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Pet Sins March 2007

Last Life in the Universe

In this 2003 dark comedy by acclaimed Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Japanese heart throb Asano Tadanobu (Gohatto, Zatoichi)plays Kenji, a Japanese librarian working at a Japanese cultural center serving the large Japanese community in Bangkok as well as locals interested in learning about Japan.

Kenji, the unsociable expatriate, is the embodiment of alienation - a stranger in a strange land, his only kin in Thailand being an unlikable yakuza older brother. As Kenji contemplates taking his own life, a series of bizarre coincidences derail his suicide attempts again and again.

Through one of these strange coincidences enters Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), a young Thai woman who had just lost her sister. She is the very opposite of Kenji. Noi is bold and bossy while he is unobtrusive and meek. Her house is filthy and untidy while Kenji's apartment is obsessively maintained in a state of neatness and spotless cleanliness. Between Noi's rudimentary Japanese, Kenji's even more rudimentary Thai, and their limited English, they manage to carry on a conversation.

When unexpected circumstances render Kenji's city apartment unlivable, he invites himself over to Noi's rural house. There, Noi plays a "Learning Japanese in Thai" tape (she has been learning Japanese in preparation for relocating to Osaka) and tries to teach Kenji more Thai. Despite linguistic barriers, the two slowly develop a strange connection.

Kenji quietly puts up with being yelled at and ordered around by Noi while taking it upon himself to do dishes and wash laundry for his hostess. (So much for the Western stereotype of the chauvinistic Asian man who disrespects women and does no housework ;-) It does turn out, however, that Kenji is not the pushover he appears to be. There are hints that he is a former yakuza. And he proves quite capable of violence in defense of himself or someone else.

The depressed Kenji has not quite given up the idea of killing himself yet, but Noi coincidentally thwarts him again and again. Her zest for life despite her sorrow at her sister's demise is a complete contrast to Kenji's indifference to his own life and to his brother's death. As the filthy house is restored, one day at a time, to livable conditions by the amusingly anal retentive Kenji, Noi slowly emerges from her mourning, and Kenji gradually regains his desire to live. But just as he decides to give life a chance, death comes knocking at the door...

'Last Life in the Universe' is a subtly enjoyable and amusing film. It is also refreshing to see a take on cross-cultural romance other than the too-common East-meets-West theme.