Invisible Waves Review

Closely resembling the mood and pace of their previous film, Invisible Waves may not be a direct sequel to Last Life In The Universe, but teaming up again with cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Japanese actor/idol Tadanobu Asano and working with a script developed by Prabha Yoon, Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s latest film again revels in Asian filmmaking references or even just in the nature of filmmaking itself. The result is another action film that simultaneously works with and against the conventions of what a gangster movie should be, confusing as much as it delights, flowing at a pace and to a logic all of its own.

Asano again plays a rather awkward and unusual character – quiet, a loner, and with an unhealthy relationship with death. I don’t know whether there it is possible to have a healthy relationship with death, particularly when the person involved is an Japanese hitman, but Kyoji – as with his character Kenji in Last Life In The Universe - just doesn’t seem cut out for the business. After carrying out a hit in Hong Kong, his boss thinks it’s best for him to keep out of the country and arranges for Kyoji to be sent to Phuket to lie low for a while. The cruise ship is a bit of a wreck and seems to be almost empty, with no other passengers than a strange woman, Noi, who is travelling with her baby. But there is someone else on the ship who has been sent to look after Kyoji when he arrives in Phuket.

The first thought that is likely to come to mind after watching Invisible Waves is something along the lines of Where exactly is the film here? or What was the point of all that? Those questions can be immediately dismissed however at the realisation that it doesn’t matter, since the film has done what it set out to do. For two hours it lulls the viewer into its world, caught up in its characters and the locations they travel to, keeping them on edge by never quite giving them what they expect, exploring the mood, the smallest of incidents and the subtlest of emotions – humour, tragedy, guilt, compassion and revenge. It achieves neither more nor less than most action films set out to, but it at least manages to do it without all the formulaic clichés and set-pieces action sequences that traditionally come with the genre.

That would certainly seem to be the intention of the filmmakers. There is nothing pretentious in the film’s failure to include all the expected conventions and follow a recognisable plot with a typically grim and serious intent. Invisible Waves is not some post-modern deconstruction of Asian gangster culture – it doesn’t aspire to a Johnny To-like examination of an ancient tradition’s place in the changing modern world, nor does it wallow in the existential angst of Takeshi Kitano’s world-weary assassins – and by the same token it doesn’t rely on the associated coolness and glamour that those director’s films knowingly flirt with. Yet, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (with Doyle, Yoon and particularly Asano) finds his own way to convey the sense of loss, guilt and detachment from the world and real-life that such a profession and lifestyle places on his characters.

The means of doing so is marvellous to behold, particularly with such an assembled team who are willing to takes risks, experiment and go beyond the surface imagery and familiar plot points. Doyle manages to deglamorise the Macau and Phuket locations, avoiding familiar tourist scenery and landmarks. He finds instead a means to explore Kyoji’s inner turmoil and confusion in the faulty cabin on the cruise ship, in its rusting holds and bleak corridors and in the rundown hotel in Phuket. The manner in which they are filmed perhaps recalls The Shining and Barton Fink a little too obviously in places (the eerie bar on the cruise ship and a scrawled REDRUM on a poster in the hotel) – to such an extent that you wouldn’t be surprised if Kyoji carried a mysterious box around with him.

More subtle than that however, what Invisible Waves has in common with Barton Fink is its love of cinema and in the infinite possibilities that are open to a filmmaker who is prepared to explore character, location and plot, with no preconceived ideas of what the outcome should be - carrying that little box with no idea of what is inside and no need to find out either. What matters is the journey, and the viewer is fortunate, if they are willing, to be along with them for the ride.

Invisible Waves is released in the UK by Tartan. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region2.

Tartan’s releases of Asian cinema on DVD can more often be more hit than miss, but while there appear to be some of the usual less than ideal practices employed here, the results aren’t so bad. The running time would suggest that this release has been converted to PAL from an NTSC master, but fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have introduced any issues with blurring or interlacing. The image flows relatively smoothly, with no problems from macroblocking or compression artefacts. Colours are muted and blacks are murky and quite flat, but how much of this is due to conversion issues and how much is down to Christopher Doyle’s colour manipulation and dampening is anyone’s guess. It looks however much as you would expect the film to look. The image is clear and detailed, neither soft nor too sharp. There is a little bit of grain evident, some light edge-enhancement and perhaps some cross colouration. Not perfect perhaps, but very good nonetheless.

There are three audio tracks and, depending on your personal preference, at least one of them is superfluous. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is fairly low in volume, but does a decent enough job, keeping the soundtrack focussed and managing to convey the various elements relatively well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is also fine, evidently spreading the ambience, but in a subtle way. It perhaps gives more depth in the lower registers, maintaining a low hum or drone that adds to the mood. Dialogue isn’t particularly sparkling, perhaps showing some dullness and distortion – and with most of the dialogue being spoken by Asian actors in halting English, it can occasionally be difficult to understand. The DTS 5.1 mix here seems to be one of those cases where the only difference between it and the DD 5.1 mix is that it is slightly louder. This isn’t always to the benefit of the soundtrack as ambient sounds can sometimes overwhelm the other elements, like the sometimes less than clear dialogue.

Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear white font. They only subtitle occasional lines and some longer exchanges in Japanese. The majority of the film is either silent or spoken in the common foreign language of English. The lack of subtitles for the spoken English dialogue is missed when it is difficult to decipher.

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (30:10) covers how the team set about the development of the script for a kind of film noir, scouting locations and adapting and refining their approach. With an international crew and cast, the film was indeed a journey of experimentation and discovery. Christopher Doyle (11:39) talks about his approach as a cinematographer and the unusual working method he has with the director, what he was trying to achieve through the imagery and how easy it is to work with an actor like Tadanobu Asano. Scriptwriter Prabda Yoon (19:32) talks about his development of the original script, its themes of guilt and remorse, and the use of dialogue.

Original Trailer (2:19)
The trailer is made up almost entirely of scenes not actually in the final cut of the film, yet it captures the mood and content of the film.

Behind The Scenes (29:24)
The development of the film from script to shooting is covered in more detail in this Making Of feature, made up of production and behind-the-scenes stills, clips of on-set filming and voice-overs from the principal film-makers – all backed by the gentle floating score by Hualampong Riddim.

Slow, languid, deliberately paced, injecting incongruous moments of slapstick humour, sudden violence and unexpected imagery, Invisible Waves throws the rule-book for making Asian gangster films out the window. Instead it simply delights in the process of making a film and finding new ways to express the underlying themes within the context of the genre. It may not always succeed and it will certainly sharply divide audiences, but if you don’t work too hard and simply just enjoy the movie for what it is rather than what you think it ought to be, you’ll find Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s approach here just as fresh, adventurous, simple and unpretentious as his previous film Last Life In The Universe. Tartan’s DVD presentation isn’t perfect, but presents a reasonably fine transfer and some useful extra features.

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