Sunday, 23 April 2006

Invisible Waves (2006)

An surreal film about the mysterious ways of the universe

There are directors who put their unique stamp on every film they make. Lesser directors just make the same film over and over again, telling the same story with different characters, in different settings. My respect goes to Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who infuses his oeuvre with his unique blend of absurdism and surrealism, yet makes every new film unrecognisable from his previous work. In Invisible Waves, the director brings back Tandanobu Asano, Prabda Yoon and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, collaborators from his previous film, Last Life in the Universe. I must warn you now that although familiar faces (Asao) and names (Noi and Nid) appear here, Invisible Waves is nothing like Last Life in the Universe.

The plot in Invisible Waves, if you really must know, is relatively simple: Kyoji (Asao), who lives in Macau, commutes to work every day to Hong Kong to work in a Thai restaurant. He has an affair with his boss’s wife, and when the affair is discovered, Wiwat (a fatherly and genial Toon Hiranyasap) orders Kyoji to kill her. When the deed is done, Wiwat sends Kyoji away on a cruise ship to a hideout in Phuket. What is worth watching instead, are the increasingly strange and bizarre events that occur to Kyoji during and after the cruise. In a dreamy kind of logic, these appear to mirror the assassin’s guilt, his mental breakdown, the fruits of his bad karma, or all of the above.

All of this are deliciously and unhurriedly framed by the camera work of Christopher Doyle, who manages to evoke the feeling of claustrophobia, whimsical surrealism, and a brooding sense of unease – effects far removed from his usual repertoire in Wong Kar Wai’s films or even his directorial debut, Away with Words (incidentally also starring Asano). While the use of filters and colour grading are still recognisably Doyle, audiences will feel they’re watching his famed camera work through a warped looking glass. When his cinematography is combined with the dark, distended and dissociative synthesizer soundtrack from Hualampong Riddim (who must be channelling the ghost of Mazzy Star here), Invisible Waves becomes an unsettling film that distances its audience from expectations of an easily digestible flick.

That’s not to say that Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s film is dreary or cannot be enjoyed. On the contrary, bizarre elements quickly pile up once Kyoji steps onto the cruise ship, starting with a foldable cabin bed that has a mind of its own, a bartender who wipes blood off an aquarium tank filled with sharks, and a room whose ventilator seems to be connected with the steam exhaust of the engine room! This is pure surrealism, but never as sidesplittingly funny as the weirdness that Hideki Sone’s character experiences during his long road trip in Takashi Miike’s Gozu.

Instead, the surrealism is counterbalanced by the sense of bad karma and impending retribution. In a universe that seems to make no sense, where nonsensical events plague Kyoji (including a Kang Hye-jeong, who appears to be reading her English lines phonetically), can he find a way to live with his recent actions, or make amends for what he has done? Or will the universe, with its mysterious and malevolent ways, do him in first? Pen-Ek Ratanaruang must be commended for making a film that convincingly blends surrealism and absurdism – the concepts that nothing happens for a reason, and the demand that man must find meaning and morality even if nothing makes sense – without a depressing or trite script.

Asano is perfect as the shell-shocked, almost sleepwalking assassin, while Toon Hiranyasup employs his nice-guy image honed in previous Thai films to draw a sympathetic portrait of a man who just ordered his wife killed by the same person who was having an affair with her. Eric Tsang has a memorable cameo as a monk or an ersatz monk whose mini-temple in Hong Kong is a front for a weapons shop that Kyoji patronises. The cast in Invisible Waves carry their roles solidly; a lesser ensemble would have sunk this film in an ocean of laughter.

This film is a drastic departure from Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s previous films. Dark, brooding and difficult, it may put off fans used to the cheery style of Last Life in the Universe. Even so, it signals a turning point in the director’s filmography, and I am now curious about which path his next film will take.

Invisible Waves challenges, puzzles, entertains, and engages well with its audience, provided they are in a mood to be challenged.

First published at incinemas on 22 April 2006

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