Invisible Waves (Thailand, 2006)

In terms of the talent involved, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves is a continuation of his previous film – the international success Last Life in the Universe (2003) – as it reunites the Thai director with his transnational team of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, composer Hualampong Riddim, leading actor Tadanobu Asano and screenwriter Prabda Yoon. However, their initial flush of good fortune did not continue as the National Film Association of Thailand withdrew Invisible Waves from Best Foreign Language Film contention at the 79th Academy Awards, reportedly for not meeting the necessary criteria to be considered a ‘local production’ and, despite screenings at festivals in Bangkok, Berlin and Toronto, distribution deals for Western territories were slow to materialise. Perhaps more damagingly, the sombre style of Invisible Waves also alienated the Thai audience that had embraced Ratanaruang’s more unashamedly entertaining early films, Fun Bar Karaoke (1996) and Monrak Transistor (2001). This muted response was unfortunate as Invisible Waves is a fascinating follow-up to Last Life in the Universe that finds Ratanaruang ruminating on the theme of guilt within the narrative framework of film noir. Kyogi (Asano) is a Japanese chef working in Macau who has been having an affair with Seiko (Tomono Kuga), the wife of his underworld-affiliated boss Wiwat (Toon Hiranyasap). When his indiscretion is discovered, Wyatt insists that Kyogi murders the unfaithful wife, and then take an ‘extended vacation’ which entails a difficult journey to Phuket by ship. After disembarking, Kyogi checks into a hotel where he is attacked and robbed, then makes contact with Wyatt’s associates.

The ‘invisible waves’ of the title suggest the inner turmoil that Kyogi experiences when struggling to deal with the guilt that comes from committing the act of murder. Doyle’s cinematography paints the protagonist into a corner in a series of strikingly realised sequences, while Yoon’s cryptic screenplay engages in cruel games at Kyogi’s expense and the ever-excellent Asano unravels in synch with Ratanaruang’s unhurried pacing. It is aboard the cruise ship and in his hotel room that Kyogi’s guilt becomes evident. The cruise ship that sails from Macau to Phuket is enormous, but Kyogi finds only a few fellow passengers on-board and the vessel is strangely understaffed. The young bartender who greets Kyogi upon entering the bar leaves when he realises that the passenger is Japanese. His replacement is an older, Japanese-speaking bartender who takes a particular interest in Kyogi; when Kyogi orders a glass of milk, the bartender playfully observes that the beverage is, ‘an innocent drink for someone like you’, then asks why Kyogi is traveling by ship and questions if he is a ‘good man’. When Kyogi asks the bartender, who seems to share his dislike of the vessel, why he chose his job, the bartender states that he took the position in order to ‘punish’ himself. A conversation that starts out as a series of polite exchanges between a passenger and a member of staff soon sounds like self-analysis, as if Kyogi has imagined the bartender as a means of interrogating his unsettled psyche. This man-on-the-run is psychologically self-sabotaging his getaway.

The lobby of the hotel that Kyogi checks into on arriving in Phukket is clean and modern, but his room is as claustrophobic as his cabin on the cruise ship; the windows have bars and Doyle frames Kyogi as if he were a prisoner in a cell. In a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Kyogi finds ‘redrum’ (murder, backwards) written in blood on the mirror in his room. The assault that occurs in the hotel room is presented in an abstract manner; the assailant remains unseen while Ratanaruang focuses on the darkened doorway and the sound of Kyogi being beaten. At this point, it is suggested that Ratanaruang is operating in the realm of the subconscious and such scenes have a surreal quality, implying that Kyogi’s conscience is as much of a threat to his well-being as any hired gun. It’s a guilt trip that can only culminate in exhaustion, with Kyogi eventually describing himself as a, ‘homeless ghost’. By turns meditative, melancholic and metaphysical, Invisible Waves is film noir as filtered through fever dream; Ratanaruang’s approach is studiously unreal throughout, with the labyrinthine locations, Asano’s trademark stillness and Riddim’s subtle synthesiser score adding to the atmosphere. The subsequent lack of support from international financiers and the fall-out with the National Film Association would prompt Ratanaruang to go back to basics with the small-scale Thai production Ploy (2007). However, Invisible Waves is the ideal companion piece to the more immediately accepted Last Life in the Universe and a possible cult favourite in waiting.

An earlier version of this review was posted at NEGATIV

Invisible Waves is distributed in the UK by Palisades Tartan, one of many independent distributors that will struggle in the coming months due to the loss of stock in the riot-related fire at the Pias/Sony warehouse in Enfield. Please consider supporting these companies by ordering some of their titles for your collection, or as gifts for friends and family members. DVDs can be purchased from Amazon, HMV, Play and other online retailers. Also, many of these companies have titles available for legal download via iTunes or Mubi. As DVD stock will understandably run low over the next month, please look into these alternative avenues for checking out their films.

Full details of the Palisades Tartan catalogue can be found at their UK website.