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Retrospective captures sensibilities of heralded Thai director

In the film “6ixtynin9” from Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, a small misunderstanding has far-reaching consequences. It is one of the films that will be shows at the Freer Gallery as part of a retrospective honoring Ratanaruang. (Courtesy Palm Pictures/Courtesy Palm Pictures)

How much mayhem can spill out of a noodle carton? A lot, as Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s film “6ixtynin9” tells it.

In the black-comic thriller — the celebrated Thai director’s 1999 breakout movie — a set of gangsters mistakenly leave a money-filled noodle carton outside a young woman’s apartment. The mix-up has a tiny cause; a missing nail has made her apartment number, “6,” look like a “9.” But it has vast consequences: She opts to keep the cash, precipitating an avalanche of zany carnage inside her tiny home and beyond.

“6ixtynin9” is just one of the offerings in “Dreams, Hallucinations, and Nightmares: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang,” a retrospective that will screen at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. The Royal Thai Embassy is co-sponsoring the series, which begins on Sept. 13 with “Headshot,” the moody 2011 crime drama that the director has called his “Buddhist film noir.” Ratanaruang will attend the opening event, which will include a reception with food provided by the embassy.

Ratanaruang likes to blend “genre movies with more thoughtful art-movie aesthetics,” observes Tom Vick, curator of film for the Freer and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

That said, his films are varied: “Nymph” is a love-triangle ghost story; “Ploy” explores a troubled marriage; “Last Life in the Universe” has been compared to Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” Vick notes that the movies often share a sense of reality’s fluidity. Dream sequences periodically interrupt the action in “6ixtynin9,” for instance, while the hard-charging violence of “Headshot” occasionally cedes to Buddhist imagery and impossibly serene rural vistas. “You never know when you’re slipping in and out of reality” in Ratanaruang’s films, Vick says.

Reached by phone in Bangkok, where he lives, the 52-year-old Ratanaruang recalled drawing inspiration in the early stages in his career from directors Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. He became a fan of those auteurs during the years he spent in New York in his late teens and early 20s, studying art history at the Pratt Institute and haunting local movie houses. After returning to Thailand, he worked in advertising, then — encouraged by a stint directing commercials — ventured into feature film. “Fun Bar Karaoke” (1997), which Ratanaruang describes as his “love letter to Bangkok,” made waves with its edgy style and vision.

“He was at the forefront of a generation of Thai filmmakers who really revitalized the industry” in that country, Vick says.

Recently, Ratanaruang says, he has become more politically conscious. “Headshot” dealt with the issue of corruption, and last year’s documentary, “Paradoxocracy,” (co-directed by Pasakorn Pramoolwong) examined Thai politics.

Looking back on his early cinematic crushes, Ratanaruang remembers that, before he began directing, he found Fellini’s and Bergman’s movies intimidating. “Those guys are genius,” he says. “I didn’t think normal people could make cinema.”

But he drew confidence from Allen’s churn-them-out routine. “When I decided to make my first film, I was encouraged by his way of working,” Ratanaruang says. “You don’t have to be afraid of not making a masterpiece.”

A time for artistic indulgences

The Ratanaruang retrospective is not the only multi-pronged world-culture celebration heading our way. Artisphere in Arlington is gearing up for its three “Superstars of Mali” concerts, kicking off on Sept. 12 with a performance by Vieux Farka Touré, the guitarist who has been called “the Hendrix of the Sahara.”

The series continues Oct. 3 with music by Toumani Diabaté and Sidiki Diabaté, a father-son duo; the former is particularly well known for giving international exposure to the kora, a 21-string West African harp, while the son, who also plays the kora, is a Malian hip-hop star.

Finally, Oct. 24 will bring Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Blues; Kouyate is a virtuoso of the ngoni — an African lute that is an ancestor of the banjo — and he has pushed the instrument into new musical territory, with the help of a groundbreaking band built around four ngonis.

The lineup acquires particular resonance from recent events. Mali is renowned for its rich musical tradition, having produced international luminaries such as the late Ali Farka Touré (Vieux’s guitarist father) and as home to the Festival in the Desert.

But Islamist militants who took over northern portions of the country in 2012 banned more or less all music and drove many musicians into exile. A 2013 French military intervention was credited with helping Mali’s government push the militants back, and the country subsequently held an election. But instability and sporadic violence have continued in the north. The festival’s Web site proclaims itself “still in exile.” Coming after these events, the “Superstars of Mali” programming feels like a dramatic testament to the significance and resilience of the nation’s music.

For his part, Toumani Diabaté — reached by phone in Bamako — said, “I have to keep doing my music because that is the gift from God.”

The turmoil in Mali has been just one instance of recent conflict tormenting the world, he pointed out.

“I’m not happy with what’s happening in Mali. I’m not happy with what’s happening in central Africa, what’s happening in Ukraine. Humanity is suffering.” He sees music as a way to help suffering people reclaim a little joy.

Speaking of joy, he said he’s thrilled to be collaborating with his eldest son. The two musicians recently released an album of kora duets, “Toumani & Sidiki.” The Diabaté family is a traditional griot clan with a legacy stretching back generations. Given that Sidiki has made a name in hip-hop, too, the collaboration is “like the past meets the present for the future,” Diabaté says.

Looking beyond his own family’s achievements, he observes that musicians “are the memory of West Africa.” Some of that memory will soon land in Arlington.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Dreams, Hallucinations, and Nightmares: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Sept. 13-28 at the Freer Gallery of Art’s Neyer Auditoirum. Visit

Superstars of Mali. Vieux Farka Touré (Sept. 12); Toumani Diabaté & Sidiki Diabaté (Oct. 3); Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Blues (Oct. 24). At the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Visit or call (888) 841-2787.

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