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Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001

'6IXTYNIN9'

Lock, stock and instant noodles


Here's a word association game for you. What comes to mind when you hear "Thai cinema?" A blank? Don't worry -- in Japan, you're hardly alone.

The few Thai films to make it this far north have usually been auteur efforts with a serious humanist or historical theme that play to a small circle of Asian film buffs. But in recent years, young Thaidirectors more interested in pleasing a general audience or examining the chaos of modern urban life have been moving to the forefront and gaining wider recognition both at home and abroad.

One is Nonzee Nimibutr, whose 1999 film "Nang Nak," a lushly photographed, creepily atmospheric horror film based on a Thai legend about the vengeful ghost of a loyal wife, outpaced "Titanic" at the local box office. Another is Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, whose 1996 film "Fun, Bar, Karaoke" was a frantically paced film about a middle-aged Thai karaoke fan's obsession with a Chinese gangster's moll, and his daughter's affair with the gangster's half-American henchman, with consequences both violent and absurd.

Now Ratanaruang, whose day job is a TV commercial director, has returned with "6ixtynin9," another film with an odd, if intriguing, English title. While the high-octane plot has a black comedy slant, Ratanaruang manages, between murders, to examine the discomforts and dislocations of contemporary urban society, Thai style.

Ratanaruang, who also wrote the script, has fun with this material, giving us a plump, sybaritic underworld fixer with long, lovingly combed tresses and a fondness for lengthy massage sessions with an attentive young underling. But he doesn't overdo it, the way a young Japanese director might. Though unabashed entertainment, "6ixtynin9" is not a cartoon. The story of a young woman caught in a deadly trap of crime and circumstance, it unfolds at a natural, even languid, pace, and keeps a steady focus on its heroine's admirably persevering, if at times distressingly saturnine, character.

Thrown to the bottom of a mine shaft, she would manage to claw her way out, even if she had to step on a body or two on the way up. She has, we eventually see, a good heart, but she wants, more than anything, to survive.

The story begins, the way so many have since the meltdown of the Thai economy, with a securities company on the financial ropes and its hapless employees taking it on the chin. One is Tum (Lalita Panyopas), an office worker who loses a restructuring lottery and ends up on the street.

After failing several attempts at suicide, including the consumption of every liquid under her kitchen sink, she wakes the next morning to find, in front of her door, an instant ramen carton. Hauling it inside, she finds it crammed, not with noodles, but with cash -- 1 million baht to be exact. Her troubles seem to be over, but actually they have only begun.

The money, it turns out, is gang loot that was supposed to be delivered to Apartment 9 but, because of a slipped door number, ended up in front of Apartment 6 -- Tum's. Two gangsters soon come calling, but instead of giving them their missing money, Tum plays dumb. When they break in and begin tossing her rooms, she gets angry. Before long, the two punks have come to violent, if improbable, ends.

What to do? She thinks of calling the cops, but they will cart away her newfound fortune. If she does nothing, though, its unrightful owners will pay another visit. Then she glances at a plate decorated with the smiling face of her idol -- Princess Diana -- and decides to escape to England. First, though, she has to get rid of two bodies and come up with a plane ticket, visa and passport.

Hardly easy tasks, especially when Tum goes to Kanjit (Black Phomtong), the aforementioned fixer, for the last two items -- and he turns out to be the intended recipient of the carton's contents. He begins to put two and two together and Tum becomes his prey. Add to this dangerous complication a nosy neighbor who comes calling at one inconvenient moment, and a best friend whose love life takes a disastrous turn at another. How can a girl cope?

Lalita Panyopas, a former advertising art director who also starred in Ratanaruang's "Fun, Bar, Karaoke," underplays Tum to erotically cool, humorously unflappable effect. A tall, slender beauty who has become, in her mid-30s, a popular idol in Thailand, Panyopas may color her character a shade too gray -- she barely changes her expression of grim determination from scene to scene -- but her interpretation also has the ring of truth, as well as a refreshing comic undercurrent.

What, after all, is wiping pools of blood from the bathroom floor but the dirtiest of dirty jobs? That Panyopas does it as though she were cleaning gunk from a shower drain somehow humanizes it, while leavening its horror.

Panyopas is ably supported by Phomtong as the fixer, Sirisin Siripornsmathikul as the nosy neighbor and Tasanawalai Ongarittichai as the frantic friend. They color what would have otherwise been the blackest of black comedies.

I was, however, a bit disappointed in the ending. There is a rule in films like this about the final disposal of ill-gotten gains, one that perhaps must be followed if the heroine is to remain sympathetic, but in Tum's case is unfortunate nonetheless. After all that hard work, I wanted to see her not honest, but rich. Maybe in her next reincarnation -- or when the Thai economy finally comes round.

"6ixtynin9" is playing until Jan. 26 at Cinema Square Tokyu, Shinjuku.


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