Ruang talok 69
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 28 January 2005
Source Palm Pictures DVD
While the international film criticule has been busy flirting with Taiwanese, then Iranian, and now Korean cinema as the “next big thing,” Thailand’s cinema has undergone a quiet yet significant revolution. Sure, the country’s film industry continues to manufacture heaps of Thai boxing epics, but a small group of more sophisticated filmmakers has emerged and they are making marvelous films with appeal beyond the borders of Asia.
If one were to make analogies between the new Thai filmmakers and the French Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul might be the Godard. His playfulness with form and narrative marks him as the Thai filmmaker most resistant to traditional commercial filmmaking, but his stories are often deeply rooted in Thai folklore. His recent features, Mysterious Object at Noon, Blissfully Yours, and Tropical Malady have been warmly received at international film festivals even as they had audiences in his home country and abroad scratching their heads at what they saw. Wisit Sasanatieng might be considered the group’s Claude Chabrol (even though he is infinitely less prolific). Wisit’s second film, The Tears of the Black Tiger was the first Thai film to play at the Cannes Film Festival and was thus the first inkling that Western audiences got that something new and interesting was going on in Southeast Asia. It was also the first film from this group of filmmakers to meet with the notorious indifference of American distributors—Miramax bought the US distribution rights to the film at Cannes and it has been locked up in their vault ever since.
If the group has a Truffaut, it would have to be Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. His recent films, 6ixtynin9 (1999), Mon Rak Transistor (2001), and Last Life in the Universe (2003), have been the most successful films from the group in terms of widespread distribution and critical acclaim. Like Truffaut, his films are character-driven, stick closely to traditional story-telling techniques, and are inhabited by people who live simple, quotidian lives yet who often have extraordinary things happen to them. Last Life in the Universe tells the tale of a fastidious Japanese librarian who gets involved emotionally with a disorderly Thai woman, Mon Rak Transistor is an account of a young man from the country who wins the Thai equivalent of American Idol, and 6ixtynin9 details what happens to a woman who, just after having been laid off from her job, finds a box containing $25,000 outside her door.
Each of these films features a narrative that develops from a moment of chance, and each is characterized by Pen-Ek’s idiosyncratic, often wild, shifts in tone. A moment of tender romance can be followed swiftly by a scene of slapstick comedy, which in turn can be followed by a violent shock. Pen-Ek’s casual pacing and aloof camera technique smooth out the rough edges to a point where never knowing what might occur next becomes all but a familiar narrative style. This technique is not unique to Pen-Ek, however, and so it is easy to see, particularly in 6ixtynin9, where he borrowed liberally from American independent films of the 1990s. In fact, 6ixtynin9 often feels like the kind of post-Pulp Fiction movie so full of clever coincidences and too many guns that so quickly became a tiresome cliché in American independent film after the release of Tarantino’s big success. While abrupt fluctuations in tone are part of the charm of Pen-Ek’s films, in 6ixtynin9 it is what undermines the strength of the film. Instead of being unpredictable and thrilling, it feels erratic and uneven—a whole comic subplot about the heroine’s best friend’s cheating boyfriend eats up nearly twenty minutes of the film’s running time and ends, unresolved, with the friend getting shot to death.
The film is worth watching, especially if you are a fan of the new Thai cinema or have seen Pen-Ek’s more recent films (both of which I recommend over this one), but it is probably best viewed as an example of how a young directorial talent twists the conventions of mainstream cinema just enough to make a non-mainstream film but not enough to alienate a mainstream audience. It is slight, but entertaining; patchy, but not a total mess. All the same, it is almost guaranteed to be better than the forthcoming remake directed by the guy who made The Lizzie McGuire Movie.