Saturday, February 19, 2005

DVD Review: 6ixtynin9

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

I find myself ambivalent about 6ixtynin9, or A Funny Story About 6 and 9 as the film is also known. This film was made by a celebrated Thai director, Pen-Ek Tatanaruang, who also made Last Life in the Universe.

It's as though this movie is trying to be two, or even three, kinds of film at once but not really melding things into a proper alloy. The DVD box bills it as a comic thriller, but I found it dangerously indecisive. Sometimes it's a comedy, and a funny one; sometimes it's a gangster film, and a fair one; sometimes it's a horror movie, and not a particularly distinguished one. You can feel that this movie was supposed to be darkly comic, but it just doesn't gel. If I had to pin it down, I'd call it a gangster thriller, with comedy shoehorned in.

The movie is the story of Tum (pronounced like "doom"), who as the movie opens is laid off from her job. She faces money problems now and she's suicidal. The next morning, she finds a noodle box full of cash ($25,000!) at her front door. It's the answer to a prayer until the gangsters who left it there by mistake -- the number 9 on her door keeps slipping down to look like a 6, hence the movie's title -- want it back. They muscle into her apartment and try to rough her up. Tum displays the usual movie pluck, and kills them both.

After that, it's a long train of mistaken identities, incompetent thugs, crossed purposes and a growing pile of bodies in her tiny apartment as two rival gangs, the police, friends and her nosy neighbors get involved. Through it all, Tum keeps dealing with it, coping and trying to get ahead. The situation builds and builds until one death too many pushes her to the edge and then a massive Mexican standoff makes her ultimate decision for her.

Remember: if you are in the middle of a multi-party Mexican standoff, make sure the phone is turned off.

Had this been played as a dark thriller with horror overtones, it would have been a movie like Audition or The Eye, films with cool surfaces and calm characters riding a rising tide of fear and horror until the climactic violence interrupts. Had the violence and death been downplayed and the comic side frenzied up, this would have been a caper comedy like any number of films Hollywood churns out. But the film's languid pacing and deliberately unfurled, refolding narrative keep the comedy from building a momentum necessary to comic success. The opposite applies: the comic interludes keep the movie from sustaining the horrific mood a thriller needs.

I may be over-examining this. Certainly a lot of the reviews I saw while getting the above links like the movie as a comic thriller. To me, this is two movies chopped up and tumbled together.

That said, the parts where Tum must deal with the gangsters out to get her do have a constantly building tension. Her face-offs with the individual thugs display her cool pragmatism. No matter what happens, she deals with it. That drive helps to propel the movie even as new complications arise.

And the comedy is really funny, prompting me to guffaw many times. Not to ruin things, but the thug who sees a cop hidden behind a door, not realising he's a corpse, leaps into a hilarious parody of Hong Kong gun ballet. The nosy neighbors are three chattery women who have an obsession with Tum's (supposed) sex life that includes graphic demonstrations of what they think she's doing. They were surprising considering how chaste Asian mainstream cinema usually is.

Technically, this is a well-done film. Varied locations around Bangkok are used to great effect, showing us the everyday lower-middle class side of this exotic Western holiday city. The lighting scheme in Tum's apartment helps make the small space interesting no matter the angle. The locations and sets are numerous, which I enjoyed for some reason. There's no question the director is in charge of his movie and most of his materials. He occasionally takes us into a few character daydreams as though they are part of the real action, an effective device.

There's also a lot of blood. It's not gory, but plentiful. This being an Asian comedy, it's bright red. But if blood is a problem, beware.

I keep coming back to the uncomfortable fit between the comedy and the thriller halves of the movie. I would recommend this movie to anyone who can be tolerant of faults. It is both tense and funny by turns. Around the hour mark, I reconciled myself to the dichotomous nature of this movie, settled in to see how it played out and had a good time. But if your tolerance level isn't there, you will likely find this movie disorienting or tiring.

One word about the star, Lalita Panyopas. She is, to borrow a phrase from the gang at Ain't It Cool News, a tomboy beanpole. She resembles a tall Karen Mok; cute, thin and muscular. But she seems to have only one expression: pained confusion. For most of the movie it works well enough in its small variations, but the few times we see her smile, it's a sudden surprise.

Another warning: Thai women's voices tend to be high and nasal, at least in this film. When the characters get angry or agitated it makes for an ear-scraping experience with the vowel-inflecting Thai language. Two scenes came close to painful for me.

I have to caution possible viewers about the subtitles. The movie has a lot of dialogue in spots, and sometimes the subtitles come thick and fast. It may be difficult for people not used to them. A combination of bad spelling and sometimes weird mistranslations doesn't help. Also, one character is deaf. When he uses sign language to communicate, there's a black bar that appears on the screen where, apparently, Thai script was inserted. That's not on the American DVD.

There are no extras on the disk, save some previews of other Lion's Gate films and this movie's Thai trailer. That trailer includes a few scenes and shots either deleted from the American version of the movie or not used at all.

As you can guess by now, I'll recommend this movie to fans of gangster or plucky-heroine movies, or those who just enjoy Asian films in general. I did enjoy it once I "got" it. More mass audiences may be put off by the inconsistent tone of the movie. If you're not sure -- give it a chance anyway. The parts are good even if the whole may not be.

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