Saturday, January 22, 2005

BKKIFF 2005 review: Pisaj (Evil)

  • Directed by Chukiat Sakweerakul
  • Starring: Ammara Assawanon, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Theeranai Suwanhom, Alexander Simon Randell
  • Released in Thailand cinemas in 2004; in the Asean Competition at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival

With the Thai government's drug war as a subtext, Pisaj (Evil) is a far smarter thriller than it appears.

The story involves Oui (Pumwaree Yodkamol), a big-eyed young woman who turns up at the door of her aunt Bua. The aunt lives in a shophouse and runs a printing plant in the building. She lives upstairs on the third floor. Bua is given the job of caring for her nephew, Bua's grandson, Arm, as well as cleaning the place. There's a fourth floor, but nobody lives up there, because, well you know, it might be haunted.

Arm (Simon Randell) is a tough little kid, but he seems kind of strange. Turns out he sees - what else? - dead people. He forbids Oui from using a cabinet to store her things because ghosts live there.

Things go bump in the night. "We must have cats again," says Auntie Bua when the three of them are eating and something makes noise on the vacant floor above.

Oui is haunted by the vision of her parents being killed, which she witnessed on the roadside when the family had stopped to change a tire. A couple guys on a motorcycle walked up. Now Oui sees one of the motorcycle men. She needs to take tranquilizers to get some sleep, but even those don't seem to help. The motorcycle man slits her throat and she lays bleeding on the floor.

The tale gets weirder and weirder. Auntie Bua wants Arm to finish all the liver on the plate. Arm can't stomach it. He eats a piece of liver and pukes it up in the sink. What the heck is that all about? Arm has some strange scars on his back. He had a nanny before, who locked him in the bathroom and left him there. So now he's scared to use the toilet at night. He uses the cabinet instead. Did she put those scars on his back? What is he scared of?

Well, Arm has acknowledged that there are ghosts in the building. But if you see them, he advises, do not acknowledge that they exist, because they don't know they exist. Understand? Also, there are some spooky noises being made. Oooooooooo.

Auntie Bua has something weird going on. Turns out she's a mystic or a physic, involved in some sort of Indian mysticism. She has a whole shrine set up in her house, which is not unusual in Thailand. But as is noted later, there's not a Buddha image to be found in the room.

The suspense ratchets up when one day Oui and Arm are locked in the house with no way to get out. They do get some help from one of the print-shop workers (Theeranai Suwanhom, from Goal Club), who brings them some food. Later, he breaks into the place, though it is unclear how he got in.

It seems there are ghosts in the print shop. One of them gets in a cabinet Arm is hiding in, and he can't ignore her because she's all bloody and has blood drooling from her mouth. Then granny, Auntie Bua, comes home. She's in her full Indian Goddess regalia. She seems to be in some sort of trance and pulls out a sword and starts stabbing things. The print shop guy (can't remember his character's name) climbs in the cabinet and tries to use his phone. He calls the print shop and the ghosts answer. He tries to call the cops and his phone dies, of course. Why didn't he call the cops first? Well, Auntie Bua is stabbing the cabinet.

When the story resolved itself, I was left wondering what the heck I'd just seen. Was it all an illusion, a dream, a nightmare? Very strange. But I enjoyed it.

I especially enjoyed watching Pumwaree Yodkamol, a slight young woman with an expressive face. She was the female lead in Ong-Bak, and played a one-dimensional character. Here, she had a chance to show her acting chops. There was another actress, too, who I believe portrays a Karen hilltribe woman in the comedy, Jaew, who I enjoyed was well.

What really struck me was how there would be a television or radio playing the background and news about the 2003-04 drug war would come on, citing deaths and concerns by human rights groups. I can't help but wonder if this was a statement by the filmmakers, branding the drug war as "evil" by virtue of it being mentioned in a movie titled "evil". Maybe the ghosts on the fourth floor were victims of the drug war.

I've been thinking about this movie since watching it. I now feel that it didn't go far enough. Though there's a subtext about the drug war, it didn't directly have anything to do with the action on the screen. This connection should have been made, and made strong. As it was, the action was all goofy, with people running around, and that Indian mystic waving her sword around. But it still didn't go far enough either way - being a campy comedy, or a serious, scary thriller.

Though confusing at times, I did feel a pretty high level of suspense, and was entertained as well. It appears this film has gone to VCD without so much as a peep (or English subtitles). I hope it gets more international recognition, though.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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