Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: Buppha Rahtree 3.2: Rahtree Revenge

  • Directed by Yuthlert Sippapak
  • Starring Chermarn Boonyasak, Mario Maurer
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 20, 2009 (rated 18+)
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Nothing is what it seems in Buppha Rahtree 3.2: Rahtree Revenge. Confusion leads to surprising coherence and closure. Comedy meets horror, with guffaws giving way to gushing blood. And then there's moments that will be permanently seared into your brain -- the kind of scene that probably wouldn't have been possible without Thailand's new ratings system, of which Buppha Rahtree 3.2 is the first Thai film to come under. And in that regard, it's a triumph for writer-director Yuthlert Sippapak -- finally he gets to make the movie he's always wanted to make and stick it to the man.

Going into Buppha Rahtree 3.2 (บุปผาราตรี 3.2) , the fourth installment in Yuthlert's ghost-comedy franchise that follows closely after the April release of Buppha Rahtree 3.1, it's perhaps better if you forget everything you think you know or remember about the first two movies, 2003's Buppha Rahtree (Scent of the Night Flower) and 2005's Buppha Rahtree Phase 2: Rahtree Returns. With 3.1, Yuthlert essentially rebooted the series, or at the very least remixed it.

I didn't care for 3.1 much at all. I found it too disjointed, overly confusing and uncomfortable to watch as it lurched clumsily from slapstick to splatter and back again. But without 3.1, 3.2 wouldn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense.

Buppha Rahtree 3.2 picks up immediately where 3.1 left off. There's a man's corpse in one of the apartments, and the rescue squad is there bundling him up. Two policemen are outside in their vehicle. They are apprehensive about going in, with good reason -- they've been there before. They are none other than Thailand's answer to the buddy-cop comfort food of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife -- Adirek "Uncle" Wattaleela and Boonthin Thuaykaew, who've portrayed the comic duo of policemen in the first Buppha Rahtree and have since made cameo appearances in character in several other movies. The laughter ensues as the policemen pair go in to question the dead man's cross-eyed chubby girlfriend and convince her give them all the details -- down to the last inch -- about her life with the man, because, you know, anything could be helpful.

Meanwhile, Buppha ("Ploy" Chermarn Boonyasak) is sadly going about her existence, frumping about the Oscar Apartments building in her baggy pajamas. For a ghost who's been stuck in the tenement limbo for six years now, she looks surprisingly normal. It's hard to be certain she's actually dead. Her new neighbor from down the hall, Rung (Mario Maurer), keeps knocking on her door. The young cartoonist college student says Buppha tutored him when he was a boy, and he needs help with math and science again. But Buppha demurs. "Now is a not a good time for me," she says. Their exchanges are enigmatic, sad and dispassionate.

Rung pursues the mysterious Buppha even though his three schoolmates have warned him about her, and have vowed to stay away from his apartment -- the last time they were over for a visit, they were attacked by a razor-blade-wielding little girl, and one guy had his ear sliced off. He's had it sewn back on and can hear better than ever.

The action gets to stirring when that wrapped-up man's corpse stands up and starts hopping around, making everyone who sees it run around and scream.

In the midst of this corpse hopping around, and that mysterious little razor-blade girl still lurking, the apartment block's landlady Miss Third and her running-shorts clad casino operator (Kom Chuanchuen) are trying to stage a high-stakes dice roll in another part of the building.

The police have been tipped off to the illegal game. A comical policeman from Hong Kong is in Bangkok to assist with the case. The man from Hong Kong is dressed in a bright yellow traffic cop's tunic, which has the pair of Bangkok's finest a bit concerned -- do all undercover Hong Kong policemen dress that way? But the traffic cop speaks perfect Thai, which is why they sent him. They aim to catch a dice master named Yuen Wo-Ping (but not that Yuen Wo-Ping).

Heading into the stake-out at the apartment building, the cops enlist a passing Buddhist monk to bless them. This is none other than rapper Joey Boy, in character as the monk he portrayed in Holy Man 2. As they wait in the hallway, the game by foreign dice masters gets started, but that wrapped-up corpse is standing in the corner of the casino. The farang dice master isn't comfortable with ignoring the obvious and he points it out, making the corpse jump and sending everyone flying.

In the hallway, the police are confronted by razor-blade girl, and the stake-out comes to a blood-spurting end.

Hong Kong dice sifu Yuen Wo-ping aims to retrieve the cash left behind in the haunted casino, so he summons up his "Little Zombie" -- a pint-sized version of the hopping Chinese "vampire" from such movies as Mr. Vampire, Spooky Encounters or The Shadow Boxing. That's good fun for a little while -- could have done with more of it -- but the Thai ghost and her straight razor trump the hopping Chinese kid zombie.

Buppha Rahtree 3.2 then takes on a grim and serious tone. With Rung's life hanging in the balance, the movie sets about to bring closure to the story of the little razor-blade girl named Pla (Natawan Saksri) -- the abused step-daughter of a barber (Santisuk Promsiri) who ran away from home, ended up at the Oscar Apartments and somehow merged with the spirit of the long-dead Buppha.

I'm not sure I completely understand what happened, but it has to do with such things as reincarnation (can ghosts be reincarnated as other ghosts?), transformation and other elements of mysticism and spirituality that escape me.

The landlady's child-rapist nephew hires a Cambodian black-magic priest to perform an exorcism of Buppha's apartment 609. This doesn't end well for the nephew, the priest and the priest's assistant. If you've seen the Indonesian indie arthouse hit Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, then you know what to expect. If not, well then I won't say anymore. Whatever's going on, it must be highly symbolic and cathartic for director Yuthlert.

At the same time, Rung's friends hire a hermit shaman -- a white-bearded old man swaddled in leopard skin like a character out of Payut Ngaokrachang's Adventures of Sudsakorn, adapted from Sunthorn Phu's Apai Manee. Backed up by his giant hunchbacked assistant (Somdet Kaew-ler), this bug-eyed cartoon character is great fun as he tries to dispatch the ghost with laser beams from his crooked staff.

And just when I was getting worried, a character from all three previous Buppha Rahtree films (Somlek Sakdikul) makes a brief appearance.

In the end, it's rather melancholic, with the feeling that perhaps Buppha's tale has ended, or perhaps it actually ended long ago and this episode is a coda of sorts.

But I also have the feeling that Yuthlert isn't done, especially since these latest Buppha Rahtree entries have been box-office hits. Perhaps his new direction for the franchise is endless, incremental remixes that don't really go anywhere.

While I found 3.2 more gratifying than 3.1, I'm still not satisfied. What I want is the best bits of 3.1 and 3.2 to be remixed yet again and gelled to form a cohesive and coherent new entry in the Buppha Rahtree series. To see either one of the 3.1 and 3.2 movies without seeing them both will leave anyone who cares about such things as logic and storytelling totally baffled.

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