I first saw Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe around the time it was released, in 2003. It is a curious film: dream like, with long stretches of landscape shots and wordless lone character machinations. This film is, I will argue, a useful springboard for exploring a prominent psychic form of haunting: loneliness, and the yearning for connection. Psychic forms of haunting refer to our feelings of being haunted, often not by actual spirits, but by the past and all that entails. For example, during the times when I struggle with loneliness, I feel that sense of longing for connection and relationship as a kind of haunting, partly because it seems to correspond to a clawing for past instances when I enjoyed those things in abundance. These memories become spectral occasions I conjure in the darkness, and one of the hardest aspects of loneliness is that the distance between the then and now feels vast and chasmic. Nostalgia can easily slip into the arms of despair when the present is found wanting. When someone finds you in those shadowy, painful realms, can hold that space and offers unconditional friendship; well, even the nectar of resulting feelings seems divine.
The beauty of films like Last Life… is that they are murky enough to let their viewer make their own sense of what they might mean; its an interesting thing in itself that we unravel such things to fit with our own existential concerns.
To set the scene then – the film begins in Kenji’s Thailand flat, where he is preparing to hang himself. He has, it appears, become thoroughly disenchanted with the world, and seeks an opportunity to transform. His suicide note declares ‘this is bliss’, and the reappearance of this note at particular intervals during the film reminds us of his desire to escape a constrictive world from which he feels no connection or interest:
“Many books say: "Death is relaxing." Did you know that? No need to follow the latest trends... No need to keep pace with the rest of the world... No more e-mail... No more telephone... It'll be like taking a nap... Before waking up refreshed and ready to begin your next life. That's what they say. "This is bliss”."
His suicide is interrupted by the arrival of his chaotic brother, someone who doesn't feel the need to pause between doorbell pressings, on the run from their native Japan, and a former yakuza boss with whose daughter he has slept with. Shortly after his brother’s arrival, Kenji sees Nid, a young Thai escort, at the Japanese library where he works, who is reading The Last Lizard. Things take an unexpected turn – Kenji’s brother is killed by a colleague of his boss, who Kenji later shoots dead. On a bridge afterward, Kenji is once again preparing for his suicide. This time, he is interrupted by the appearance of Nid, who is getting out of her sister Noi’s car opposite him following an argument in which it has been revealed that Nid has slept with Noi’s boyfriend Jon. Kenji and Nid see each other across the road, before Nid is hit by a car and killed.
This story is not about Kenji and Nid, you see, but about Kenji and Noi. After she returns Kenji’s misplaced bag to him, he convinces her to let him go back to her house. What follows is a touching and poetic unfurling of two very different people – who can communicate only through English and basic Thai/Japanese – come to connect with each other in a profound and transformative way.
In the undercurrent of the film is a Japanese children’s book called The Last Lizard (which was made up for this film, I think). In this melancholy tale, a lizard wakes up to discover that they are the very last lizard in the world. This saddens the lizard deeply; it instantly misses the other lizards, and subsequently ruminates on the pointlessness of the sudden – and uninvited – solitude stretching out before it. Wouldn’t it be better to be even in the company of one’s enemies, rather than being utterly alone? Then again, what is the point of such private thoughts if there is no one else in the world to have them about or before?
“Staring at the sunset, he thinks. "What is the point in living... If I don't have anyone to talk to?" But even that thought doesn't mean anything... when you're the last lizard."
For the lizard, life must be other-bound or it is ultimately meaningless. If there is a 'message' at the heart of this film, then this must be it, and it is emphasised by the fact that when Noi returns Kenji’s bag, that book, which had been inside, is now missing. A new course has been plotted for Kenji, and he can no longer identify with the last lizard.
Last Life... provides a surreal and open ended meditation on being alone in the world and what is behind that, and the infusion of unexpected dream like sequences that transpose different time periods and perspectives, mixing the narrative and confusing the flow, leave the viewer wondering what, if anything, is real. Did Kenji actually die in his flat after all? Is this all a fantasy? It’s tantalisingly unclear, and all the more haunting for it. The exact point of the horizon shifts and changes with the rise and fall of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tide.
We are living in a time where loneliness seems more epidemic than ever before (at least in Western societies), despite the rise in our population. Busy cities, with their richly populated high rises, heady congregational hubs buzzing with conversation and merriment, and the constant movement of vehicles and pedestrians seem yet to pass around, rather than through, many of their inhabitants. All too often, it would appear, individuals feel cast as witnesses at the window, condemned to watch that which they cannot be part of. They have become Scrooge watching the Cratchit’s gathered around their family table, or John Willoughby’s lone figure in the background of Marianne Dashwood’s eventual marriage to Colonel Brandon, who had himself been previously cast as outsider. I suspect this may, in part, be connected with our longing for authentic connection. As Carl Jung has noted, loneliness comes not so much from being literally absent from people, but from being unable to really communicate what is meaningful to us. Stripped of our village based obligations and unequivocal, inherited bonds we have tried to build our own tribes matching our unique passions and preferences, but this can be difficult to fully realise when simultaneously, we are sculpted by the invisible hands of our competitive cultural strains and its backlashes. As our sense of self becomes more uncertain, subject to a more fecundated myriad of influences, so too do its potentials multiply. We are saturated with choice, so much so that we often don’t even know where to begin, and perhaps we are also flooded with expectations, that we will find exactly what we are looking for in some perfectible other(s), without recognising that fantasy can never really be made manifest in reality.
But there is something so desperately beautiful about human connection. A useful way to explore this is is to consider the potency of relational depth. Relational depth is succinctly explained as “…a state of profound contact and engagement between people.” (Mearns & Cooper, 2018: xvii) This term exists mainly in the counselling and psychotherapeutic fields, and has been pioneered by Dave Mearns & Mick Cooper, two Professors of Counselling Psychology, principally through their Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2005; 2018). Generally it is cited within therapeutic work, but it has such vibrancy and relate-ability that it is easily positioned within the worlds outside of therapeutic space; indeed in any situation where human beings interact. I quite like to see it as an intellectual kissing cousin of social collective experiences explored by anthropologists through terms like communitas (e.g. Turner, 1970; Turner, 2011) and collective effervescence (e.g. Durkheim, 1912). While the Turners and Durkheim have been interested in when ‘profound engagement’ and a heightened collective feeling occurs within social groups, relational depth is rooted in more intimate one-on-one relations (though of course, relational depth can and does occur in groups). There is ample literature, from all kinds of academic disciplines, that ultimately orientates towards the profound significance of human relationships; that we need them to be intricately woven into the fabric of our lives. Not only are we biologically wired for connection, so that it actually stimulates ‘the good stuff’ within us, but it is near impossible to live a purely isolated life. As Haruki Murakami has noted, a “…person's life may be a lonely thing by nature, but it is not isolated. To that life other lives are linked.”
When reflecting on the sensuous experience or a metaphoric scripture for potentially exploring deep relational depth, something moves, pulsates; it is both a lightening of the world’s mundane bleakness and a deepening of roots into something firm yet yielding; the mud of the lotus being made of phosphorescent soil perhaps. We want to belong, to be part of something; to be valued and valuable and to have this reflected back to us by the bodies and actions of those we care for; the resulting feeling, or experience of such connection, travels deep beyond and within our physical forms. Now that God has been abdicated of his monopoly over sacredness, we may find that it is in relational depth that we find the profane transcended to a state of divine. What has inspired the artistic mind more than the ecstasy of love or the agony of loss? Experiencing relational depth may feel like coming home after a long day of being someone else, striping off your facade and settling into a safe and welcoming nest; when you can finally talk about meaningful things and not worry about being misunderstood, rejected or belittled; a deep exhale and the relief that follows; coming in from the cold to warmth and succour. It can be in the moment when you feel heard and understood by the person you are talking to, or perhaps the simply reciprocal motion of leaning your head on someone's shoulder to be met by their head resting upon yours. More simply, it is the magic of being truly present and open to, and with, another person, or, as Virgina Wolff might suggest, it is the value of a “…naked contact of a mind” that is glorious and wondrous. Cooper beautifully describes relational depth as “..a reminder of some shared, common humanity: some shared way of being and connectedness with others that can stay there, in their minds and their bodies, as a reminder of what can be possible…[it is] brown and rich and sweet… [and it] takes us back into the heart of things and to the heart of what is often most meaningful for us.” (Mearns & Cooper, 2018: xi). There in lies the 'heart' of humanity: if such a thing could ever exist, it would be made up of all hearts, intertwined.
Do Kenji and Noi, one an introvert the other an extrovert, achieve relational depth? Yes, I think so. Something happens here, and it touched me to such an extent that I often revisit this film to try and catch hold of something I might make more corporeal to explain it (though in the end this is always ultimately fruitless, and it feels better to allow that to be as it is). It’s not through language here, but through a synchronising of their flows, an appreciating and learning from their differences, and through the every day activities of care they give to one another. It is through an empathic attunement that stems from being first witnesses and later co-participants in each other’s lives. They resist, or have resisted, the attempted interruption of others - Kenji remained ignorant to his colleague's affections while Noi refuses to answer the ongoing phone calls from her abusive and unfaithful boyfriend Jon. To some extent, we can also see that when Nid breaks their sisterly bond by sleeping with Jon, Noi attempts to break their connection, though this is something deeply regretted by Noi - deep relationships cannot generally be so easily shattered by one argument. Furthermore, with Nid now gone from the world, the emptiness Noi faces is agonising.
The image of the scene below captures something that may work as a kind of speechless moment of relational depth: two people meeting quietly, making contact from their own points of need – for Noi, this is to be able to spread out and rest upon Kenji, while for Kenji this is to open himself out, unfurl like a blossom, and receive her presence in his unguarded space (In the film itself, the scene is more complicated due to a period of Noi morphing into Nid, but we can take this image independently I think).
The connection explored in Last Life… is a quiet one, something more akin to gentle presence rather than sharing a mutual existential discourse. It is also about the unexpected joy of exploring the other, of dissolving the gaps of otherness until they complement and then become a part of your own you-ness. When Kenji and Noi meet they are both catapulted to the edges of their known lives: castaways-in-waiting following the violent deaths of their only siblings. The film then unfolds in a bubble of inbetwixt time, a strange, drifting narrative, fragile but also growing ripe with anticipated newness. It is a translucent space, in a place where the land and sea meet (which is an ideal setting for exploring the edgelands of time and experience), and we generally don't see other people unless they are trying to 'break in.' Un-anchored and finding that their homes have become infected by a psychic and literal ruination, they gradually settle into a harmonious fit in each other’s unexpected parallels and start to see themselves more vibrantly in the other, rather than in the physical spaces of their mundane lives. Existing in a now that has been brutally cut off from the past (thought the presence of Noi’s dead sister Nid does wander in) but is as yet unfastened to the future; it is in their growing relationship that the process of opening up to impending change can move forward. Human connection thrives at the centre. Towards the end of the film they begin to perform a ritual of farewell: to their dead siblings, homes and former lives, but also to this halcyon period of in-betweenness. This goodbye to their former lives is also a firmer hello to their togetherness, that wherever they go they want to be together. Their parting moments with their homes are to act in the reverse, and so complete a mutual cycle of transformation – the previously chaotic Noi makes sure her house is neat and tidy before locking up while Kenji defies his previous demonstrations of OCD by knocking one of his carefully structured piles of books to the floor. Something of the other has now become part of their own intimate identities - its even in the way they look by the end of the film, in the way Noi now cleans and tidies where she works and Kenji smokes a cigarette.
If we open up to others, we can find ourselves changed by them, particular if we occupy close knit spaces or timelines. Such is a valid reminder that our selves are not fixed, static and unwavering but rather more fluid and reflexive. When we experience really profound episodes of relational depth with other people who we care about, and who we feel care about us, we are, in the same breath, both the body with its head in the lap of the other, being held and authentically met, and the body upon whose lap rests the head of the other we want to hold and authentically meet. Otherness, the brutal boundaries of self encased in independent flesh, starts to dissolve. Few experiences are quite so profound, healing and spiritual. They give the richest substance and nourishment to the challenge of facing mortality. Once we have experienced relational depth, and know that it is available for us in the future, we can meet the world as a benevolent playing field, for we have found in others a much needed secure based and safe haven to nurture and sustain us.
Lingering in coffee shops alone, with no book to buffer or phone to distract, one can either experience a heightened sense of being separate and alone, or a quiet place amidst the bustle of a society in action to which we belong but are, for the moment, content to simply observe. To access the latter may require a deep grounding and contentment in one’s own self, and security in the invisible ties that bind; to know that we exist as beloved in the minds of others, and that being independent is a temporary inbetwixt state rather than the never-ending hollow emptiness despaired of by the last lizard. I am reminded now of Raymond Carver’s final published poem, Last Fragment, which was written as he was dying from cancer and is now etched upon his tombstone:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to
Beloved on the earth.
Ah, to feel ourselves beloved. What sweeter balm is there for our lonely, yearning souls?