Monday, December 10, 2007

Nang nak (Thailand, 1999)

The blurb on the DVD box touts Nonzee Nimibutr's 1999 film Nang nak as some sort of amplified Thai version of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), but a comparison of the two is a bit like comparing wine to beer: they are both alcohol, they can both taste good, and they both get you drunk, but beyond that they are completely different. Nang Nak and A Chinese Ghost Story are both films, and yes, they are both about ghosts that love and kill, and both have a number of jolts, but beyond that they have little in common: A Chinese Ghost Story is an over-the-top comedic horror oddity, Nang nak is a very non-amplified, low-key and tragic Buddhist ghost story. Anyone who pops the film into their DVD expecting a Thai version of deadly ghosts and demons with killer tongues is going to be sorely disappointed by the spiritual platitudes and the light use of special effects found in the Thai film. Anyone who is interested in seeing a truly unique and exotic film that manages to tread the fine line between the tragic and the ghostly, on the other hand, will probably find that Nang nak is a film worth watching. (In Thailand itself, the film broke the country's box office record upon its release, though it has since fallen to third place.)
The tale told in the film is based on a traditional myth of Thailand that is accepted by many as being true and which has been filmed numerous times (most recently as Ghost of Mae Nak, a splatter version made in 2005). Some web sources claim that Nimibutr's Nang nak is set in time of the Chiang Toong War of 1868, but although the story does obviously unfold sometime in the past, names and dates are never actually supplied. The country, however, is obviously still pre-industrial and a war is indeed raging somewhere far away from the peaceful and green rainforest home of Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and his beloved and pregnant wife Nak (Intira Jaroenpura).
Mak must leave his wife behind when he and his good friend Prig are called to war. In battle, Prig is killed and Mak is gravely wounded; he spends untold time on the verge of death in a Buddhist monastery and, upon his recuperation, returns to his beloved wife and child. An odd event indeed, seeing that the viewers not only saw her die while in labor but witnessed how the trusted midwife stole her valuables (needless to say, she pays for that later). Despite his ostracism by close past friends and the violent deaths of all those who attempt to tell him that his wife is dead, Mak enjoys his peaceful life on the river, unable to comprehend or believe that that which is so tactile and real before him could be anything other than his living, loving wife and child. The scene in which the village monk comes and attempts convince the disbelieving Mak otherwise is the first that reveals the true extent of Mak's blindness: the well-tended house and cooing baby that Mak sees around him has no relationship to the neglected, dried-out and empty ruin on which he sits as he speaks with the monk. But one day Mak can no longer ignore the talk and follows the monk’s advice for seeing the truth: he bends over and looks between his legs just in time to see Nak's arm stretch unnaturally far below the dilapidated hut to pick up a vegetable that fell through the floorboards. Horrified he takes shelter in a monastery, but is that enough to save him from his wife's loving but powerful and without doubt deadly ghost?
Nang nak is a wonderfully shot film with beautiful locations, excellent music and two highly attractive leads that are a pleasure to look at even if their acting abilities don't always successfully carry the weight the film could use. The heavy ladles of Buddhism that get served in the film are an exotic difference to the innately Christian-based horror films of the Western world, and if the film is often a bit too talkative and weepy to be effective as a scary film, it nonetheless still packs an occasional wallop.
The blood never spurts as copiously as in such Thai trash as Devil Species or Lizard Woman, but unlike those two films, Nang Nak obviously has artistic intentions despite being solidly anchored within the horror-film genre. And though the film might not gush blood, there are often extremely horrific images and Nak knows no mercy when venting her rage upon those who have wronged her or who she sees as trying to come between her and her man.
For all the horrific elements of the movie, Nang Nak remains much more a tragedy: it is a tale of a woman who loves her husband so much that she refuses to even let death come between them — nonetheless, in the end, she is forced to accept that the gap between them is truly too large to overcome. (But for all the tragedy her situation presents, Nak is so merciless in her revenge and anger that one sometimes has a hard time feeling sympathy for her plight....)

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