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Last Life in the Universe

Thailand (2003), 112 minutes
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Matsushige Yutaka, Takeuchi Riki
Reviewer: Teri Tom
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Rating: 5
I feel a little silly trying to write about Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe. This is not the kind of movie you try to understand. As the film’s cinematographer, the brilliant Christopher Doyle, explains, “[The important thing] is to never ask what does it mean. It is what it is. You don’t ask a painting to explain itself. You don’t understand world music. You just enjoy the rhythm.”
Similarly, you should just enjoy the ponderous rhythm of Last Life. There’s not a whole lot going on plot wise, and you know that’s my kind of movie. But if you must know… Kenji is a Japanese librarian’s assistant in Bangkok. And although he’s the hunkiest librarian’s assistant I’ve ever seen, he’s 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. It’s no wonder he’s 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. He’s 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, it’s a bit foolish for me to try to explain Last Life In The Universe. As Doyle says in the commentary, “It’s not just content. It is space. It is time.” And so Last Life must be experienced. Not necessarily understood – just experienced.