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Last Life in the Universe (2004)

Ruang rak noi nid mahasan, Chikyû de saigo no futari

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 104 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15


When Kenji (Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano), a quiet, lonely, and fastidiously neat Japanese man marooned in Thailand, is not ordering shelves at Bangkok’s Japanese library, he is alone in his picture-perfect apartment contemplating suicide. After he witnesses the murder of his own brother (Yutaka Matsushige) by a yakuza colleague (Riki Takeuchi), and the death of a young Thai girl Nid (Laila Boonyasak) in a road accident, he ends up staying with Nid’s grieving sister Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) at her house in the country. Apart from their shared loss of a sibling, the pair seem to have little in common – Noi is impulsive and loud, her house is a shrine to filth and clutter, and her grasp of Japanese is as meagre as Kenji’s of Thai, forcing both to communicate in broken English, if at all. Yet as Kenji begins to clean the house, fantasies merge with reality, identities blur, and each finds in the other something which they long to have for themselves – until, a few days later, Noi departs for a new life in Japan, while her violent boyfriend Jon (Thiti Rhumorn) and a trio of murderous yakuza (led by upstart Japanese director Takashi Miike) all come looking for Kenji.

The dreamy pace, languorous imagery and vibey soundtrack of ‘Last Life in the Universe’ easily beguile the viewer into supposing that it is a love story of sublime simplicity, but in fact it is difficult to determine whether the relationship between Kenji and Noi unfolds in the house or in the head. Borrowing a device from Buñuel’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ (1977), Noi is made to transform into her sister Nid and back again, as a visual projection of Kenji’s shifting desires, rooted in typically Japanese models of fantasy (unlike her sister, Nid wears Japanese schoolgirl’s sailor outfits for her work in a hostess bar). Conversely in one scene the house appears cleaner than in the next, as Noi dreams of Kenji bringing his order into her messy life. Far from being continuity errors, these radical shifts in perspective transport the film’s events into the realms of the imagination, leaving viewers struggling to work out for themselves what is really happening.

Opening with an image of Kenji hanging from an improvised noose while he declares in voice-over “This could be me three hours from now”, ‘Last Life in the Universe’ is regularly punctuated, not unlike ‘Harold and Maude’ (1971), by half-hearted suicide attempts that are all in one way or another interrupted. In this way the viewer is presented with a series of possible endings, before the final, open-ended conclusion that seems to involve not one but three different endings. By the time it is all over, the boundaries between Thai and Japanese, love and loss, life and death have become thoroughly confused, and it even becomes possible to imagine that Kenji may after all have hanged himself at the very beginning (with everything that follows being a sort of gallows fantasy, full of erections, shit, death and chaos). In this respect (although in no other), the film resembles that other collaboration between Tadanobu Asano and Takashi Miike concerned with hanging men and sex-and-death fantasies, Ichi the Killer (a poster for which is on prominent display at the library where Kenji works).

So while ‘Last Life in the Universe’ is concerned with love and death, the death is always on hold, and the love is always deferred, and what remains is a fragile collection of moods and observations. In lesser hands this could have been tedious and frustrating, but director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, working closely with renowned cinematographer Chris Doyle (‘In the Mood for Love’, Infernal Affairs, Hero), has produced a thing of rare beauty, whose every frame is composed like a modernist painting, deeply imbued with longing and melancholy.

It's Got: Dreamy performances from Tadanobu Asano and the Boonyasak sisters; stunningly painterly mise-en-scène and cinematography; a languid soundtrack; a title that does not make its appearance until over half an hour into the film; cameos by director Takashi Miike and (Miike-regular) Riki Takeuchi as yakuza; a range of possible endings; and a mood of extraordinary melancholy.

It Needs: Simply to be seen and admired.

DVD Extras Scene selection; choice of Dolby digital 2.0/5.1; optional English subtitles; interview (in English) with director/co-writer Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (43min) in which he covers, amongst other things, the challenge of making "slow scenes in which nothing happens" watchable, the unmatched quality of Thai film catering, and the difficulties of subtitling a tri-lingual film for different international audiences (note that the sound in this interview occasionally fades out); a series of very short on-set interviews with Ratanaruang, co-writer Prabda Yoon, actor Tadanobu Asano, actresses Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak, cinematographer Chris Doyle, producer Nonzee Nimibutr and production designer Saksiri Jantarangsri; a behind-the-scenes featurette (38min), including interviews with Ratanaruang, producer Wouter Barendretch, Yoon, Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Doyle, Jantarangsri, editor Pattamanadda Yukol ("the characters just sit around doing nothing but we had to tell a story from that") and sound designer Amornpong Methakunawat; biographies and filmographies of Ratanaruang, Asano and Doyle (very difficult to read owing to lurid pink/mauve backgrounds); theatrical trailer. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10


An elliptical, elegiac tale of death interrupted and love deferred.