MUBI is showing Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe (2003) in the United States from August 13 - September 11, 2016.
“Let’s not know too much about what we’re going to do, let’s just look for the film.”
There are films that you sleep through and films that guide you through sleep. Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s 2003 film Last Life in the Universe falls under the latter category, invoking that lull between wake and slumber. That slow-motion moment when your eyes are still open as you’re dreaming, where the most nonsensical fantasies make perfect sense. It is also a film labeled as quintessentially “art-house” and “Thai New Wave,” known as the hit that propelled director Pen-ek Ratanaruang into the international spotlight once dominated by his friend and colleague, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Yet with each viewing Last Life in the Universe ceases to be anything at all. Maybe that is the point, but to say that would imply that there is a point.
Somewhere in Bangkok there is Kenji, a Japanese librarian who works at the local Japan Foundation, hanging from the ceiling, surrounded by stacks of books. His grey-blue shirt blends into the walls. “This could be me three hours from now,” he tells us, but what could be never happens. Just as Kenji fits his neck through the noose, there is an interruption—a doorbell buzzing off-screen. Kenji’s yakuza brother barges in: “Suicide again? Why bother with suicide?” Obsessive, meticulous, and exhausted with his surroundings, Kenji is in constant pursuit of a future death. But there is always an interruption, a phone to answer, a door to open, work to do. However, as Kenji explains, he is no nihilist; for him, death is a step into “your next life,” into “bliss.”
Elsewhere in Bangkok, a pot-smoking bar hostess named Noi drags her sister Nid onto the road, accusing Nid of sleeping with her boyfriend. “You’re my sister,” she cries, as if the past alone can salvage their broken relationship. Nearby, Kenji stands over a ledge—another suicide attempt—when he meets eyes with Nid. Everything slows down for a moment, until fantasy is again interrupted by life. Nid is hit by a speeding car. Kenji returns home to a yakuza gunfight that ends with his brother, and his brother’s killer, dead. He leaves the bodies, has dinner with Noi, and unofficially moves in with her—all this within the film’s first half hour, then followed by a title card. Those who have seen Ratanaruang’s previous films know that this is typical—a tight, fast-paced series of events that quickly tie every character’s lives into a big knot. But here, almost immediately the strings unravel.
Anyone hoping to know these people, what they’re doing, and why, is asking the wrong questions. They barely know themselves. “Why do I want to kill myself? I don’t know,” Kenji says. He’s only read about death through books. And of course, Kenji and Noi barely know each other, speaking in a hybrid language of broken Thai, broken Japanese, and broken English. But Ratanaruang suggests that there’s not much to know anyways. Wordlessly, the two fall in love, and though there’s not much to their time spent together besides eating and sleeping together, it is sufficient. The aimlessness of Last Life in the Universe can be partially attributed to its aimless production. In interviews, Pen-ek Ratanaruang refers to the film as an unwanted script sitting in a drawer, a film he didn’t want to make after his musical crime-comedy, Monrak Transistor, until author Prabda Yoon rewrote it. It is not a particularly inspired film, either, but its lack of vision is, in some ways, a vision in itself. “My girlfriend broke up with me,” Ratanaruang tells one interviewer. “I was thinking a lot about death,” he tells another. With the rewritten script, he also made adjustments for his collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and actor Tadanobu Asano, who plays Kenji, changing the Thai protagonist to a Japanese man. But Ratanaruang expresses fondness towards what other filmmakers might consider a disaster. He claims that through the process he learned that “maybe you don’t have to know what you’re doing.” And by sacrificing the desire to know or to be known, the film deviates from other “philosophical” films (heavy with symbolism, worn-down bitterness) by appealing to that which is gut-instinct and non-intellectual. In other words, anyone hoping to know more than they already know—about life, love, the works—by watching this film is watching the wrong film.
Throughout the film lingers the question of whether or not this is a life to be lived alone. By some coincidence, Kenji finds a library book entitled The Last Lizard.
The sad story of a lizard that discovers he’s “the last lizard alive,” the book begs the question: is Kenji also the last of his kind? It would certainly make his life and death—and the film—easier to understand. But Ratanaruang sidesteps and answers the question with another: is this life the only life? As more time is spent building upon the characters of Kenji and Noi, we find that they are more than what they seem, not merely in terms of personality but in terms of their many identities. One night, Noi rests her head in Kenji’s lap on the sofa. The next shot reveals Nid—covered in blood and bruises from the night of her death—and Kenji asleep in the same spot. Played by real-life sisters Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak, Noi and Nid continue trading places, wandering the house, and speaking to Kenji, who never questions the woman, or women, before him. At some point, it loses importance. The two merge into one.
Kenji himself is also a carrier of many people. This is hinted at on a superficial level, hinted at when he shoots his brother’s killer, and confirmed by his back tattoo—a symbol of the yakuza. But there is an earlier hint, signified by the book on his bedside drawer: Black Lizard, the novel-screenplay by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, later adapted by director Kinji Fukasaku in 1968. The film follows Black Lizard, played by the Japanese drag queen Akihiro Miwa, a relentless jewel thief in pursuit of all things beautiful, who falls in love with her archnemesis, Detective Akechi. But beyond its campy noir aesthetic, Black Lizard celebrates the fluidity of identity, and all of its excess. Kimberley Lindbergs writes that “no effort is made […] to acknowledge that Akihiro Miwa is male,” even as in one notable scene, Miwa appears as a man in a suit. Instead, the film embraces Akihiro Miwa (who, in another scene, claims to have “no true identity”) as a real-life drag queen playing a drag queen, both woman and man, and both Yukio Mishima’s real-life lover and the fictional lover of a cop. Therefore, comprising the single character of Black Lizard are not only multiple identities, but also multiple realities and stories, all existing and occurring at once.
At first glance, the connection between the maximalist Black Lizard
and the minimalist Last Life in the Universe
is only a matter of lizard imagery, intellectual men, and femme fatales on the run. But both films are also an invitation for sympathy, an experiment in depicting multidimensionality with no set hypothesis. Lindbergs notes that Black Lizard
is played with complete straightforwardness; all humor is only a result of the “modern audience’s propensity towards irony.” For Black Lizard, her obsession with beauty, her desire for glamour, and her ambiguity is no laughing matter. Likewise, while Last Life
has its funny moments, including some off-kilter fart jokes, Kenji and Noi—their quirks, their grief, and their helplessness—are to be taken seriously; they are real people, with their own mysteries. It is not the audience’s business to solve them. “I came to a point,” Ratanaruang says, “where I’m sick of being ironic.”
The camera shares this compassionate distance, which gives the characters space to exist. There are slow pans that emulate a sleepy gaze, and handheld shots that stare with curiosity. The lightness of it all is heightened by the film’s hazy soundtrack of electric guitar, synth, and bells, composed by Small Room and Hualampong Riddim. When the camera rests on an Ichi the Killer poster in the library as Kenji walks by, we see not only Kenji but Tadanobu Asano, the actor famous for his eclectic, often bizarre roles. Here, we see the gap between his most extreme fictions: Ichi’s Kakihara with his scarred face, bleached hair, and purple suit, and Last Life’s Kenji, with his glasses, neatly combed hair, and plain appearance. But this moment, which could easily have been a louder, more blatant revelation, is instead reduced to a mere passing by. Through this lens, Kakihara and Kenji are no different, and along with Tadanobu Asano, they make up a single whole. Thus, it is not only Kenji who is drawn to Noi, but also all of Kenji, attracted to both Noi and Nid. It is their fragmentedness that draws them together, two people comprised of many pieces. It’s no laughing matter; it’s only life.
While many may separate Last Life in the Universe from Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s earlier dark, crime comedies, the film expands on similar themes of fate, dreams, and the unusual bonds between social outsiders, including a hitman (Fun Bar Karaoke), Muay Thai gangsters (6ixtynin9), and a country boy-turned singer (Monrak Transistor). What truly differentiates Last Life in the Universe from previous films is its confidence and ease that comes without having to overshare or divulge all its secrets to the viewer. And though it lacks Ratanaruang’s typical, gritty texture, its seamlessness achieves a different dimension of realism, opting for intuition rather than tangible facts. Last Life in the Universe, then, is not only a turning point in Ratanaruang’s oeuvre, but also his turning away from the need to be coherent.
The lack of explanation is not a mechanism or a gimmick but an honest admission that there are some things that cannot be explained. And though some more conventional elements seep into the film, including a yakuza trio (led by Ichi the Killer director Takashi Miike) and Noi’s former boyfriend chasing after the pair, Last Life in the Universe concludes with its many loose ends strung out in the open. After being tracked down by the yakuza, Kenji disappears, perhaps out the bathroom window, perhaps into thin air. Meanwhile, Noi heads to Osaka, where she waits for him to join her. Some fans passionately argue that they must have reunited. Others question whether or not Kenji committed suicide, or if this whole adventure was only a dream, or even worse, if Kenji and Noi died much earlier, if they had ever met at all. But this is not a film to be interpreted, like a dream that only makes sense until you put it down on paper or tell a friend. This is one of the rare occasions where the best response—the most appropriate response—is “I don’t know.”