“Invisible Waves” is the latest offering from Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who scored a cult hit in 2003 with the excellent “Last Life in the Universe”. The two films actually have a lot in common, both being surreal mood pieces, beautifully lensed by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and featuring pan-Asian casts headed by Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu. Here, Ratanaruang has made an even more internationally-flavoured film, bringing in Korean actress Gang Hye Jung (“Oldboy”) and Hong Kong veteran Eric Tsang (“Infernal Affairs”), and locating the action in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand.
The dreamlike plot follows Kyoji (Asano), a chef in a gangster-run Macau restaurant, who is rather unwisely having an affair with his boss’s wife. After their illicit relationship is uncovered, the boss orders him to kill her, and then sends him on a decrepit ocean liner to begin a new life in Phuket, Thailand. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned for Kyoji, as he encounters all manner of strange characters, and upon arrival in Thailand finds himself alone, tormented by visions of the past which are accompanied by bouts of vomiting. After losing all of his money, he calls his boss, who puts him in contact with an eccentric gangster who has been similarly exiled (Japanese actor Mitsuishi Ken). Although his new friend seems amiable enough, taking Kyoji on a series of karaoke-filled adventures, it soon emerges that he may in fact have more sinister plans in mind for the gradually unravelling former cook.
“Invisible Waves” is a bleaker affair than “Last Life in the Universe”, being mainly concerned with themes of guilt and regret, and with the protagonist’s introspective journey being very much one into his own heart of darkness. As such, the film works as an intimate psychological study, with a brilliantly realised character arc which aims not for some unrealistic ideal of redemption as is so often the case, but for acceptance and a sense of internal peace.
The proceedings are very much seen from Kyoji’s perspective, and Ratanaruang puts the viewer squarely in his shoes, sharing his bewildered disorientation, isolation and growing sense of paranoia as the tension slowly mounts. Much of this comes either from the fact that nothing in the film seems to work out as expected, especially during the bizarre scenes at sea in which Kyoji spends half his time locked in his cabin trying to figure out how to work the taps in the bathroom. Ratanaruang also makes good and believable use of the language problems which Koji encounters, resulting in most of the characters talking in a mixture of English and their own native tongue.
The narrative of “Invisible Waves” progresses toward its uncertain conclusion at an unhurried pace, never taking the obvious routes, and featuring many long, dialogue-free stretches where very little happens. This is not to say that the film is dull, but rather that what Ratanaruang has crafted is more of an ambient, almost hypnotic piece of cinematic poetry than a traditional viewing experience. Of course, this does mean that a certain measure of patience is required, and though it does feature a rich vein of black comedy and a handful of violent scenes, those expecting conventional thrills may well be frustrated.
As might be anticipated, the film is absolutely gorgeous, with Doyle employing a palette of pale, washed out colours which perfectly compliment the melancholy mood and which bring out the sense of dilapidation in the locations. There are a number of beautifully composed shots, which are all the more effective for the fact that they feature not epic vistas but quiet, everyday scenes. The visuals work well throughout to reflect the mood of the protagonist, being quiet and understated, but with certain strangeness to them, as if hinting at something unpleasant lurking just out of sight.
In the hands of a lesser director, “Invisible Waves” could have been overstretched and dull, though under the guidance of Ratanaruang, it becomes an emotionally and spiritually rewarding experience which adds layers of depth beneath a deceptively calm surface. Eerily atmospheric and unpredictable throughout, the film sees the director further developing his unique style and vision, and confirms him as one of the most interesting directors in modern Asian cinema.
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (director) / Prabda Yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Tadanobu Asano …. Kyoji
Hye-jeong Kang …. Noi
Eric Tsang …. Monk
Maria Cordero …. Maria
Toon Hiranyasap …. Wiwat
Ken Mitsuishi …. Lizard