“6ixtynin9″ is an early film from Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who has recently won acclaim for “Last Life in the Universe”, his stunning slice of cross-culture ambience. “6itynin9″ has actually been around for a few years on the festival and art house cinema circuit, having won prizes at the Berlin and Hong Kong events, and has helped to introduce Western audiences to the fact that there is more to Thai cinema than the ghost stories of the Pang Brothers. Strangely enough, the literal English language translation of the film’s title is “Funny Story Six Nine”, which although perhaps not as intriguing, actually makes a great deal more sense, as “6ixtynin9″ is not a sex film, but rather a dark comedy about fate and corpse disposal. Lack of skin aside, the film is unlikely to disappoint fans of Asian cinema, being well directed and intricately plotted, and despite a few unfortunate failings, it stands as a minor gem which is well worth watching.
The plot begins as a young woman named Tum (Lalita Panyopas) is fired from her secretary job after choosing unfortunately during an unemployment sweepstake. Devastated by this, she returns home to her apartment, only to find a mysterious box containing a great deal of money on her doorstep. The actual reason behind the box’s appearance is the fact that Tum’s apartment number on her door habitually falls down, making it seem like a ’9′ instead of a ’6′. The money has been mistakenly left by a couple of low-rent Thai kickboxing gangsters, who soon come calling once they realise their mistake. Despite the obvious danger, Tum lies about having found the money, a decision which sends her into a complex whirlpool of deception and violence.
“6ixtynin9″ is a film driven by its plot rather than its characters, and is basically a series of interwoven events which act as an increasingly dire trap for the central protagonist. Ratanaruang, who also wrote the script, expertly escalates the tension, and the film is very engaging, being clever enough to keep the viewer guessing as to what will happen next. Ratanaruang also has a very talented eye for the surreal, and adds an air of randomness to the film’s events which establishes quite early on that the narrative is unlikely to stick to the conventions of the thriller genre. Fate plays a very large part in this, and Ratanaruang quite neatly sidesteps the fact that the plot does rely quite heavily on coincidence through its layers of spiritual and moral choice, and as a result the film most resembles a sort of karmic obstacle course.
The problem with this approach is that Ratanaruang never really fleshes out the main character, leaving her at the mercy of, and indeed for the viewer to define her through the film’s events. Although we are given a sense of her desperation at losing her job, the viewer learns very little about her, and as such never really cares too much about what will happen to her, or whether her choices will lead to her eventual salvation or destruction. This does give the film a rather cold, at times rather ruthless feel, which does sit comfortably with its broad streak of black humour, though it also means that a few moments which had the potential to be quite moving instead falls flat.
The other characters in the film are basically a series of thinly sketched, amusing anecdotes that exist solely as cogs in the narrative machine or as punch lines for the myriad subplots. Thankfully, Ratanaruang manages to create a cast of amusing, disparate miscreants, most of whom are used effectively, and who are in their own ways quite charming.
Ratanaruang is an excellent director, and “6ixtynin9″ is a visually captivating experience, packed full of local scenery and colour, which gives it a distinctly different feel to similarly plotted thrillers from other Asian countries. The direction is a comfortable mix of flashy editing and traditional story telling techniques, which keeps things moving at a fast, almost break-neck pace, whilst never allowing things to slump into vacuous showing off.
The film is a little rough around the edges, as Ratanaruang relies too much on the trick of deceiving the viewer by playing out the main character’s fantasies, before showing what actually happens (a device he would put to far better use in “Last Life in the Universe”), and on cutting away from the action at vital junctures. However, neither these relatively minor criticisms, nor the lack of a real emotional core are enough to detract from what is a well-plotted and slick film, which is recommended to all fans of Asian cinema.
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (director) / Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (screenplay)
CAST: Lalita Panyopas …. Tum
Prompop Lee …. Shop owner
Black Phomtong …. Kanchit