THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

6ixtynin9 (***)

Ruang Talok 69 (เรื่องตลก 69)
Thailand, 1999, 115 minutes
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Lalita Panyopas, Sirisin Siripornsmathikul, Prompop Lee, Surapong Mekpongsathorn, Tasanawalai Ongartittichai, Black Phomtong, Sritao, Arun Wannarbodeewong

On the heels of rewatching Pen-Ek Raranaruang's 2003 masterpiece Last Life in the Universe (aka Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan or เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล), I discovered the director's earlier black comedy 6ixtyni9 (Ruang Talok 69, 1999) - thanks to also discovering that I got free movies on the Sundance Channel as part of Comcast's Digital On Demand service. I've never understood all the channels I get on digital cable, boorishly confining my viewing to Turner Classic Movies, MSNBC, the two all-soccer channels (Fox and Gol TV), and The Tennis Channel. But, considering my outrageous monthly cable bill, I'm going to have to take advantage of all the free movies I found listed On Demand.

This movie is far froma masterpiece, with its tone fluctuating unevenly between comedy and drama, but it has a fine performance by lead Lalita Panyopas and shows the early but as-yet-unrefined promise of a developing auteur in search of the stylistic flourishes that would finally come to fruition in 2003's Last Life in the Universe.

I read a review on the wonderful Twitch website that sums it up better than my words could:
As any fan of Asian film can tell you there are two major film producing countries on the rise right now. While Hong Kong is trying to fight their way out of a massive industry decline triggered by the reversion to Chinese rule and Japan seems content to hold steady the film cultures of Korea and Thailand have exploded to the forefront, both in terms of quantity and quality of the films being produced. And without a doubt one of Thailand’s brightest lights is writer / director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.

Ratanaruang exploded onto the international scene with the absolutely stunning Last Life in the Universe, a film sensation that triggered a rush to track down his earlier works. Monrak Transistor – his 2001 effort – was still in print and easy enough to come by, but 1999’s 6ixtynin9 proved much more elusive with only a grainy Hong Kong produced VCD edition available on a fairly limited basis. But 6ixtynin9 proved to be one of those little films that just wouldn’t go away. Lauded in its own country – the film was Thailand’s Oscar submission that year – it tended to win converts whenever someone was lucky enough to track a copy down and it continued to grow in reputation until the good folks at Palm Pictures picked up rights for a North American release.

But enough of the background. What about the film? Lalita Panyopas stars as Tum, a low ranking employee in a Bangkok financial services firm – an industry sector that has been hit hard by an economic recession. Tum arrives at work one morning to find an impromptu staff meeting in session. The firm has been forced to lay off three employees and, unwilling to single anyone out for termination, the unlucky trio is decided by drawing lots. Tum, of course, is one of the unlucky three sent packing. This places her in a horrible situation. She has been financially supporting her parents and younger siblings and is now a single woman with no support network and little to no chance of finding legitimate work in the midst of the current hard times. Faced with the real prospect of having to turn to prostitution to make ends meet Tum begins shoplifting and fantasizing about suicide. Until one morning she discovers a box left outside her door, a box full of money, and sees a possible way out for herself. Here enters the continual case of mistaken identity brought on by a faulty apartment door number (the film’s title is a play on this), rival gangs, illegal passports, dope smoking youth, over exuberant police officers, nosy neighbors, an amputation and rather a lot of blood.

The summary makes 6ixtynin9 sound like a fairly busy, high energy film but like all of Ratanaruang’s other films it is actually a very quiet, meditative piece. Much like Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ratanaruang loves to dress his films up in genre convention when they are actually psychological mood pieces. The gangsters are window dressing, what really matters here is that Tum is a woman in an incredibly difficult situation with some harsh moral decisions to make. How will she bear up under the stress? What path will she choose? The obvious point of comparison is Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave – a film that shares several significant plot points – but where Boyle’s film revolves around issues of greed Ratanaruang’s turns on desperation. How far are you willing to go to survive?

Key to making the film work is Panyopas’ performance as Tum and she does an admirable job charting Tum’s progression from a woman caught up by forces beyond her control into becoming one of those forces herself. She is giving very little dialogue to work with and has to rely on body language, frequently carrying her character entirely through her eyes. She has a quiet sense of grace and strength to her, more than enough to allow you to buy into the wildly excessive situation Ratanaruang drops her in to.

Where the film struggles a little bit is in the balancing of humor with the darker, more serious elements. Ratanaruang has a bit of a dreamer in him, as well as a healthy dose of absurdism, and he struggled to mesh those impulses with the ‘real-world’ feeling he also wants to maintain in his films until he finally struck a perfect balance with Last Life. There are some awkward moments here where you can tell he’s aiming for humor but the situation is paced and played just a little too realistically to laugh, and also some character moments that just don’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. Which is not to say that 6ixtynin9 isn’t a good film – it is, very – but fans of Last Life will need to approach this as an example of a master still learning and experimenting with his craft rather than coming in expecting the degree of balance, polish and subtlety of his most recent work.

As for the DVD itself it is short on extras with only a trio of trailers and some web links but it sports an excellent, high quality transfer of the film itself. There are some small amounts of film grain, the occasional speck of dust or hair on the print but this is far superior to any version I’ve seen in the past and is most likely the best this film is ever going to look on DVD. The one somewhat jarring aspect of the film transfer was the choice to black out areas of the screen where Thai subtitles originally appeared. This happens very rarely and I can only assume that the Thai prints available for the DVD transfer had these original subtitles burned directly into the film and the blacking out was required to allow the English subtitles to overlay without interference. The English subtitles have the occasional problem with grammar and spelling but are perfectly serviceable and easy to read.

- Posted by Todd at January 4, 2005 07:54

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