Kenji (Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano), a neat freak from Osaka, has relocated to Bangkok, where he works in a Japanese-language library. One night, while once again contemplating suicide from a bridge, Kenji meets a local girl named Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) – after her sister Nid gets killed crossing traffic to save his life.
Shortly after this already horrific happenstance, Kenji's own brother, a Yakuza, is murdered in Kenji's apartment by an associate. Kenji himself dispatches the associate, suggesting that he is more than the shy librarian he appears.
Bonding, in a way, over their lost siblings, Kenji and Noi form a tenuous friendship, with Kenji volunteering to hang out at Noi's messy abode outside town, tidying it up while avoiding the carnage in his own home. Though much of the story plays up the differences between the stoic Japanese and the earthy, emotional Thai people, it struggles to come to something more than that – and it almost succeeds.
Last Life in the Universe is a strange, poetic, beautiful-looking little movie, at once romantic and slow and mysterious and silly and pointless.
Pen-Ek and his cinematographer, the great Christopher Doyle, inarguably create a rich atmosphere, and in many ways the film is as much of a mood piece as a Wong Kar Wai film is (Doyle is Wong's usual DP). The Australian-born Doyle has become one of the central characters in Asian "art" cinema, and it's easy to see why: he is madly in love with both the landscape and the people of Southeast Asia, and his work is as important to Last Life as writer/director Pen-Ek's. Many viewers may find the cinematography the best thing about the film.
Although Asano and Boonyasak deliver appealing, understated performances, and there are plenty of quirks in the storyline to keep viewers interested, some may find it all too vague. I liked the film myself, but after I figured out the puzzling plot elements, it didn't really stay with me.