In Last Life In The Universe, the audience sees Asano Tadanobu's apartment before they see the man. His flat is ridiculously neat, with the beer arranged in the fridge labels-out, the shoes sorted by day, and the books all labeled and shelved, except for the pile jumbled beneath Asano's body, which is swinging from a noose. He's not actually dead, thoughhe's just fantasizing about suicide, having been driven to despair by the slow grind of being a Japanese librarian in Bangkok, where he knows almost no one and he doesn't speak the language.
In the film's elliptical, time-jangled first 40 minutes, Asano imagines a few other deaths for himself, crosses the path of two bickering sisters, and gets involved in the shooting of two visiting Yakuza. In the film's more placid midsection, Asano and one of the sisters (Sinitta Boonyasak) hole up in a cottage near the water, where her disgusting inattention to housekeeping drives the naturally reticent Asano into near-catatonia. Then things get crazy again, as crime and romance converge, and Japanese cult director Takashi Miike shows up as the ringleader of a trio of clumsy hit men.
Director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang collaborated on Last Life with Thai novelist Prabda Yoon, as well as Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer/partner Christopher Doyle, who has a way of lighting people and rooms to look like singed glass, or one of Monet's foggier paintings. Together, they make the real so vivid that it becomes surreal. They linger on reflections in a rain-streaked window, the eerie beauty of a brackish aquarium, and the way wallpaper patterns, rusty cars, and bloody knives all resemble a lizard's skin. In Last Life's tour-de-force centerpiece, the filmmakers have Boonyasak's bungalow clean itself, in a seamlessly magical special-effects sequence that encapsulates the movie's dopey haze.
That pitch, halfway between spare naturalism and sheer fantasy, is Last Life In The Universe's selling point and stumbling block. It's hard to know what's really happening in the movie versus what's merely running through the characters' heads, and the poignant final shot muddies the picture even more, raising the question of just when (or if) the story jumps from real to imaginary. But Pen-Ek's drifting style is perfect for showing how loneliness can have an almost mythical power, as stricken souls move from talking to themselves to imagining every minute gesture as something intensely dramatic.