Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: INVISIBLE WAVES (2006; available on Netflix Streaming)

Have you seen LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE? Or 69 (A FUNNY STORY ABOUT 6 AND 9)? Why not? There is a lot more to Thai Cinema than ONG-BAK, people. Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has a devastating visual style, even on his lower budget productions. Star Tadanobu Asano has a long history of choosing crazy art-house directors to work with (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideaki Sato and Sogo Ishii, for example; and yes, I would even include Kenneth Branagh, despite the film being THOR). He also makes an effort to work with filmmakers outside of Japan -- appearing in Korean, Kazakh, Thai, and English language productions (yes, like BATTLESHIP).

Asano plays Kyoji, a Japanese expat living in Macau. He's having an affair with his gangland boss' wife -- or at least that's what it seems, before he poisons her and disposes of the body (the macabre composting equipment outside his apartment should have been a hint that this wasn't going to be a rom-com). The boss owns a restaurant in Hong Kong and Kyoji is a chef, though upon returning to work he is informed that he must leave via cruise ship from Hong Kong to Phuket Thailand for an unspecified length vacation. A suspiciously unholy “monk” gives him forged travel documents and a contact number for a person named “Lizard.” Much of the story takes place on the ship, a surreal environment that seems to have been created just to make Kyoji uncomfortable. A sort of floating purgatory. Nothing works, few of the people he encounters seem to understand him. His stateroom has a vent that fills with exhaust from the engine, his only “window” is a serene painting of a ship's deck that resembles nothing he's likely to encounter, the bathroom has a mind of its own, and a frivolous Korean woman named Noi (Hye-jeong Kang, OLDBOY) repeatedly saddles him with her infant daughter. He also appears to have a tail -- a man in a panama hat who is clearly not on the ship for leisure. On top of everything else, he's not coping with his new identity as a murderer well -- suddenly vomiting when triggered by seemingly random events. Even off ship he is perpetually lost, but the quiet is shattered as Kyoji's bad fortune closes in. 

Christopher Doyle's cinematography is exquisite, as always. No one photographs haunting, atmospheric stories the way he does. He shot LAST LIFE, too. And if INVISIBLE WAVES feels familiar beyond the look, it was written by the LAST LIFE's Prabda Yoon too. Much of INVISIBLE WAVES feel almost Lynch-ian, and so much more than a fish-out-of-water scenario. Asano has a sort of bemused yet dangerous demeanor that suits these types of characters well -- something of a Japanese Jean Reno. He swings from beaten-down teddy bear to black-hearted killer with barely a beat between, leaving the viewer feeling both sympathetic and uneasy. The supporting casts includes Eric Tsang of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS films (Gangster Monk); local-Macau celebrity Maria Cordero (Kyoji's maternal neighbor); Ken Mitsuishi, who appeared in Peter Greenaway's THE PILLOW BOOK (Lizard); and Thai celebrity Toon Hiranyasap (Restaurant Owner and Gangster Wiwat). The soundtrack features delicate ambient music that adds a hypnotic quality to the story without ever allowing one to get comfortable. There may well be Japanese hit men, murder and dismemberment in INVISIBLE WAVES, but make no mistake -- this is an art film -- a slow burn plot with a vague philosophical bend and a wrap-around frame that is hardly stereotypical.