I feel a little silly trying to write about Pen-ek Ratanaruangs Last Life in the Universe. This is not the kind of movie you try to understand. As the films cinematographer, the brilliant Christopher Doyle, explains, “[The important thing] is to never ask what does it mean. It is what it is. You dont ask a painting to explain itself. You dont understand world music. You just enjoy the rhythm.
Similarly, you should just enjoy the ponderous rhythm of Last Life. Theres not a whole lot going on plot wise, and you know thats my kind of movie. But if you must know Kenji is a Japanese librarians assistant in Bangkok. And although hes the hunkiest librarians assistant Ive ever seen, hes leading the kind of meaningless existence that would prompt me to say the things I did in my last review on Million Dollar Baby. His apartment is spotless. Books stacked by the year. The man has his shoes labeled for the week. Its no wonder hes suicidal! And, naturally, few things are funnier than dark, suicidal humor. Kenji is finally knocked out of his monotonous orbit by two violent events that throw him into the life of a beautiful but sloppy Thai woman who is about to leave for Japan.
As director Ratanaruang admits, this is the kind of film that could have easily gone the “arty, pretentious route, but he claims the cinematography and editing keep it from sliding in this direction. Hes right. The kind of care Doyle lavishes on his images makes you see and appreciate things in a way that opposes the constant “chatter and sensory overload that Kenji himself is trying to escape. Doyle makes this film riveting. A sink full of dirty dishes never looked so good.
The film addresses themes that are as varied as those encountered in life tragedy, humor, loneliness, violence, absurdity, the triumph and devastation of chance. And it manages to do so on a threadbare plot and shots of dishes in the sink.
So you see, its a bit foolish for me to try to explain Last Life In The Universe. As Doyle says in the commentary, “Its not just content. It is space. It is time. And so Last Life must be experienced. Not necessarily understood just experienced.