Monday, August 04, 2008

Last Life in the Universe

Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan (เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล)
Thailand, 2003, 112 minutes, color
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Written by Prabda Yoon & Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Cast: Tadanobu Asano (Kenji), Sinitta Boonyasak (Noi), Laila Boonyasak (Nid), Takashi Miike (Yakuza boss)
“One day the lizard woke up and realized that it was all alone on this earth.”

Feeling depressed, I rewatched this film last night and its beauty perked me up. After Blade Runner, this is probably my second favorite film of all time. What's it about? I'm not good with plot synopses, so here's an excellent one from's Soh Yun-Huei:
"Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is an obsessively neat Japanese man who is living on his own in Bangkok, and earning a living by being a librarian at the Japanese Cultural Centre. A look through his house would reveal exactly how meticulous Kenji is -- all his belongings are organized by size, shape, colour, day to be worn, and so on. Kenji has also been contemplating suicide for some time, and fantasizing about what his death would be like. His orderly life is thrown into disarray when his estranged Yakuza brother turns up at his doorstep, seemingly on the run from his big boss. However, that's far from the only incident that will shake up Kenji's life. An unfortunate series of events leads Kenji to become acquainted with a woman called Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), who's basically his antithesis. She's disorganized, messy, and does not worry about the finer details, and when Kenji ends up at her beachside house, his obsessive-compulsive nature kicks in and he offers to tidy up the place. Gradually, a romance develops between Kenji and Noi, despite their differences and a language barrier."
So much for plot, though that doesn't begin to describe the depth and meaning of this film which is felt more than understood. For each time I watch it, I learn and notice more. I think it takes several viewings to "see" certain films, and this is certainly one of them. I never noticed the Ichi the Killer movie poster in the opening shot - an "inside joke" because it's a film by Takashi Miike starring Tadanobu Asano, both of whom appear in the film. I never noticed Yukio Mishima's novel Black Lizard on Asano's bookshelf. And I never noticed (until I studied the credits) that the film's sisters Nid and Noi are played by real-life sisters: Laila Boonyasak (Nid) and Sinitta Boonyasak (Noi).

Sister Act: Laila (center) and Sinitta Boonyasak (right)

But seeing and fully understanding are not the same thing, as Last Life in the Universe still leaves one with many questions. Namely, is Kenji a yakuza (we see one shot of his tattooed back)? Is that his gun or his brother's? Does he sleep with Noi (it's only suggested but we get no in flagrante delecto proof). Why can't he go back to Osaka? Does he get the girl in the end or is that only a fantasy? What does the fantasy sequence when a stoned Noi watches all the clutter in her house - flying papers and detritus - get cleaned up via reverse editing? Does he get away at the end or is it merely just another fantasy, like the visions he has of Noi's dead sister Nid?

Kenji keeps a spotless kitchen

Though I recently screened another Thai film (Tears of the Black Tiger) at my library film series, Last Life in the Universe remains my favorite Thai film and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang my favorite Thai director. Maybe it's because of the cinematography by Christopher Doyle, whose work here and with Hong's Kong's Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) give gravitas to my considering him the world's best director of photography.

Speaking of images, those of lizards and geckos abound in last Life in the Universe. A gecko is a permanent fixture on the wall at Noi's house.

This gecko is not as chatty as Geico's

Noi's gecko keeps cool by the ceiling fan

A copy of Yukio Mishima's novel Black Lizard is clearly shown on Kenji's bookshelf. And Kenji is obsessed with a children's book called The Last Lizard, obviously identifying with the cool, aloof, lonely reptile.

Kenji's book: THE LAST LIZARD

In a voiceover, Kenji narrates the book's text as he stands on a bridge contemplating jumping into the river below:
The lizard wakes up and finds he's the last lizard alive. His family and friends are all gone. Those he didn't like, those who picked on him in school, are also gone. The lizard is all alone. He misses his family and friends. Even his enemies. It's better being with your enemies than being alone. That's what he thought. Staring at the sunset, he thinks. "What is the point in living, if I don't have anyone to talk to?" But even that thought doesn't mean anything...when you're the last lizard."

The lizard's tale is reprised in the film's trailer:

The cool, aloof Tadanobu Asano gives what is for me his greatest performance as the quiet, anal-compulsive neatnik librarian Kenji who's constantly trying to "off" himself like Bud Cort in Harold & Maude.

Thai film poster made for hanging

He's almost other-wordly in his unassuming pureness, like Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. As a card-carrying librarian myself, I want to be him because he's the coolest librarian ever depicted in film. And not only is he polite and clean, but he's very can-do when it comes to killing bad people or defending women from being roughed-up - admirable qualities for today's multi-skilled Librarians 3.0. Kenji is obsessed with a children's book about the last Lizard on earth, the lizard being as quiet and aloof a reptile as Kenji appears on the surface.

And, of course, I was quite taken with the lovely Sinitta Boonyasak, the "someone to talk to" who gives Kenji's life purpose and saves him from being "the last lizard on Earth." (Or does she?)

Still as a gecko: Quiet moments define the film's tone

As a couple, Kenji and Noi are The Odd Couple, complete opposites. She is as messy, cluttered and unfocused as Kenji is compulsively neat (he has to arrange all the soap bars in the men's room at work in symmetrical stacks and line up all his kitchen knifes in a straight line) and orderly. She's a relaxed stoner, he's unfailingly uptight and sober. And when she talks, she can be chatty, talking quickly in the rapid-fire bursts of a bar girl, whereas Kenji is never more than a monosyllabic converser.

I loved the film's minimalist tone and dialogue - according to a DVD interview with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, famous Thai writer Prabda Yoon (his first name is Thai for Pravda, the Russian word for "truth") - whose dad was a famous Thai journalist - helped strip the screenplay down to this surreal, dreamy still-life tone full of long silences. No one says a whole lot in the film, especially the tongue-tied Kenji. I ran across a website where dedicated fan Drew of Drew's Script-O-Rama actually transcribed the entire script (!): Last Life in the Universe Dialogue Script.

As's Soh Yun-Huei observes, "Much of Last Life in the Universe deals with the romance that forms between Kenji and Nid, who are both loners not used to reaching out to others. Perhaps due to the characters' quirks, Pen-Ek has taken a very detached approach in his direction, almost similar to Takeshi Kitano's films." Huei also rightly points out the film's similarity to Lost In Translation, another film about love, loss and alienation in a land in which both protagonists are outsiders. But I think Pen-Ek's film is better and more rewarding upon repeated viewings. For one thing, the language barrier is even more pronounced here. "Kenji and Noi do not speak each other's languages, so they turn to a fractured English to communicate, and Pen-Ek manages to flesh out the difficulties that the situation brings about."

I'd also like to find the soundtrack, which uses ambient electric piano to augment the long silent patches with a dream-like calmness.

Last Life in the Universe's creative trio of writer Prabda Yoon, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and actor Tadanobu Asano also teamed up for Pen-ek's next film, Invisible Waves (2006), so if you like the first collaboration, check it out. Unfortunately, it hasn't been released in the States, so unless you have an All-Region DVD player or want to watch it on your PC...

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Blogger 1minutefilmreview said...

Nice review.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

Good words here

9:47 PM  
Blogger Nicolás Zavala said...

I believe some of the musical pieces were made by Hualampong Riddim and Small Room.

5:13 AM  
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2:30 AM  

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