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A mysterious, obsessive-compulsive, suicidal Japanese man living in Bangkok, Thailand, is thrown together with a Thai woman through a tragic chain of events. The woman is everything he is not. He is a neat freak who keeps his dishes washed and his books neatly stacked and categorized. She dresses like a slob, smokes pot and never picks anything up. It's a match that somehow works, though. Slowly and entertainingly, more is revealed about the Japanese man and why he's suicidal and living in Bangkok. Written by
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's gently observed tale of the love that develops between a suicidal Japanese librarian and a streetwise Thai woman who meet under tragic circumstances is hypnotically absorbing. Shot in a lyrical and languid style by Christopher Doyle, who abandons his trademark vivid and hyper-real use of colour, the piece has been given a muted, naturalistic look. This suits the subdued tone and measured pace of the film which focuses on emotion rather than action. Ratanaruang, describes Last Life in the Universe as his most tender film, and this is as good a word as any to describe the relationship of Tadanobu Asano's Kenji, and Sinitta Boonyasak's Noi.
After unhappy fate has brought them together Noi and Kenji find sanctuary in each other. Kenji, deeply introspective, disconnected from reality, and suicidal, is literally saved from himself by Noi, whose joie de vivre, though dampened by grief, is infectious. Noi brings energy, colour, and most importantly life, to Kenji's dull and organised universe. Kenji brings a sense of order and balance to Noi's chaotic life, and his tranquil non-intrusive presence helps Noi to cope with her grief and the resulting sense of loneliness. As Ratanaruang claims, it is very tenderly done, and this is translated into the performance of both leads.
Asano, hugely famous in Japan for playing offbeat characters, brings a restrained sense of wonder to Kenji whose growing appetite for life is communicated in simple gestures such as a draw on a cigarette, or a ruffle of his hair. Boonyasak, in what is a very difficult first role, does exceptionally well to convince as a woman who though filled with grief has an irrepressible lust for life. Part of what fascinates the audience about both characters is the ambiguity that surrounds them. They are both without a history, especially Kenji who appears to have been linked to the Yakuza, and though it is never made clear why he is in Thailand there is an implication that he may have a murky past in Japan.
Reduced to the basics then Last Life in the Universe is a simple love story with very familiar themes; opposites attract, and the redemptive power of love. That this well-trodden path is followed again here takes nothing away from the film however, as though the story unfolds slowly it is well paced, well acted, and sensuously shot. The only potential weakness was Ratanaruang's inclusion of the comic gangster element (actor/director Takashi Miike plays a mob boss bent on revenge) which could very easily have been Last Life in the Universe's Achilles' heel, upsetting the tone and balance. As it turns out the Yakuza scenes work very well. In the context of the story Miike, and his henchmen do not seem out of place, and the absurd humour that they inject provides a necessary distraction from the studied inaction of Kenji and Noi. Overall then the elements combine to make Last Life in the Universe an unmissable film.
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