Emotionless-ness reaches new heights in “Invisible Waves,” the long awaited second feature from Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang in which he teams up once again with our own, homegrown Tadanobu Asano.

The Ratanaruang-Asano team made a splash in the international film fest scene with “Last Life in the Universe” three years back, and if anything, this latest puts a polish on the way the director combines languid, Southeast Asian aesthetics with violence and unspoken inner turmoil. Blood is shed, but there’s a curious detachment to it all, as if the characters are capable of walking away from corpses unconcerned and without malice, to stroll over to a noodle stall for a cold beer and a steaming bowl. Not that any of this happens, but it feels as if it might — and this particular precariousness of mood is something Ratanaruang is a master at generating.

Asano plays Kyoji, a chef who commutes from Macau to Hong Kong every day on the ferry and looks as though he’s never had a violent thought in his life. One night his girlfriend (Tomono Kuga) turns up at his apartment for a romantic dinner, but a couple of bites into the meal she dies — Kyoji has poisoned her, on orders from his boss (Thai star Toon Hiranyasup), who it turns out is his girlfriend’s husband. Having found out about the affair, the boss had decided this was to be their punishment. The deed done, Kyoji is so upset he can’t work or function and, as compensation, the boss offers him a cruise trip to Phuket.

Invisible Waves
Director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Run Time 115 minutes
Language Thai, English, Korean, Japanese
Opens Opens May 19, 2007

Once aboard the ship, Kyoji finds himself in a series of absurd, Chaplin-esque situations where the faucet in his room doesn’t work, the bed doesn’t pull out, and his tiny cabin (he was promised the stateroom) is situated next to the noisiest engine in the world, which sends clouds of steam through the vents. Still, Kyoji finds divergency in an attractive Korean passenger Noi (Gang Hye Jung), on board with a baby and a blase, ironic manner that’s oddly seductive. The boat ride is bad but once he gets to Phuket things get worse: his money is stolen, he’s broke and the boss, who promised to help, has put a hit man (Ken Mitsuishi) on his trail.

Ratanaruang assembles an impressive Asian cast and leaves the cinematography to resident Asian lensmeister Christopher Doyle, but even with these ingredients “Invisible” falls short of expectations, partly because the director’s last film worked so well. The story, always seemingly poised on the verge of substantiveness, ultimately loses interest in its own outcome. There are lapses of attention-wandering, parts where the story is caught daydreaming out the window and stifling a yawn. On the other hand the very looseness of it all constitutes much of the film’s charm and with the heat and humidity enshrouding the whole package like a wet shower curtain, who cares about substance? Doyle’s frames enhance the nothing-really-matters ambience; it’s all murky gray tones tinged with green, even when the location switches from the cruise ship to Phuket Island, which in most other movies would be brilliantly sunny and awash in primary colors.

And, as with “Last Life,” Ratanaruang deploys food in quirky, irreverent and disturbing ways — Kyoji turns off all food as soon as he disposes of the body of his lover, and frequently vomits as a sign of the physical toll his evil deed has taken. The boss is a man of prodigious appetite but he likes to pick at his meals before throwing them across the room. In “Last Life,” Asano’s character had spent entire afternoons washing plastic dishes in a tiny sink while his love object (a Thai prostitute) ate some chicken, then ground out her cigarette into a plate of rice; similar acts of casual food-desecration are scattered throughout “Invisible” — juvenile portrayals of prank with an undercurrent of poetry.

Through it all, Kyoji never loses his cool or his emotionally flatlined demeanor; the turmoil that refuses (or he doesn’t allow) to surface is something Asano has mastered to an art form. Does he give a s**t? It’s hard to tell and even more difficult to gauge what went through his mind as he watched his lover eat his food and die at his table. There’s no evidence to show the depth of his feelings for her or for anything else for that matter. It’s very likely the boss kept him alive solely because he didn’t know quite what to make of his chef.

A lot of questions will go unanswered, loose ends left dangling, sentences left half-finished and closeups of meaningful expressions that lead nowhere at all. Other filmmakers would have made the whole vague package seem intriguing but Ratanaruang doesn’t resort to such tactics. He didn’t want to break the mood, probably.

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