Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang takes this dangerously Hollywood romantic situation, variably drains it of narrative and lets the film, which starts off icy, distanced, and jet-black in its darkness, thaw both its audience and its tired premise with a gentle humanity. Kenji, the main character, is a quiet Japanese man living in Bangkok. The circumstances which led him to Thailand are unknown, but Kenji makes a lousy Japanese. He is allergic to fish, he works at a library, and he is creeping into middle age. It seems like his only interest in life is to commit suicide but unfortunately, he is interrupted at every attempt. Not only that, but his brother seems to be a yakuza member who’s pissed off the father of some girl he slept with. His brother of course, eventually dies and after a series of strange events that cumulate in this tragic incident, his path joins with a yong Thai woman named Noi. The two travel to her dilapidated rural home near the sea, where they hide out and gradually come to depend on each other.
Given the title, it’s quite obvious that this is a melancholy piece. Perhaps what makes Last Life in the Universe so lovely despite its dramatic shortcoming is the air of complete offhandedness that pervades the thoughtfully staid film. Their story is told in narrative passages frequently framed with motifs of paired opposites. Difficult siblings, cleanliness, lack of love and language are all prominent in both of these lives. Every one of those elements becomes part of the celestial spiral.
The segment where they live together is visually interesting, beautiful and bittersweet. Neither of them fluently speak each other’s language but they patiently communicate and silently live in their own ways with each other. Over a few days spent together, the couple begins to influence one another, and the film reveals the process with grace. We listen in as Kenji runs Noi’s language tapes, and the repetitive lessons become a palindrome, teaching him Thai as they taught her Japanese. The film’s focus is primarily on Kenji, and his mind state is done a world of good through the change in environment from cold and structured to sloppy and personal, as well as from the surreal befriending of a beautiful girl he can barely talk to but still manages to connect with.
The above synopsis may make my readers fear they will be getting a Hollywood-style “culture clash” comedy but I can assure you this is not the case. However, Last Life in the Universe isn’t so much weightless as it is liable to inspire weightlessness. Like any good mood piece, it’s best to be in the mood for it. It’s an enticing love story, gorgeous and serene, and satisfying on a level that approaches the subliminal. Overall, I would rate Last Life in the Universe as one of the best and most beautiful Asian films of the last few years.