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Ruang rak noi nid mahasan

This wistful 2003 movie is about the coming together of a mis-matched pair, fastidious Japanese Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) and raucous Thai Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak).

Kenji works in a Japanese library in Bangkok, Thailand. He politely repels the advances of his Japanese co-worker - declining her invitation to sushi because of an allergy to fish, for example - and spends his free time obsessively cleaning and organizing his possessions - books piled and labelled by year, socks by colour, shoes by day of week for wear. He also fantasizes about committing suicide: the film opens as he stands on a pile of books, noose around his neck and a note saying "this is bliss" in his hand, only to be interrupted by insistent doorbell ringing. At the door is his brother, who hands him some beer to put in the fridge and collapses on the couch, complaining of the heat.

Noi works as an escort, as does her sister Nid (Sinitta's real-life sister Laila Boonyasak); Nid dresses as a schoolgirl for her work in a bar serving Japanese men. When we first meet the volatile Noi, she is fighting with her sullen sister because Nid has slept with Noi's ex-boyfriend Jon. The two quarrel in Noi's run-down Volkswagen convertible as they drive home until Noi stops her car on a bridge and tells Nid to get out. Kenji is squatting on the railing contemplating jumping into the river below, but turns in time to see Nid killed after throwing herself under Noi's car. Kenji climbs down from the railing and accompanies a sobbing Noi to the hospital, and from there the story slowly unfolds.

It turns out Kenji's brother is on the run: he has raped the boss' daughter, and soon pays the price, shot by a yakuza, who is killed in turn by Kenji. Kenji meticulously cleans up the blood from his apartment, stashes the bodies, and goes to work, where Noi shows up to return the bag he had left in her car. Kenji asks to go with her to her home, and she agrees, so they drive far from the city to a rambling rusting house beside the beach. The house Noi had shared with her sister is filthy, littered with dirty dishes, clothes and books and cigarette butts strewn everywhere, dead fish floating in the aquarium; there's a fetid swimming pool in the back and encroaching jungle all around. Skinny dogs circle in the scrub outside as the odd couple struggle to communicate over bowls of instant noodles: Kenji speaks rudimentary Thai, Noi a little Japanese, so they primarily use broken English. Noi eventually allows Kenji to give in to his obsessive-compulsive need to clean her epically messy house; in a magical scene, stoned Noi sees her books floating up and returning to the shelves.

Part of the joy of this movie is the excellent acting, but equally arresting is the gorgeous cinematography of Christopher Doyle, already celebrated for his work with a number of Asian directors, including Wong Kar-Wai. Each scene feels like an art-house installation, quiet, beautiful, poised, and complete. The languid slowness of the movie is perfectly complemented by the soundtrack (listed as by Small Room and Hualampong Riddim, actually music production companies as far as I can tell); occasional flares of shocking violence are a jarring but effective counterpoint to the dreamy and enigmatic pace of the rest of the movie.

A literal translation of the title might be "Love Story, a Little, a Lot". Thai appreciate wordplay, and the title plays on the names of the sisters, Noi ("few") and Nid ("small") - common nicknames - so it might also be translated as "The Love Story of Noi and Nid, a Lot" (mahasan, "a lot"), or even "A Little Love Story That is a Lot". I do not know who provided the English title for the film, but it could have been director and co-writer Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who speaks English well. The movie is based on his original idea, as interpreted by the other co-writer, celebrated Thai novelist Prabda Yoon. "Last Life in the Universe" was Thailand's submission to the 2003 Academy Awards.

This is not a movie for those who need a clean and tidy story. For those who aren't bothered by offbeat tales that don't always make sense, though, I highly recommend this haunting film.

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