Last Life in the Universe is a 2003 Thai film directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and set in Bangkok. It is one of my favourite films, for different reasons. It's a film about two troubled people, finding a troubled comfort in each other. It is trilingual: the characters shift between Thai, Japanese and English according to their needs, showing how language is always imperfect, caressing the smooth surface of things while so much more lies underneath. It is very much about unspoken feelings, invisible currents of emotions drawing Kenji and Noi closer and closer, yet never as "close" as a western audience might expect, or rather, not with the same kind of closeness. The soundtrack - so delicate, melancholic, and beautiful - enhances the dream-like atmosphere of the whole film, sometimes interrupted by the presence of other characters, reminders of the past life of Kenji and Noi.
The title refers to a picture book Kenji decides to read (and always keeps with him), after seeing a girl looking at it at the library where he works. The book is about a lizard waking up and realizing she's the last surviving member of her species. She ponders on the thought of loneliness, getting to the conclusion that even being surrounded by enemies is better than being alone.
Talking about the plot of this film is somehow the wrong thing, because Last Life is about Kenji and Noi, about what they experience together, and all the rest is meant to explain and give sense to what they do and feel. Anyway, here it is.
Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) lives alone in Bangkok, working as a librarian at the Japanese Foundation. The film opens showing his flat, made of obsessively precise stacks of books, obsessively tidy wardrobe compartments and museum-like displays of knives. Then we see a pair of feet dangling over a scattered pile of books, obviously belonging to someone who has hung himself, and the camera slowly moves up as Kenji starts talking: This could be me two hours ago..... He hasn't actually committed suicide as he attempts to do several times throughout the film. This time, he has been interrupted by his Yakuza brother Yukio, hiding in Thailand after raping his boss' daughter. A Yakuza "colleague" of Yukio's follows, and as Kenji, alone in his bedroom, finds out that Yukio had hidden a gun into a teddy bear, the other two start fighting in the living room. Yukio is shot to death, and Kenji shoots the other man with the gun he has just found. Kenji leaves his flat after some mild attempt at washing the blood stains, and wanders through Bangkok at night.
He stops on a bridge, where traffic flows intensely. Again, he flirts with the idea of suicide, watching the dark, muddy water under the bridge. He climbs on the railing and stares down (T. Asano said in an interview that climbing on that bridge was maybe the scariest thing he ever did). Meanwhile, on her car driving home Noi is having a fight with her sister Nid (Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak are popular TV actresses in Thailand and sisters in real life, too), as Nid has apparently slept with Noi's boyfriend. Noi suddenly stops the car and forces Nid to gett off, right on the bridge where Kenji is standing. He recognizes Nid as the girl he had seen at the library, looking at the children's book, so he steps down the railing and watches her. It all happens in seconds: as Noi changes her mind and calls her sister back to the car, Nid is run over by a car, a hit-and-run, and Kenji witnesses the whole scene. This is how their lives intermingle. Kenji offers his awkward, dry support to Noi and later asks whether he can go home with her. She lives in a huge house not far from the sea, with stylish furniture and details yet extremely dirty and unkempt, in short, the very opposite of Kenji's home. They form a shy, subtle friendship at times tentatively resembling love. Surreal elements sneak into the film: after smoking pot, Noi sees the objects in her house fly back to their place, and Kenji fantasizes about having Nid leaning on his leg, instead of Noi.
As their innocent friendship develops, Noi's violent and unfaithful (ex-)boyfriend is spying on her, while three Yakuza members are looking for Takashi. Both tracks lead to Kenji, who has gone back to his flat after driving Noi to the airport to pick up his passport and follow her to Japan, where she has planned to go to further her career. The corpses are still there. Kenji has to go the loo and while he's busy there, both the Yakuza and Noi's ex-boyfriend sneak into his flat. It is not clear whether Kenji escapes from the window or is taken by the men, because the film shows two different endings, cutting back and forth between two scenes: one in which Noi arrives home in her new place in Japan and sees Kenji's bag lying on a chair. She looks extremely happy. The other scene shows Kenji at the police station. So we actually don't know what happens. My own interpretation (I like to be optimistic) is that Kenji was actually arrested, so he couldn't travel with Noi, but managed to reach her afterwards. I like to think it this way. And it makes sense.
I truly loved this film, melancholic and sad yet so positive under the surface, showing how two wounded souls can heal each other, how human desire for warmth finds its complicated ways. And everything happens so subtly and silently as only an Asian film could show, without being neither sappy nor dry. To my humble opinion, a wonderful, wonderful film!
Last Life in the Universe received the Thailand National Film Association Award twice, and the FIPRESCI Prize at Bangkok International Film Festival, as well as the AQCC Award and Jury Prize at the Fant-Asia Film Festival. Tadanobu Asano received the upstream Prize for Best Actor at the 2003 Venice Film Festival for his role as Kenji.