TIFF Report: Invisible Waves Review

Contributor; todd
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Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's previous feature, 2003's Last Life In The Universe is what I would consider to be a "comfort film". That is, regardless of whatever mood I'm in, I can slip in the DVD and within five minutes, instantly become entranced by its gentle, dreamlike pace, gorgeous visuals, light humor, drifting music, and enjoyable characters. It's no exaggeration to say that Last Life In The Universe is easily one of my favorite films to have come out in the last five years or so.

So when Ratanaruang's next film, Invisible Waves, was announced, I was obviously both excited and nervous. Excited to see more of Ratanaruang's work, but also nervous as to how the new film would stack up to a film that has become such a beloved favorite of mine. And so, as excited as I was, I deliberately tried to keep my expectations in check. I tried to shy away from any pre-release buzz, just to keep myself as grounded and realistic as possible concerning Invisible Waves.

However, as much as it pains me to say this, I still found Invisible Waves to be a great disappointment, even with adjusted expectations. Invisible Waves certainly has all of the things you'd expect from Ratanaruang: languid pacing, quirky-yet-lonely characters making fragile attempts at connection, and flashes of surreal humor. However, the result is a film that feels less like a proper follow-up of Last Life In The Universe, and more like someone merely trying to ape Ratanaruang's style.

Tadanobu Asano plays Kyoji, a Japanese chef working in Macau. But when he's not making fabulous meals at his boss' classy restaurant, he's taking care of his boss' dirty laundry. Which, in this case, happens to be murdering his boss' wife, Seiko. However, the sticky situation is even stickier: Kyoji and Seiko have been having an affair for quite some time now. After successfully doing the deed, Kyoji's boss sends him on a "vacation" to Thailand, where Kyoji will lay low until things blow over.

However, once Kyoji boards the ship, his vacation soon becomes a trip from hell laden with mishaps, be it Kyoji's less-than-glamorous lodgings, hours spent wandering the ship's bowels, or even getting locked inside his room. It doesn't help that Kyoji's English isn't his strongest suit, and that he can barely communicate even with the random Japanese folks he bumps into. And worst of all, a shadowy individual in a flowery Hawaiian shirt seems to be tailing Kyoji, and may be the source of his discomfort.

The trip's only bright spot is a fellow passenger, a young woman named Noi (Hye-jeong Kang - Welcome To Dongmakgol, OldBoy) who is traveling to Thailand with her baby girl. Despite only being able to communicate in broken English, the two form a friendship of sorts, and Kyoji finds himself becoming a surrogate father (and maybe something more). But as soon as he arrives in Thailand, things begin going wrong once more, and Kyoji finds himself facing betrayal from all angles.

Invisible Waves could certainly have been an intriguing, atmospheric film about guilt and loyalty -- I think it's safe to say that was Ratanaruang's intention. But instead, the film is a meandering mess full of poorly written characters, interminable interactions, and countless rabbit trails and non-sequiturs that prove increasingly frustrating as the film progresses. There are certainly shades of the surreal quirkiness and halting character interactions that made Last Life In The Universe so haunting and affecting, but only shades.

There is no emotional core to the film, nothing that allows Kyoji's sense of alienation to ever become remotely beguiling. And while all of the various synopses of the film discuss his struggle with guilt over what he's done -- both the murder and the affair -- there's precious little in the film that communicates that, just a toss-off conversation here and there. Instead, Kyoji blankly stumbles his way from one misfortune to the next until he arrives at a spiritual epiphany of sorts at the film's end that is perfunctory and underwhelming.

Additionally, all of the characters' interactions seem less like genuine attempts to portray human relationships between broken individuals, and rather merely devices to further convince you of the film's quirky, offbeat tone. Which is firmly established early on, and so the continued repetition quickly becomes dull and monotonous. At one point, a man who mistakes him for a high school classmate accosts Kyoji on the ship. At first, the scene is laden with tension as it's unclear whether this man is a threat or not. But as the scene goes on and on (and on), it becomes clear that it's just another stilted attempt by Ratanaruang to make Kyoji's plight even more nonsensical and absurd. Which quickly grows old.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film are its poor visuals, surprising because Ratanaruang is working once again with Christopher Doyle, one of the world's premier cinematographers. While lush visuals wouldn't have necessarily saved the film, they certainly wouldn't have hurt. However, Doyle opts to go with a dark, murky look that casts the entire film in shadow. Which, rather than add a measure of mystery to the film, serves only to further stifle the film and make it more overbearing and plodding.

Who knows what happened. Perhaps Ratanaruang felt rushed and harried, as the film seems more like its composed of daily rushes and concepts that final scenes. There are hints of promise, and the film's premise seems custom-made for Ratanaruang's languid, surreal sensibilities, but the result ultimately feels like a very pale, poorly lit imitation of a much better film.

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More about Invisible Waves

crazybeeSeptember 14, 2006 5:20 AM

I really like this one.

Todd BrownSeptember 14, 2006 5:40 AM

There are parts of it that I really like but it just never quite clicked for me. Maybe on repeat viewing farther down the line ...

Did you find the cinematography dark, bee? It seriously struck me as bad enough to be a problem with the print or projector but never having seen it elsewhere I've got nothing to compare to ...

BtoFuSeptember 14, 2006 6:57 AM

I haven't enjoyed anything more than this all year..definitely improves with each viewing. I wasn't expecting something of the same ilk as Last Life outwith the tone and we didn't get that either. Certainly more morose than the previous outing, but I hovered right along with it and dug it completely.

iamNatakuSeptember 14, 2006 7:48 AM

Saw this on the Thai DVD release. Loved it even moreso than Last Life, which says something since Last Life is one of my all-time favorite films (although it was still a bit too "light" for my tastes). As for the cinematography, I've always felt that Doyle's greater strength is in how he handles the camera, not necessarily in the "look" he creates for each film.

He shoots each scene almost like he's a naive child trying to understand what going on around him, which I'll admit is either a strong negative or positive depending on your viewpoint. (I didn't find the film image dark or murky at all so it might have just been the print you saw.)

Growing up in a similar coastal setting, the world of Invisible Waves just felt so much more alive and real than Last Life. It's a slow burner of a film that increases in power after every viewing.

AndySeptember 14, 2006 9:46 AM

I ordered the thai dvd weeks ago. Still waiting for it...I wanna see this!

ApplecartSeptember 14, 2006 12:53 PM

where do you guys get the thai dvd? does it have english subtitles? i looked at http://www.ethaicd.com but those discs dont appear to have english subs :(

Douglas RoySeptember 15, 2006 6:06 PM

Having just watched the Thai DVD I tend to agree with you Todd with the weaker points of this second feature by Ratanaruang. I too felt the film meanders too much away from its plot points along with its meandering camerawork by Christopher Doyle. (The dvd's image is bright and clear, so it might be the print/projection you witnessed).
Speaking of photography, on my Thai dvd the nude scenes are optically fogged along with random shots of the gun that Tananodu wields in certain scenes. I might understand the nude scene alterations but what's up with the guns being optically covered????
Is this typical of Thai films? Would the subtitled Singapore release be different with regard to this fogging/censorship? I'll assume the 35mm print shows all.

KurtSeptember 18, 2006 4:17 AM

Indeed, this is the most 'poorly' shot Doyle film I think I've seen. I was amused in parts by Invisible Waves, and I really liked the early scenes on the ship, and the late scenes with Kyoji's boss, but the fil was one of the weakest I caught at this years festival, I'm sad to say. All the actors give good performances however, but Invisible Waves would function better as a random watch on pay-cable, rather than import this yourself or make a trip to an Arthouse cinema if this thing gets picked up for theatrical distribution outsideo of Japan/HK/Thailand.

MayaSeptember 18, 2006 1:00 PM

I'm so relieved that both you and Todd (and, for that matter, Dave Hudson) were disappointed in this film because I was thoroughly bored and had to fight to stay awake. Our consensual disappointment adequately expressed, I'm now relieved of having to write anything about the piece other than it was an intriguing concept: who should die? A wandering ghost or a happy man? But an intriguing concept does not in and of itself make a good movie. This was my one true dud of TIFF.

eliza bennetSeptember 20, 2006 8:17 PM

I think I may be the only one who actually not only liked but also loved this film, as much as Last Life in the Universe.

Everything in it that this review complained worked for me. As for the man who claimed that to know Kyoji from high school, he was a guy working for the Boss and he was trying to prevent Kyoji coming in further contact from Noi.

I liked the visuals and thought they are perfectly in tune with the film's dark tone. Yes the character's were quirky but there wasn't any of the optimism we came across in Last Life. It was dark from beginning to end, despite the funny scenes and jokes. I felt the despair and hopelessness of the main character and the end scene, that conversation was something I felt rather than just watched. Too bad that the people who were in the same theatre I was in, pretty much agreed with the above review and replies and I seem to be the only one who loved this film.

ghApril 25, 2007 11:19 PM

very good