Suicidal Kenji spends his days fantasizing about his own demise but seems to never follow through with his plans. Things change for him when he witnesses a young girl getting run over and ends up befriending the girl's sister. These two lonely souls begin finding companionship between themselves, as unlikely as their pairing may seem.
Directed and co-written by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and featuring cinematography by Christopher Doyle, "Last Life in the Universe" ("Ruang rak noi nid mahasan") is a title that made most arthouse fan's ears prick up. It's one that I've been meaning to see for the longest time and after stumbling across a copy at a used DVD shop, I finally sat down to watch a movie that gave me something I wasn't expecting.
Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a suicidal librarian. If he isn't thinking or trying to commit suicide on a daily basis, then he usually stands about watching life pass before him. That is until when he stops to contemplate throwing himself off a bridge, Kenji witnesses a young woman getting hit by a car. This one incident finds Kenji getting to know the girl's sister, Noi, and establishing an unlikely connection with her when he ends up going home with her because he doesn't want to go back to his place. Two unlikely people are drawn together over tragedy and just when it seems that things start to make sense, there is something that could tear the two apart.
I wasn't quite sure what type of movie I was going to get "Last Life in the Universe", or rather, what type of mood the movie was going to exude. To my surprise, the movie is actually very calm and almost serene. The atmosphere has a very quiet summer day-dream quality to it and initially feels almost melancholic but not quite . Not counting the tragedy that befalls on the Noi character. Instead "Last Life in the Universe" has one of the better and more realistic romance stories that I've seen in a movie.
Unfortunate for those that want something more, but the film's focus is about how two people who are worlds apart can be brought together through a single, tragic moment. While Kenji is a Japanese immigrant who is quiet, shy and tidy. Noi is Thai and far more forward and out going than someone like Kenji is probably comfortable with. Even with a language and a culture barrier between these two people -- one who feels alone and the other who is afraid of being alone now that her sister is dead -- are able to find a connection.
While the central idea maybe simple, "Last Life in the Universe" felt like a very rich film even though the movie takes place over a few days inside Noi's home. With the characters, specifically Kenji, the movie never takes the time to explain who the character is and why he is in Thailand. Instead, Pen-Ek spreads the details of the character through minor things: actions, appearance and his environment. There is a scene where we see that Kenji has a large tattoo on his back -- the type that is often associated with Yakuza -- a moment that never calls attention to itself but is there to tell more of the story without words (something a lot of modern filmmakers could take note from). And the movie overall has a constant shift between reality and fantasy/dreams but does it subtly and, again, never calls attention to itself outside of one particular scene.
Because it is all done so casually, it makes the overall experience in watching "Last Life in the Universe" more enjoyable. It's not forcing it's ideals onto the viewer and saying, "Well, here it is. Now you figure it out." It puts itself out there and if you see it, great, and if you don't, you can still enjoy the movie on a different level. Something that allows the movie's general subdued atmosphere to work so well and allows the movie to have that casual feel and relaxing, even with it's strong emotional story about loneliness, isolations and a desire to be anywhere else but where you are.
At first I thought "Last Life in the Universe" was a bit too simple for my liking and almost too quiet -- very little happens and there is very little dialogue -- but the further the movie went along the more I found myself engaged with the story and characters. What I enjoyed about the movie is that it is a relatively easy to watch even though the themes are rather depressing in nature. While it is something that I would consider an arthouse film, it's a movie that anyone can enjoy and, depending on your own personal viewing style, can determine what you pull out of the story. You can appreciate the simply love story between the two characters or find yourself analyzing what the film represents with its shifting between real and fantasy. There's a central story to "Last Life in the Universe" but it leaves itself open for person to find their own meaning.