Images from Invisible Waves.

The mysterious “monk” with the bandaged head who gives Kyoji  money, tickets, and instructions is played by veteran Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang.

Kyoji experiences a rare moment of human connection when he finds and tends to baby Nid, left alone by her affectionate but irresponsible mother Noi.

The stranger is immediately co-opted as Nid’s temporary caretaker when Noi wants to take a swim.

“Lizard,” the karaoke-loving, beer-drinking Japanese hitman, follows and observes all.

The philosophical bartender (note shark tank in the background) …

... looks like Kyoji’s father in the photo observed in an early scene of the film...

... and the man glimpsed in an elevator later.

Phuket is far from welcoming for Kyoji as evidenced by hotel room graffiti referencing The Shining.

The battered Kyoji has a series of narrow escapes.

Kyoji enjoys a last meal while resigning himself to fate.

The sea, an ambiguous motif throughout Invisible Waves, offers a final image before the film’s multilingual closing credits.


Scrutinizing the inscrutable in 4:30

As the Korean tenant Jung in 4:30, Kim’s first onscreen appearance is via an intense closeup of his face with unspoken sadness troubling his countenance. As the scene progresses, the Korean is revealed as unsuccessfully trying to hang himself, his act witnessed by the young Chinese Singaporean boy who also resides in the house. Xiao Wu obsessively harvests and records Jung’s found and stolen physical traces (a pubic hair, a photograph, tears on a tee-shirt). The film’s title refers to the boy’s nocturnal ritual time of entering the Korean man’s bedroom to spy on him (often drunk and in various states of collapsed or collapsing consciousness), inspect his body or belongings, or wait for his return.

With the most minimal dialogue, the film suggests a broken romantic relationship as the reason for Jung’s deep melancholy, but his alienation is also registered via his difficulty in communicating and understanding his life in Singapore. He works nights, smokes incessantly, takes pills (to sleep?), and listens to rueful music. He rarely speaks throughout the film: On one occasion he struggles to order an ice cream from a street vender; on another he speaks a few lines in Korean to the boy, tapping fingers to his head and heart. (“Do you know where people you love go when they die? In your head and in your heart.”) Tan deliberately does not translate any of the Korean in the film — such as song lyrics (moodily recounting a lovers’ walk along the sea) by the late Korean folk-singer Kim Kwang Seok or the man’s few utterances. Also, no translation is given for the few Korean characters the young man writes to the boy saying, “Thank you,” in a note after he leaves the boy a glass of orange juice and a cup of his favorite instant beef noodles. The effects of silence and unintelligibility are further distancing, even when it appears that the man and boy have begun to make some potential connections with each other.

Through various cinematic and narrative devices, Tan draws parallels between the lonely boy and his adult counterpart. In one ironic scene, disaffected Xiao Wu’s strident English-speaking teacher comments on Singaporean citizenship. Isolated student Jung also clearly never feels at home throughout, as a perpetual outsider or foreigner in this seemingly pluralistic society. On one of the few occasions when the boy’s absent mother (on business in mainland China) calls, she asks about the Korean “uncle”(a Mandarin term the boy uses throughout to refer to other adult male figures). And the boy writes an embroideredly fictional school composition about his hero, his Korean “dad” who seldom smiles and smells of “baby Johnson’s powder and beer.” The boy’s playful Singlish syntax likewise colors outside the lines of the “proper” grammatically-correct English promoted by the state (which launched an ongoing “Speak Good English Campaign” in 2000 under then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.) This scene is arguably as an indictment of intolerance of nonconformity in Singapore, as much as it is a critique of the inadequacies of the school system.

4:30’s mise en scene offers visual matches, such as the rare moment when the boy and man are wearing identical white tank tees and sitting together on the outside stairs; or when the boy and man alternately bathe in the tub when the other enters to urinate (a pattern naughtily subverted by the boy who turns from the toilet to pee in the tub). Additionally the boy inserts himself into the Korean’s life by replacing the man’s CD with a recording of his own voice, customizing the man's cigarette box, and mimicking the tenant's gesture of leaving food and drink for him with his own reciprocal offering.

While Korean masculinity is a source of near-fetishistic fascination through the voyeuristic gaze of the child (a child in critical need of role models), both man and boy are in a state of most desperate crisis. Arguably, in 4:30, Tan suggests a pathology of the hanryu phenomenon as "imagined cosmopolitanism" in a claustrophobic and dysfunctionally Sino-centric cultural economy.[8][open notes in new window] By the end of the film, the depressed Korean and all his residual artifacts have literally disappeared from the Singaporean “home” that was never his own.

Deciphering the ciphers in Invisible Waves

The appearance of a pretty young woman, Noi, played by Kang Hye-Jeong is initially an apparent bright spot in the increasingly miserable existence of Kyoji (Asano Tadanobu), a chef in a Japanese restaurant whose life is directed by his Thai employer (Toon Hiranyasap). After killing, at the boss’s bidding, the restaurateur/gangster’s Japanese wife (played by Japanese actress Tomono Kuga) with whom he’s been having an affair, Kyoji is dispatched on a “vacation” which takes him from Macau to Phuket, Thailand.

Kyoji’s hellish cabin imprisons him. And he is entrapped in ... ... conversation with a Japanese man who says he's a former schoolmate.

Noi, it seems, has also been conveniently/coincidentally sent away on the cruise trip by her boyfriend. Speaking in halting English throughout the film except for a few words when she writes down the digits of her telephone number (reciting them partially in Chinese with the last four digits in Korean), she takes notice of Kyoji on the ship’s deck and comments in halting English that she can tell he needs air and he looks as if he were seeing a ghost. The few Korean words she speaks and the charge of Kang’s persona are the only clear markers of Koreanness in the film.

Displaced and deterritorialized from their respective countries of origin and inhabiting unfamiliar environments and an underworld milieu where their native tongues are fairly useless and they are always “other,” the Japanese and Korean characters are reduced in their agency, drifting, and tentatively drawn to each other. In Kyoji’s interaction with Noi, he seems to respond to her simplicity as something potentially desirable, a release of sorts from all the anxiety and guilt caused by carrying out the boss’s orders. Noi’s singular unwittingness about everything, from appropriate and responsible ways to attend to her baby, to all criminal activity around her, is underscored in the diminutive meaning of her name in Thai. She shares this name with a (Thai) character in Pen-ek’s previous film The Last Life in the Universe, also scripted (or co-written, with director Pen-ek) by Thai writer Prabda Yoon. In fact, Noi’s baby’s name Nid, with another diminutive meaning, is also used in the previous film. In some press materials for the film and in its portfolio for the HKF Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (which describes Invisible Waves as “a truly pan-Asian film”),[9] it is suggested that Noi in Invisible Waves is both Thai and Korean, although the character and the star power of Korean actress Kang seem even more unsettled by this hybrid construction. Some members of the Korean audience for the film criticized the film's marketing strategies, emphasizing Kang’s participation in a movie that is mainly a showcase for Japanese star Asano. Some Korean critics compared this narrative to aspects of the Korean film A Bittersweet Life (directed by Kim Ji-woon, 2005) and Hye-Jung Kang’s character Noi to her role as Mido in Old Boy. That was the film that reportedly inspired Pen-ek to cast her, Park Chan-Wook’s Korean masterpiece.[10] Prior to working with Pen-ek, Asano Tatanobu had appeared in some forty films and with major Japanese directors (among them Kitano Takeshi, Oshima Nagisa, and Miike Takashi — and Miike actually plays a yakuza in Pen-ek’s Last Life in the Universe), often portraying perpetual loners, killers and/or depressives. Asano has himself been recognized as having a hint of exotic allure because of his mixed ancestry, an American maternal grandfather of Navajo heritage. Prior and subsequent to his two films to-date with Pen-ek, he also demonstrated his pan-Asian currency by starring in other hybrid productions including the French-titled Japanese/Taiwanese co-production Café Lumiere (directed by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2003) and the Central Asian Genghis Khan mega-epic Mongol (a Kazakh/Russian/Mongolian/German co-production helmed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, 2007).

As the narrative of Invisible Waves slowly unfurls, relations and interconnections between characters, newly and tentatively forged or suggested, contribute to a sense of a kind of purgatory of pan-Asian in-betweenness, corrupted by a financial system of exchange. One central bonding gesture in the couple's demi-courtship on the nearly desolate and from Koiji’s perspective absurdly bleak, decrepit, and labyrinthine ship is a tender moment of the two slow dancing with the baby. Noi discloses that she was sent on this trip as a “gift,” and Koiji is uncannily lured to his fate by an exchangeable woman he doesn’t yet realize is connected to his boss. Writing her cellphone number on a Hong Kong 100 dollar bill that Koiji gives her as note paper, she jokes that she loves it when men give her money, and she directs him not to “spend my number.”

Kyoji is told by Noi, "Don’t spend my number" ... ...  her cellphone number on a 100 dollar bill.

Kyoji is initially given money and a directive to leave Hong Kong by a mysterious monk with a bandaged head (played by Eric Tsang, whose accumulative roles in many triad-themes Hong Kong action films bear intertextually upon his fleeting and cryptic presence in this film). Later, after Kyoji is robbed and beaten up at his Phuket hotel, he phones his Thai boss for assistance and is directed to the cheerfully depraved karaoke-loving Lizard, played by Japanese actor Ken Mitsuishi who turns out to be a hitman and his designated executioner. Other Japanese characters that enter Kyoji’s surreal world that speak to his disconnectedness include a shipboard bartender who may be his father (he looks just like a photo in Kyoji’s former apartment) who serves him his drink of choice, milk (“such an innocent drink for someone like you”) and talks to him of guilt and atonement. Kyoji is also accosted shipboard by a man he doesn’t recognize, who claims to be a former classmate from Osaka: “Even the sea can seem so small.” Within the dystopic limbo of Invisible Waves, shared Japanese nationality — or any national, territorial, linguistic, or ethnic identity for that matter — does not guarantee a sense of comfort or loyalty. Nor does getting lost in the world, as Kyoji’s experiences are a nightmarish travesty of tourism.

After a chase, he lands from a fall in a dumptruck full of sand. After finding out about Noi’s relationship with his former boss, Kyoji is captured and held by gunpoint ...
... by Lizard and his men; he flees, is shot, and falls into the sea. The “resurrected” Kyoji feels like a homeless ghost.
He seeks revenge with gun or poison for his promised freedom, but still stirs the boss’s soup. Kyoji softens at the happiness he sees in the man looking forward to his future with Noi and Nid.

Conclusion: cinematic currents

Pan-Asianness and co-productive border-crossings are not a new phenomenon in Asian cinema. Sectors of independent and commercial/studio filmmaking and national cinemas themselves have been formed by issues of economics, geopolitics, and flows of people and capital. For example in Singapore’s film history, prominent influences in a city-state where movies have always been multicultural are Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Malay (as well as American and British).[11] The Korean hanryu has been described as another such influence, part of a larger “region-wide ‘reassertion of Asian identity…kind of a pan-Asianism.’”[12] In Royston Tan’s 4:30 and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, modes of production, film financing, and casting inform/are informed by unresolved and ambiguous cinematic narratives that traverse boundaries and deal critically and creatively with a variety of dislocations. Traces of national, linguistic, and ethnic identities become markers of difference and signifiers of alienation, loss, loneliness, and something akin to nostalgia. However, in each of these films, tentative bonds are formed that hint at the possibility of solace and redemption in interstitial pan-Asian environments. For their makers, spaces-in-between and floating lives open up cinematic possibilities.

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