- Directed by Phawit Panangkasiri
- Starring Ray MacDonald, Somchai Kemklad, Pitisak Yaowanan, Sa-ad Piampongsan, Inthira Charoenpura
- Released in Thai cinemas on March 18, 2010; rated 18+, with warnings
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
Shot in 2007 and shelved at the movie studio until last week out of fears it was too controversial, the Buddhist-theme crime drama Nak Prok (นาคปรก, Shadow of the Naga) feels older than three years.
Uniformly fine performances by a cast of now-veteran actors who all got their start in the Thai New Wave of the late 1990s and early 2000s make Nak Prok seem like a forgotten classic of that era.
And the setting – an ancient, down-at-the-heels temple – makes the movie even more timeless.
The style is firmly film noir and, as in the black-and-white Hollywood crime dramas of the 1940s and ’50s, shadows, driving rain and smoke from cigarettes contribute to the atmosphere.
There’s the hard-boiled plot, too.
The protagonists are murderous thieves dressed as monks, hiding out at the temple while they retrieve loot hidden there months before. But, as in most film noir, at least some of the characters are essentially good people, dragged by circumstances into a bad situation.
Leadership in the trio of thieves wavers between the angry and violent Singh (played by Ray MacDonald from 1999’s Khon Jorn) and his more quietly brooding partner Parn (Somchai Kemklad from 2001’s Killer Tattoo).
The trio is completed by Parn’s gentle brother Por (Pitisak Yaowanan from 2004’s Ai-Fak).
On the run from police after the killing of a couple of officers, the three are trying to retrieve cash they stole from an armored truck.
The money – it’s another old movie device, being the plot-driving MacGuffin, like the Maltese Falcon or the Lost Ark – was buried somewhere by the fearful Por. And now, with the police closing in, they’re stumbling around in the rain, in the dark, trying to find the cache. A temple bell tolls and clues Por in to the location.
Eventually the men determine that a sanctuary has been built over the hole where the money is hidden, and that they can’t just go in and start ripping up floorboards in the middle of the night.
“What are you going to do, take the whole place hostage while we dig?” Parn asks Singh, and Parn hastily comes up with the plan – they’ll have their heads shaved and pose as monks while hiding out and digging.
An elderly monk, Luang Chuen (Sa-ad Piampongsan, unrecognizable with his hair and mustache shaved), is forced at gunpoint to help the thieves with their plan. Singh and Parn will pose as monks while Por – the most devout of the three, refusing to go through a sham ordination – will be their temple boy. Their story for the other monks is that they’re on a pilgrimage.
The wayfaring strangers’ ruse is virtually doomed from the start. While Parn and Por obviously have some experience with Buddhism and temple protocol, the hot-headed Singh has no clue how to act like a monk and isn’t about to start learning.
He’s given the job of tolling the bell each morning to wake everyone, but he doesn’t so much toll it as beat it out of frustration. His language remains foul and his actions anything but sanctified as he kicks a dog and swears at a novice monk. And he cannot keep his primal urges in check.
This leads to him calling his wife, the prostitute Pueng (Inthira Charoenpura from 1999’s Nang Nak). She’s duplicitous to her core. A deliciously edited scene shows her in bed with various customers – among them a corrupt police captain played by Pasin Ruengwut from 2000’s Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) – spilling the details of the heist.
As for Parn and Por, the brothers are motivated by their mother’s blindness and the hope that they can use their share of the cash to pay for an eye operation. The boys take to temple life more naturally than Singh.
The role of Parn is particularly redemptive for the actor Somchai, who since he completed filming this movie has faced legal problems due to his hot-headedness in real life. He has since married and sworn off his wild ways.
Pitisak's Por -- the soul of the film -- seeks spiritual enlightenment from the old monk Luang Chuen, who dispenses inspirational talk while he gives a traditional tattoo.
One moment of humor comes when a local buffoon receives one of Luang Chuan’s painful tattoos and immediately has a friend test the ink’s protective power by striking him with a board. It still hurts.
It’s devout director Phawit Panangkasiri’s comment on the superstitious beliefs that have sprung up around contemporary Thai Buddhism.
The images – of men robed as monks pointing guns, touching women, swearing, fighting and digging for money – are strong – too strong for the producers at Sahamongkol Film International.
They feared a backlash from Buddhist groups and it looked as though the movie would never unspool. But after Shadow of the Naga premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, there was a glimmer of hope.
The introduction of Thailand’s motion-picture ratings offered a way to advise audiences about the film’s violent content. And never mind about Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century, which in 2008 had scenes of a monk playing guitar and monks playing with a remote-control flying saucer, censored for Thai audiences.
A plan to offer a two-tiered release for Nak Prok was reported in The Nation, with an uncensored 20+ version – the most restrictive rating with ID checks – and an 18+ version with “pop-up” warnings. Ultimately, only the 18+ version is playing, and the “pop-ups” – there are two – come at times when it seems there is nothing wrong with what the characters are doing.
Buddhist groups have protested the film anyway, but it’s still playing. So anyone can see this is a redemptive tale about the strength of faith and that dishonesty, greed and general blackheartedness all have clear and negative consequences. No one is innocent in Nak Prok.
- Buddhist groups call for ban of Shadow of the Naga
- Shadow of the Naga will come in two flavors -- with warnings and without
- Have a spiritual awakening with the Shadow of the Naga trailer
- Shadow of the Naga actually has a release date
- In the shadow of Shadow of the Naga
- Shadow of the Naga director explains his intentions
- Third Thai film added at Toronto: In the Shadow of the Naga
(Cross-published in The Nation, Page 3B, March 25, 2010)