I’ve always approached anything calling itself an ‘art movie’ with some trepidation. It’s the dark corner of the movie store where the dwarves go, to try and mine out some extravagantly beautiful gems or, if they are not careful, some torrid balrog of a DVD. I have come away with some really interesting, moving stories, and some narratives which are little more than the coke fuelled hallucinations of a feral artist, given expression by some of the most atrocious anti-talent in existence in cinema today. Last life in the Universe, by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, is not such a movie, thankfully. I also don’t usually write about movies, but this one left me with a realisation that screamed to be expressed, and so I will dutifully do so.
Trailer for Last Life in the Universe
The basic plot has Kenji, a suicidal librarian living in Thailand, falling in love with a Thai girl called Noi. Drawn together by circumstance, and against a gentle, but comical backdrop of Yakuza chasing Kenji’s brother, and the death of Noi’s sister, the two fall gradually but inexorably in love. This despite neither really speaking the other’s language (the film is in three languages, with broken english the main means by which the two are able to communicate) and vast differences in personality, culture and outlook. The film tells their story with an amazing, sad gentleness and – for me – captures something about falling in love that I don’t think I have ever seen or felt in a couples-from-different-backgrounds movie before.
What is particularly interesting is that their story is told without a single scene of nudity, making out, crying or any of the generic parts that you would expect a romance film to have. It somehow manages instead to capture something unique and special about that point where two separate, independent lives somehow cross into each other and tangle gently in a way that neither of them can get free. Like a fly in a web, they gradually move closer and closer as the two characters fall more deeply in love, until you realise all of a sudden, that their feelings have become so deeply connected that they have fallen into that thing we call love.
Why I feel the need to reflect on this story is that it just stands in such a gentle, but complete, contrast to what I understand of love from watching friends, my own actions over the last few years and my views on how society in general seems to view coupling. The dominant, pragmatic view, of the world I live in seems so often, to be about finding an attractive mate, bedding down and chasing economic wealth and security in your lives together (the two-income bond in a nice neighbourhood). I could name on one hand the number of couples I can think of who resemble the two in this movie, for whom all else seems to be transient compared to the energy between them – making real life and the world around into nothing more than faint background noise to the story they tell between themselves. I can count instances of that in the real world on one hand – with my fist closed.
I would really like to think that a feeling like that exists outside of the fictions we tell in stories – that people so different can fall so deeply and so hard. It just seems to justify the human condition in ways that security, making out and pursuing a relationship because ‘this one looks good’, could never even hold a candle to. It’s a beautiful story – I hope that for some lives out there, and for faith in my own, it is a true one.