Last Life in the Universe Movie Review

''This is bliss.'' So reads the suicide note Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) clutches in his hand as he prepares to hang himself in his Bangkok apartment. A Japanese expatriate, Kenji works in a local Japanese library and brings his librarian tendencies home with him, filling his flat with nothing but books and organizing his socks, kitchen knives, and shoes with obsessive attention to order.

It's a mystery why Kenji wants to off himself, but the first clue soon arrives, ringing the doorbell. Kenji's hanging is interrupted by his brother Yukio (Yutaka Matsushige), a loutish yakuza who has hightailed it out of Osaka after sleeping with the boss's daughter and has arrived in Thailand looking for a safe place to stay. It's not safe enough, though. Another yakuza shows up and shoots Yukio, but Kenji is quick enough to shoot the killer. With two dead bodies in his apartment, Kenji decides to take a walk.

While Kenji contemplates suicide yet again, this time on a bridge, two sisters, Nid (Laila Boonyasak) and Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) are bickering jealously over boyfriends. Nid is standing outside her sister's car when she's struck down and killed by a passing motorist. Kenji witnesses the whole thing and assists the grief-stricken Noi as best as he can, accompanying her to the hospital.

Now these two strangers, each with a recently deceased sibling, begin a short and strange friendship. Kenji, who speaks almost no Thai, goes home with Noi, who speaks almost no Japanese, to her sprawling but dilapidated and trash-filled house in the suburbs. Communicating in a mix of Thai, Japanese, and English, they slowly get to know each other, and Kenji surrenders to his obsessive impulse to clean Noi's house. In a cool hallucinatory moment, Noi sees the trash magically flying out of the house and books leaping to the appropriate spots on their shelves. This strange house is incredibly atmospheric and great to look at. Surrounded by dying palm trees, the encroaching jungle, and plenty of stray dogs, it feels like some sort of tropical end of the line.

Noi keeps asking Kenji if he wants to go home, but he tells her that his apartment smells because there are two dead bodies in it. She just laughs and doesn't really mind if he hangs around. He's great at doing the dishes. They sit on the couch together and eat together, and Noi spends a good deal of time lying around and smoking with such languor that you feel like you're watching her smoke an entire cigarette in a single take. She stares off into the middle distance as Kenji hovers in the background. Little is said, but it's clear that somehow these two are helping each other battle the loneliness they both feel.

A cold dose of reality is injected into this moody environment when Noi's jealous boyfriend Jon (Thiti Phum-Orn), who's heard that Noi is hanging around with a "Jap," shows up to beat some respect into her with his belt. Kenji fends him off, but the encounter sets the stage for another spasm of violence back in Bangkok that offers many more clues about what Kenji left behind in Osaka and why he's ended up in Thailand.

Some of the buzz around Last Life has dubbed it Lost in Translation, Asian style, but that's true only in the sense that it's a deeply intriguing and contemplative two-person character study that offers many small rewards along the way. One reward is Christopher Doyle's excellent cinematography. A frequent Wong Kar Wai collaborator, Doyle is justifiably famous for his saturated colors and dreamy sets. Nobody can make ugly wallpaper look prettier.

And like Lost in Translation, Last Life will stay with you. Kenji and Noi are unlike any screen duo you've seen before. They'll stick in your mind, and you'll find yourself wondering if these two tortured souls can find a happy ending either together or apart.

Aka Ruang rak noi nid mahasan.

Sleepy time back east.


Comments

Last Life in the Universe Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2003

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