Back in 2003 Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Ruang Talok 69, Nymph) put Thailand on the map when he released Last Life In The Universe [Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan], a cross-Asian romance fueled by a criminal subplot and a selection of fairly odd characters. People flocked to see the film because it starred Japanese mega star Tadanobu Asano, but they stayed to fall in love with Ratanaruang's awesome style of directing.
Even though Ratanaruang's Ruang Talok 69 had everything in it to become an international success, it wasn't until Ratanaruang imported a couple of famous Japanese stars that his films would be recognized outside the Thai borders. I admit that initially I searched out this film simply because it featured Asano. but Last Life In The Universe has way more to offer than just a fine selection of Japanese actors and ever since I watched Ratanaruang's little masterpiece I've been a big fan of his work.
The film revolves around Kenji, a runaway yakuza with an interesting selection of odd characteristics. For one Kenji wants to commit suicide, though he doesn't really have a good reason for doing so. Needless to say, without the proper conviction it proves pretty impossible to end his life. Kenji's also quite the neat freak, obsessively so. Then one day, during one of his many fruitless suicide attempts, Kenji runs into Nid and Noi.
A fatal encounter, but not for Kenji. Instead Noi's sister Nid is hit by a car and dies on the spot. Kenji and Noi hook up, somewhat reluctantly at first, but as it turns out it's a decision that will turn both their lives upside down. Noi is pretty much the opposite of Kenji. She doesn't clean the house, she smokes, she litters her cigarette ashes everywhere and she sometimes overstresses her laid back attitude. Obviously the two of them need some time to adjust to each other, but without realizing it they are exactly what they needed to move on with their lives.
With Christopher Doyle on board Ratanaruang didn't have to worry much about the visual side of things. Even though I actually prefer their second collaboration (Invisible Waves) there is no lack of stylish, lingering shots and beautiful, soothing camera work here. Add some minor effect shots that insert some extra magic and you have a very pretty film to look at.
The main attraction is the soundtrack though. A superb collection of melodic ambient, constantly hiding underneath each and every scene but lingering long after the final frame has left the screen. Even after the film is finished you'll find yourself uncontrollably humming the melodies, sustaining the rhythm of the film beyond its own time frame. One of the most powerful soundtracks I've ever encountered in any kind of film, not because it's so outspoken but because it puts you in a trance and sucks you right in.
With Tadanobu Asano in the lead you are assured a quality performance, but Sinitta Boonyasak is equally powerful as Noi. The two of them form a very intriguing couple and effectively carry the dramatic side of the film. While their parts are actually pretty black and white, they still bring a lot of depth to their characters. Ratanaruang also landed a couple of interesting cameos, fans of Takashi Miike should definitely pay attention during the last 15 minutes of the film.
The first fifteen minutes of the film will probably be the toughest. They are extremely stylized (in line with Kenji's character) and without the familiarity of the subtle soundtrack you might feel a little lost at first. But when Kenji and Noi hook up the film shifts gears as you witness the start of a very special relationship. Make sure you get the original dub though (there's also an all-Thai dub) as the mix of languages does bring something extra to the table.
Last Life In The Universe is a film that sneaks up on you. For a long time you may wonder what the fuss is all about, but when the end credits start to roll you suddenly realize how wonderful Ratanaruang's film really is. It's not his best film, I still have a small preference for Invisible Waves, but if you like an off-beat Asian crime romance you definitely owe it to yourself to check this out.