Saturday, March 4, 2006

Review: Invisible Waves

  • Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
  • Screenplay by Prabda Yoon
  • Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
  • Starring Tadanobu Asano, Gang Hye Jung, Eric Tsang, Maria Cordero, Toon Hiranyasup, Mitsuishi Ken, Tomono Kuga
  • World premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, Thailand premiere at Bangkok International Film Festival, opened in limited release in Thailand on March 2, 2006; also showing at Hong Kong International Film Festival.
  • Language is a mix of Japanese, Cantonese, English and a little Thai.
A few weeks ago I hopped in the front seat of a taxi and asked the driver to take me a few blocks down Sukhumvit to Siam Square.

"Siam Paragon?" he asked.

"No," I replied. "The Lido cinema."

The head-scratching and fidgeting began - sure signs that the driver wished he had not accepted the fare.

A couple blocks down, he turned to me and said, in perfect English, "Look, I've had a long day and I want to go home. If I take you to Siam Paragon, they have a U-turn and I can turn around and get headed back the way I need to go."

"Well, since you explained it, that's okay then," I said, after I picked my jaw up off the floorboard of the cab. In five years of taking taxis in Bangkok I've never come across such a plain-spoken and practical driver. I mean, that's just how he said it, the way I've quoted it right here.

And after all, Siam Paragon is just across the street from Siam Square and the Lido. I was happy to oblige the guy, especially since he so frankly explained why he wanted to take me to Siam Paragon and not my intended destination. In a society where subtlety and head-nodding agreement is the norm, it was a refreshing change of pace.

His mood brightened, and he started making conversation the way Bangkok taxi drivers often do, asking me where I'm from, how long I've been in Thailand, etc.

"Can you speak Thai?" he asked.

"Poot Thai dai nid noi," I said, my standard reply to that question - yes, I can speak Thai, just a little bit.

He then made a joke. I can't remember how it goes, but it boiled down to "Nid" and "Noi" are popular Thai names - meaning few and small respectively - and that I only spoke Thai to people named Nid or Noi. Somehow, I got the joke, and we had a good laugh. Thai humor - especially sly wordplay - is an acquired taste, and little by little I'm starting to understand.

Pretty soon, I was dropped off at his coveted U-turn at Siam Paragon and was on his way home. I ambled up to the Skytrain station to cross over the street, feeling pretty good about making a small connection with another human being, and being accomodating enough to make a little bit of a difference in one guy's day.

I relate this story as a way of saying that having just seen Invisible Waves, I'm at great pains to know what to write about it. The story comes to mind because there are characters named Nid and Noi in the film - just as there were in Pen-ek and Company's previous work, Last Life in Universe, which is titled Ruang rak noi nid mahasan, meaning "Love Story, a Little, a Lot".

Again, how this relates to Invisible Waves, I don't really know. But that's the kind of film Invisible Waves is, I guess. Upon reflection, it makes me think of other things, like where I'm going, where I've been and how I fit in. And somehow, the taxi story just seems to fit right in there, especially when I think about the mishmash of languages in this film - with a pan-Asian cast - and Japanese, Thai and Korean all speaking English to each other, except in a few cases.

Which brings me to another story. When I went to get the ticket for this movie at the Siam Paragon, I was told it was "sah-peak Thai, English subtitles", which was contrary to what I'd been told by Five Star Production. They said it was original soundtrack, with Thai and English subs. I was pretty steamed, and I walked around for a few hours in a dour mood, cursing my luck for missing the film at the film festival and hating everyone and everything in the world. Depression set in. Of course, all was well when I actually went to the movie, and found that it was the original mixed-language soundtrack with Thai and English subs. What a relief! It was all part of the journey this film would take me on.

So what about the film? Well, it's the fourth Thai film (though it isn't really a "Thai" film) I've seen this year, and it's third in a row that I feel I can't really go into specifics about or I'll ruin it.

But I will give out what's already been dished up: Tadanobu Asano portrays Kyoji, a Japanese gangster/chef, living in Macau and working in Hong Kong for a Thai restauranteur named Wiwat (Toon Hiranyasup). Seems Kyoji has been having an affair with his boss' wife, Seiko (Tomono Kuga) and is ordered to get rid of her. He does so by poisoning her.

He is then ordered to leave Hong Kong, and is given passage aboard a spooky cruise ship, bound for Phuket, Thailand. Before leaving, he checks in with a mysterious monk, whose head is wrapped in bandages for an unknown reason. This is Eric Tsang. He speaks Cantonese, yet Kyoji understands what he's saying and answers him in English. The monk gives Kyoji some money and tells him to contact the Lizard in Phuket.

As Kyoji boards the ship, a mysterious man in a straw hat notes his departure.

On the ship, Kyoji's berth is in the stinking bowels of the ship, next to a noisy engine room that vents smoke into his room. The toilet has plumbing that's all out of wack. The shower knob flushes the toilet and the shower nozzle sprays water him if he looks at funny. This gets a lot of laughs. Also, his fold-down bed refuses to stay folded down, so Kyoji has to keep his foot on it if he wants it down while he's in the room.

Kyoji is often lost - which is a metaphor for how this whole film feels - lost, disjointed, and never really finding its way. He gets lost in the maze-like halls of the ship, as well as the dingy hotel he stays in later in Phuket.

On the ship, he meets a woman named Noi (Gang Hye Jung), who comes across pretty ditzy, and downright irresponsible. She has a baby, and leaves it sitting on deck while she's in the pool. After Kyoji chides her for leaving the baby alone, she makes Kyoji watch the kid, whose name by the way, is Nid.

In Phuket, the man with the straw hat is there to see Kyoji arrive. This man, it turns out is the Lizard (Mitsuishi Ken), but Kyoji never gets a chance to contact him because he's robbed and he loses his money and his contact information, and gets that black eye that's seen in stills from the film.

But the Lizard finds him, and invites him to the landmark Pearl Hotel, where the Lizard performs karaoke for the guests at poolside - all transgendered women in bikinis. It's pretty surreal.

Much more than that, and I'm going too far, if I haven't already.

What really makes this movie is the performances. Asano is rock solid all the way through. From the very beginning, I can't help but think, "what a bad-ass." He's truly one the greatest actors working in film today.

Mitsuishi Ken is the Lizard, a character that is pretty enigmatic, and bumbling in a smooth sort of way.

And I really liked Toon Hiranyasup, one of the top Thai action stars from the 1980s. He has to be the nicest, most unthreatening mob boss ever committed to film. I'd like to see him in more English-language roles. He's such a smoothie.

Gang, as other reviews have pointed out, is pretty awkward, but somehow I think this fits her character. In an early scene while she's swimming in the pool ... uh, well, I just lost my train of thought there.

Maria Cordero portrays Kyoji's neighbor in Macau, and she adds a comforting motherly presence.

Overall, the photography has a grey, overcast sheen to it. I'm not sure if this was the projection of the film at Paragon Cineplex (one of the few places that's running the original soundtrack for the Thai commercial run, which is relatively limited anyway) or the way Christopher Doyle intended it.

So yeah, Invisible Waves is dark. It has its moments of humor, and flashes of action, but overall, it's a meditative work, and a film that will likely gain acceptance as more film buffs see it.

I just want to end right now, without offering any comparisons between it and Pen-ek's other works. This one's a different film, and there's no way of knowing what sort of direction this will lead the director's career.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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