- Directed by Banjong Pisunthanakun
- Starring Mario Maurer, Davika Hoorne, Nattapong Chartpong, Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk, Pongsatorn Jongwilak, Wiwat Kongrasri
- Released in Thai cinemas on March 28, 2013; rated 15+
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
The Thai film industry has its first bonafide monster hit in awhile with “Pee Mak Phra Khanong” luring viewers into cinemas like moths to the flame.
The horror-comedy earned around 21 million baht on its opening day, setting a record for the GTH studio (only Sahamongkol's Ong-Bak has had a bigger opening, at around 30 million baht). It reached the benchmark 100-million-baht in its first four days in cinemas, and was still packing them in at a midnight screening at midweek.
But the real news is that Pee Mak is actually pretty good. Distinguishing itself from most other Thai horror comedies that are loosely structured, this one follows an actual script, which is smartly co-written by director Banjong Pisunthanakun. The production values are slick as is usual for the GTH studio. And there are strong performances, including a sweet and surprisingly funny Mario Maurer as Mak and the well-cast Davika “Mai” Hoorne, whose expressive eyes put across the fierceness of her character.
It’s yet another version of the famous Mae Nak Phra Khanong ghost story that’s been told on the big screen dozens of times. Other versions have included the 1999 hit Nang Nak by Nonzee Nimibutr and screenwriter Wisit Sasanatieng, as well as the lackluster 3D version of the tale last year, starring Bongkot Kongmalai as the long-armed ghost.
Everyone knows the story by heart. Set 100 or so years ago, long before the rustic river village of Phra Khanong became part of Bangkok and was paved over with condos, the young man Mak goes off to war, leaving behind his pregnant wife Nak. While Mak battles for his life in the trenches against whomever it was the Siamese were fighting back then, Nak struggles to give birth but both she and her baby die. However, the love between Mak and Nak is so strong, her spirit survives. When Mak returns home, he doesn’t see that anything is wrong even though the villagers are all in hiding, cowering in fear of the powerful ghost.
I laughed at a gorgeous scene of a thumping spider, a shot lifted from Nonzee and Wisit's version. But Banjong adds other critters, like centipedes, to give you the sense that even the insects are running for the hills in fear of Nak.
Pee Mak has just enough twists to make it interesting and it keeps you guessing by hinting at the various what if’s that might race through your mind, such as, for example, “what if Nak isn’t the one who’s dead?” It also plays on the assumptions that perhaps Mak (and by extension Mario) is a bit dimwitted if he can’t see that his wife is a ghost.
Pee Mak Phra Khanong adds four characters to the usual tale, army buddies of Mak who accompany him back home. They almost immediately figure out that something isn’t right, but have trouble finding the right moment to clue Mak in without making Nak angry.
The four guys are the bespectacled Ter (Nattapong Chartpong), moustachioed Aye (Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk), trendy-haired, goateed Puak (Pongsatorn Jongwilak) and the top-knot-haired Shin (Wiwat Kongrasri). The actors are the same four goofballs who went camping in director Banjong’s comedic segment of GTH’s Phobia. They also featured in the comedy segment of Phobia 2.
As in the Phobia films, the lads offer up a plethora of pop-culture references, even if such things as movies like The Last Samurai (or maybe they said Bangrajan) or magician David Blaine didn't exist back in Mak and Nak’s time. At one point, the boys holler at Mak, accusing him of bad acting and asking if he’d been coached by “Mom Noi”, Mario’s director ML Bhandevanov Devakula on the critically assailed, box-office-bombing Jan Dara epics (the English dubtitles say “Ang Lee”, which makes no sense – stop with the dubtitles, please).
The humor works better when the cultural references are potentially appropriate to the era or there’s no translation needed, like when one of the boys doesn't realize he needs to look backwards through his own legs to see that Nak is a ghost.
But there is a clever moment when Mak explains his name is really “Mark”, and as his four chums try to wrap their tongues around that, Mak tells how his father was a missionary from the US, making Mak a luk khrueng, or "half-Thai". Of course the joke is that Mario himself is half-Western, as is his co-star, the big-eyed Davika. I'm not sure how that joke will play in other countries, if Pee Mak does indeed find overseas buyers.
The fun really gets going when Mak takes his wife to a temple fair. Never mind that they probably didn’t have Ferris wheels or electric lights back then. On the run from the vengeful Nak, the four buddies hide out in the carnival’s haunted house, and disguise themselves as other spooks from Thai folklore – Nang Tani, the banana-tree ghost; Phi Krahang, the flying ghost; Krasue, the flying head-and-entrails ghost, and Kuman Thong, the little-boy ghost.
After a terror-filled boat ride, the guys end up taking refuge in the Buddhist temple with the monk, and the truth finally comes out.
But while other Mae Nak stories have ended tragically, this is a GTH movie, and even GTH’s sad movies make the audiences leave with smiles on their faces. Plus, given the windfall of cash Pee Mak has brought the studio, perhaps they’ll find a way to make a sequel and create more smiles.