Justin Lin gets the credit for making Asian America cinema hip, but some recent DVD discoveries provide concrete proof of our cultural amnesia..
Ritzy dresses and fancy suits danced across the red carpet, looking pretty for photographers, before proceeding to a lavishly adorned night honoring the accomplishments of Asian Pacific Americans in Entertainment.
APA's look back on the year in film, TV, fashion, and more.
Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Pen-ek Ratanaruang and crew get lost at sea, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Invisible Waves broods and is brooding in its totality as a film. For those who know of Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang only through his previous work, Last Life in the Universe (2003), his most recent film is a literal descent into the atmospheric shadows worthy of the silent film era. Despite Last Life's seemingly morose title and equally morose characterization of the compulsively suicidal Kenji, the film is unusually bright, even in the sequences where gray and blue hues dominate, and hopeful in the face of a disentangling life. In its aesthetic look and pace, Invisible Waves is obviously the progeny of Last Life, but bids an unflinching goodbye to a life in the universe by plunging into the murky, brooding waters (literally) of anonymity, non-identity, and absence -- which don't necessarily mean the same thing.
Not to overdo the familial link between Last Life and Invisible Waves, it's critical to note that with the former, Pen-ek began to present marginal, transnational figures whose movements between and relationships with each other are marked with an absence of knowledge of each other's biographies. In this there's an Antonioni-esque rejection of classic, expository dialogue for character building in favour of a kind of monologue -- as if whether or not someone is in the same vicinity as a character who's talking is irrelevant or purely a chance happening. But it skips the Antonioni preoccupation with alienation, or doesn't dwell on it too much because somehow, a human/ist connection is made, which makes Last Life's ending poignant. In the latter film, monologue as dialogue becomes much more prominent as it follows Japanese national Kyoji (Asano Tadanobu) through his life -- or what there is left of it -- in Hong Kong, on a ship bound for Phuket, and in Thailand and Phuket itself. I say 'what's left of it' since his life-itinerary has been conveniently mapped out for him by his boss, Wiwat (Toon Hiranyasup). After Kyoji fulfills the order of killing Wiwat's wife, Seiko (Kuga Tomono), Wiwat pushes him on a journey to "lay low" for a while.
And here there's less room for human/ist connections: "Lay low" is not totally accidental because even though it seems impossible, the darkness of the film in terms of its lighting gets even darker on the ship. You'd hardly know it was a ship populated or run by humans if not for the random encounters with a barman, a loquacious fellow Japanese who mistakes Kyoji for a former classmate, some members of the crew, a baby hanging on the ship deck's rails, and the baby's mother, Noi (Gang Hye-jung). But even in these meetings, there's very little dialogue or monologue. More animated than anything else are Kyoji's unusual relationships with the space of his cabin and the entire boat. At one point, I was reminded of Buster Keaton's The Navigator in the comic repartees between Kyoji and his bathroom, Kyoji and his bed, Kyoji and the door to his cabin, Kyoji and the lights. In these silent film-like scenes, Kyoji in the ship almost ceases to be human and becomes a shadow. In actuality, this isn't far off as he's marked as dead as Wiwat sends someone to 'shadow' and ultimately kill him -- hence the "journey."
If we move towards the metaphorical without going overboard (no pun intended), Kyoji's travel to Phuket by ship is a slow process of robbing him of his identity. His mapped-out journey brings me back to the ideas of anonymity, non-identity, and ultimately, absence, a passive euphemism for death. When Kyoji arrives in Phuket, the only person who knows him beyond meeting him for the first time is Noi. His link with her is eventually cut and in his hotel, he is literally robbed of the only possessions he brought with him. Markers of identity continually fall by the wayside and for a marginal, transnational figure like him (he is after all a gangster who's murdered someone and is a Japanese national living in Hong Kong and taking a 'vacation' in Phuket), it seems that identity markers don't stick so well.
Perhaps this is giving the film too much credit since most of the time the lighting is so dark that you can't see anything -- so that you say "what the hell, let me imagine that Kyoji's identity is being robbed as he nears Phuket." Alongside this, the film's pace and murky lighting induce a kind of drowsiness that may be intentional, since Pen-ek writes in the film's official website, "The plot will play itself out naturally and believably but what's important in this film is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, and atmosphere." Pen-ek may have gone a little overboard (pun intended this time) on this. The plot is essentially film noir revisited: Kyoji lives in a pre-ordained structure of a hierarchy of relationships that's written his death, and he slowly comes to this realisation.
I admit that as a spectator, the interactions with Kyoji provide half the pleasure. Having Christopher Doyle helm the cinematographic duties always produces a visually arresting film and the sequences on the boat have a wonderful eeriness to them. As the inevitability of Kyoji's death nears, culminating prematurely in a distracted chase scene across the docks of Phuket, the film's homage to the thriller rears its pretty head. As for the other half and the issue of marginal, transnational figures as "arthouse" cake made by marginal and/or transnational cast and crew for mainly festival consumption and distribution, some murky waters, indeed, have to be waded through another time.
Date Posted: 1/26/2007