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.