Monday, August 29, 2005

Review: Nang Nak

  • Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr
  • Screenplay by Wisut Sasanatieng
  • Starring Intira Charoenpura, Winai Kraibutr
  • Released theatrically in Thailand in 1999. Reviewed on Thai-released DVD.

As a love story, Nang Nak really works. And as a psychological thriller, it isn't too bad. But as far as horror, Nang Nak doesn't go far enough, especially today when the Asian horror genre has become so widespread and well known.

Nang Nak is a story that's been told dozens of times on film and television in Thailand. There's also a successful opera production called Mae Nak. And yet another film is due out soon that will likely upstage this 1999 version in terms of horror.

So it's a famous story, well known to ghost-obsessed Thais.

In Nonzee's version, set sometime in probably the late 18th or early 19th century, Nak (Intira) is a simple country woman who is deeply saddened when her husband, Mak (Winai) leaves to go to war with the Burmese.

Pregnant, she has a difficult childbirth while Mak is away and dies.

Death is all around Mak. On the battlefield, he picks up the body of his best friend, only to have jugular vein blood spew in his face. Mak is then wounded in the chest somehow, and nearly dies himself.

His recovery takes a long time. Finally, he returns home. But things back home along Prakhanong Canal (now in the heart of the sprawling Bangkok metropolis) aren't the same. The houses are all rundown, and nobody seems to be around.

But at home, Nak and his newborn son are there waiting for him. All is well at home, it seems, even if the neighborhood is falling apart, beset by disease and strife.

Little by little, the reality of Mak's world is revealed. A friend runs away from him. The area underneath his normally fastidiously clean home is overrun by rats. One of the wooden steps to his porch snaps in two, as if the house has fallen into disrepair.

Meanwhile, Nak's ghost is working overtime to keep Mak clueless. An old woman who stole her wedding ring when she died suffers a mysterious death. Mak finds the old lady's remains being eaten by monitor lizards -- the scariest scene in the film.

Oh, there is one other really cool, creepy scene -- a dream sequence when Mak is holding on to his friend's body and it turns into a dried-out corpse in his arms. Yikes!

Anyway, the gig's up after one of Mak's friends tries to warn him. Then the guy ends up in the canal with his neck broken.

A monk comes to visit Mak. They all can see the dilapidated state of the haunted house Mak is living in. He tells Mak to think of Buddha and duck his head between his legs and look behind him -- then he'll see the reality.

The pace picks up nicely from there, but it all could have been a lot scarier.

As a love story, Nang Nak is very tender with Intira doing a great job of conveying her character's love and devotion to her husband and baby. Winai is a solid leading man, so it's sad to see him deluded, living in a dusty, old house. Together, he and Nak share a tender, warm relationship that's erotic in the strangest ways, like when Nak shaves his face and clips his hair, or when Mak asks Nak to give him the already-chewed betel nut she has in her mouth.

The ghost Nak employs no special effects, no make up, no gore and hardly any violence. What little creepiness there is comes from atmosphere -- a bad-omen owl, crows gathering in trees, wind blowing, a storm brewing. On her own, she's not really terrifying at all. What's terrifying is the villager's reactions. They are scared so you should be, too. Perhaps this was deliberate on the part of Nonzee and Wisit (who went on to greater things as writer-director of Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog), who just wanted to concentrate on the psychological and romantic aspects of the legend.

Horror fans, however, will be left wanting more, even if fans of the nebulous genre known as "Thai film" will be satisfied. One of the early films to really put Thai film on the international map in this current era of the industry, Nang Nak has a special place in the canon of contemporary Thai films.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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