LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan)

(director/writer: Pen-ek Ratanaruang; screenwriter: Prabda Yoon; cinematographer: Christopher Doyle; editor: Patamanadda Yukol; music: Small Room and Hualampong Riddim; cast: Tadanobu Asano (Kenji), Sinitta Boonyasak (Noi), Laila Boonyasak (Nid), Yutaka Matsushige (Yukio), Riki Takeuchi (Takashi), Thiti Phum-Orn (Jon), Takashi Mîike (Yakuza); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Nonzee Nimibutr/ Duangkamol Limcharoen/Wouter Barendrecht; Palm Pictires; 2003-Thailand/Japan-in Thai, Japanese and English with English subtitles)
“Macabre film about a suicidal librarian.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s (“6ixtynin9”) “Last Life in the Universe” is a quiet but elusive, seductive, humorous, macabre film about a suicidal librarian, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano, Japanese superstar), on the run from yakuza contract killers. Its themes cover loneliness, the attraction of opposites and intercultural communication problems. Its flash can be attributed to the stunning photography by Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“Hero”/”Happy Together”), who usually works with Wong Kar-Wai. The screenwriter is Thai novelist Prabda Yoon.

Kenji is an expatriate from Osaka, with a troubled secret past as an ex-yakuza, meaning he can’t return home, who is now living in Bangkok and even though he is not fluent in Thai, he works as a librarian. The introspective, shy, quiet living, compulsive-neatness freak, with a tattoo that covers his back, is allergic to fish and is into rehearsing his suicide by various means such as hanging by rope, smothering by pillow, shooting himself and slashing his wrists. Kenji’s immaculate apartment looks like a library, but the scholarly loner relates only to his favorite book–a children’s story about a lizard, whom he identifies with, which somehow finds itself to be the last thing on earth.

Kenji’s yakuza brother Yukio (Yutaka Matsushige) arrives with his Thai gangster pal Takashi (Riki Takeuchi) in the middle of one of Kenji’s fantasies about suicide, while Kenji is in the other room getting a beer the gangster shoots Yukio to death as a contract hit for his sleeping with the crime boss’s daughter. Kenji, in turn, uses the gun he was using for his suicide to shoot the killer and leaves the two bodies behind, as he goes to a bridge and contemplates jumping off it. But he comes out of his funk when he witnesses the fatal car accident of a young Thai woman, Nid (Laila Boonyasak), who is run over after being forced out of the car over a spat with her older sister, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), about fucking the older sister’s worthless loutish boyfriend Jon (Thiti Phum-Orn). Kenji comes down from atop the barrier rail to comfort the distraught Noi, and she gives him a ride to her rundown house in the outlying area of Pattaya. Noi is his opposite, fresh talking, cheeky, sloppy housekeeper, who works as a barmaid in a place that caters to the client’s adolescent fantasies by having the help dress in schoolgirl uniforms. Out of indifference, Noi lets Kenji stay in her place and only laughs in disbelief when he tells he can’t return home because there are two dead bodies there causing a stink. In his prolonged stay, he cleans up her apartment, prevents her abusive boyfriend from damaging her further from a strap beating, and slowly gets her to like him in a friendly way without any romance. They bond even though they must speak in English because his Thai and her Japanese are not good enough. In a few days she’s set to leave for Osaka to work as a bar girl, and leaves him her car as a departing gift. Not much seems to be happening in this spare film, until the great Japanese director Takashi Miike, cast as a yakuza wearing a snakeskin coat and the leader of two other hitmen, leaves Osaka to hunt down Kenji in his Bangkok apartment.

In this brilliant film, Nio and Kenji seem as if they were the last ones left on earth, as their strangeness, even to each other, has them trapped in their own imaginary world that puts blinders on the harshness of their real world. It’s at times difficult to realize what is really happening to the odd couple and what is imaginary, which gives Last Life in the Universe a stupefying surreal look.