limited release)

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.