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Last Life in the Universe

Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak in Last Life in the Universe.
Year: 2003  
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang  
  Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laiya Boonyasak, Yutaka Matsushige, Riki Takeuchi, Thiti Rhumorn, Yoji Tanaka, Sakichi Sato, Takashi Miike
  The Skinny: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's beautifully shot, dreamlike rumination on sorrow, suicide, and second chances is a definite must-see film. Lead actors Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak make for an excellent, if purposely odd, onscreen couple.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      6ixtynin9 director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang helms Last Life in the Universe, a 2003 Thai film that brings together an international cast and crew to tell a decidedly offbeat, existential tale. Tadanobu Asano, star of Ichi the Killer and Bright Future, headlines the film as Kenji, a Japanese librarian with suicidal tendencies and a strong obsessive compulsive streak. For some reason, Kenji is hiding out in Thailand and trying like hell to figure out the best way to kill himself. But time and again, he's comically interrupted before he can end it all. Kenji's otherwise blasé life is thrown for a loop when his loudmouth brother Yukio (Yutaka Matsushige) makes an unexpected house call. Yukio is a low-level Yakuza thug who made the boneheaded mistake of sleeping with the boss's daughter. Thus, Yukio decides that his brother's place will make the perfect hideout. However, Yukio stupidly brings along his old drinking buddy Takashi (consummate tough guy Riki Takeuchi), a fateful decision that ultimately puts Kenji on the run.
     Through a series of events that I won't ruin here, the introverted Kenji meets a spirited Thai woman named Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak). Unwilling to return to his home, Kenji asks if he can stay with her, and she agrees, taking him back to her squalid beachhouse property. The mere sight of the anal retentive Kenji gazing in horror at her messy living arrangements amounts to pure comedy gold, and his eventual decision to clean up the place sparks a change in their already odd relationship. Soon, the unlikely pair find themselves drawn to each other, not out of love or even lust, but something else, something indefinable, but real. The two sidestep the language barrier by speaking English to one another, learning that despite their differences, the two share quite a few things in common. An unconventional romance of sorts ensues, but with a team of Yakuza hot on Kenji's trail, the possibility of a long-term relationship is put in dire jeopardy. The different narrative threads eventually culminate in an unexpected, bittersweet double ending that stays true to the film's pervasive dreamlike nature.
     Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang with cinematography by longtime Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, Last Life in the Universe is an enchanting little film. While there are certainly overt moments of magic, as in the scene in which a character briefly transforms into another or in the sequence in which Noi's dirty house magically cleans itself, the style of the film itself, even in its more realistic moments, feels like an extended dreamscape. Although marked by a kind of sleepy quality, the film never fails to engage its audience. Ponderous, but never boring, Last Life in the Universe submerges the viewer headlong into its beautifully-drawn world from the very first frame.
     Despite playing a bookish character, Tadanobu Asano radiates charisma, making his turn as the obsessive compulsive Kenji an infinitely watchable performance. The chemistry between Asano and Thai ingénue Sinitta Boonyasak crackles with energy, drawing the viewer into their blossoming relationship. Whatever the film's surrealist tendencies, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang allows the relationship between Kenji and Noi to play out in a fairly realistic way, making their connection seem like a substantive and organic development, not something artificial or forced, as is often the case in more by-the-book romances and melodramas.
     Although to some degree, the film probably has the potential to depress its audience with its subject matter, it's important to note that Last Life in the Universe is full of humorous moments, with some of the better comic beats often supplied by Tadanobu Asano's deadpan reactions. More overt comic hijinks come from the trio of Yakuza hitmen sent to take Kenji out. Played by Yoji Tanaka, Sakichi Sato, and Ichi the Killer director Takashi Miike, the three Yakuza are late additions to the narrative, yet somehow turn out to be real scene stealers, even with their limited screen time.
     While Last Life in the Universe may seem to have all the hallmarks of a high-minded art film, the feel of the movie is anything but pretentious. Poetic, languorous, and engrossing on even the most basic level, Last Life in the Universe is a simple little masterpiece and a wonderful breath of fresh air. It's been reported that Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Christopher Doyle, and Tadanobu Asano have reunited for the 2005 film Invisible Waves. If that follow-up turns out to be even remotely close to Last Life in the Universe quality-wise, then I hope that this is a filmic partnership that endures for a very long time. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)
Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Palm Pictures
16 x 9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Thai Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
Audio Commentary by Christopher Doyle, Interview with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Storyboards and Original Drawings by Christopher Doyle, Trailers
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen