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February 12, 2008

Invisible Waves


Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - 2006
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

It has become more clear that the Oscar category of Best Foreign Language Film needs to be reconsidered. What good intentions inspired the recognition of films from beyond Hollywood is now muddled by international co-productions, official choices over critical choices, and the decisions made by a small group within the Academy. While the Academy could be commended for embracing Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, others such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci had to wait until they made English language films to get any recognition. If being considered the best film in your own country was enough, than a film like Savage Nights should have been a nominee as well.

That the primary or sole language spoken in the film is that of the particular country is becoming more problematic. The original nominee from Israel, The Band's Visit was considered to have had too much English. Conversely, and perhaps perversely, I have to ask if Spanish should be considered a foreign language within the United States. Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 was a pan-Asian film with the different actors speaking the language of their respective countries, even to each other. Invisible Waves flips that around with the characters primarily speaking English. For a brief while, the film was Thailand's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film even though there is hardly any Thai spoken.

invisible waves 2.jpg

Pen-Ek's film is about a Japanese chef in Macau, who is also the lover of his boss's wife. Sent on a cruise to Phuket by his boss, the chef, Kyoji, finds himself literally adrift, where he meets one of the few passengers, Noi, a woman with her own secrets. As in Last Life in the Universe, not all of the characters are who they claim to be. With the notable exception of a scene taking place in the boss's home, the settings for Invisible Waves are ramshackle, if not simply shabby. A major part of the film takes place on the decrepit boat. Whether battling an errant shower head, or a folding bed that won't stay down, Kyoji seems to be waging a losing war against the mechanical world. The deadpan humor of the sequence is reminiscent of a Jim Jarmusch character lost in the world envisioned by Jacques Tati.

Invisible Waves was written by Prabda Yoon who had also written Last Life in the Universe. Both films also had Tadanobu Asano as the lead character. In the latter film, some of the same ideas of identity are explored, but the narrative is stripped down, rendering the film more abstract and elliptical. Some of the more dramatic events are off screen, heard but not seen, or barely suggested by one or two quick shots. Adding to the effect of abstraction is that all of the settings are depopulated. Spaces may be cluttered with things, but there are very few people.

With a cast including the Korean Kang Hye-Jeong and Hong Kong mainstay Eric Tsang, whatever interest there is in Thailand or Thai identity is incidental to Invisible Waves. I had to wonder if the Thai committee responsible for making the film the official entry last year had actually seen the film or had based their decision on Pen-Ek's reputation with three previous entries. The replacement entry, Ahimsa: Stop to Run, is almost as unconventional in its story about a young man encountering karma in the form of a guy in a red track suit. What makes this choice stranger is that the film was released in Thailand in 2005. Pen-Ek wasn't considered for this year's Oscar race as Ploy was almost banned in Thailand due to sexual content. Those who have some awareness of Thai film were the least surprised that Chatrichalerm Yukol would have his film chosen to represent Thailand. Aside from being more traditional, the story about King Naresuan is a celebration about Thai identity. Additionally, Prince Chatri is a member of the Thai royal family which explains why the release of his two films on Naresuan were considered national events. When some film critics ask why certain films are anointed for Oscar consideration, it is not that the waves are invisible, but that closer observation is required.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 12, 2008 12:37 PM


The choice of Invisible Waves as Thailand's Oscar submission is shrouded in mystery, but its withdrawal had more to do with a beef at the time between Pen-ek's studio, Five Star Production, and the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, which at the time was dominated by the Sahamongkol Film clique.

Had the submission been allowed to go through, the film likely would have run into the same problem that The Band's Visit just faced.

I'm not sure why the bat-shit crazy Ahimsa was chosen. Perhaps the reason was political - coming from RS Film, it was a neutral choice, even if it did rule out other fine films from 2006 such as 13 Beloved (from Sahamongkol) or The Unseeable (Five Star). Dorm might have been a good compromise, since it came from neither Five Star or Sahamongkol, but Grammy Tai Hub.

Posted by: Curtis at February 13, 2008 02:47 AM

There may be gaps between the official reason for pulling Invisible Waves and what happened behind the scenes. I guess that if Chatri had finished part one of his Naresuan film on time for the December 2006 release, that would have been Thailand's entry.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at February 13, 2008 11:44 AM

I really want to see this. Last Life in the Universe was one of the best films I've seen in recent years and I really like the cast.

I've had problems with the Oscar category of Best Foreign Language Film for many years since I rarely agree with their selection or winners.

I was happy that the film Mongol with Asano was nominated this year only because it's another film I'm very curious about and I love Asano. I hope he'll show up at the Awards show in a tux so I can drool all over my TV.

Posted by: Kimberly at February 13, 2008 05:02 PM