Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Review: Nak

  • Directed by Nuttapong Rattanachoksirikoon
  • Produced by Boyd Kosiyabongse and Prachya Pinkaew
  • Starring (voices): Sasikan Apichataworasin, Petchtai Wongkamlau, Chukiet Auimsuk, Suparb Chaiwisuthikun, Unyarit Pitakdikul, Narawarat Techaratanaprasert, Somchai Sakdikul
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on April 3, 2008
  • Rating: 3/5

Heaven and hell for ghosts is still a concept I'm wrapping my head around. I'd always thought ghosts were trapped in limbo between the two places, because of mysterious circumstances surrounding their deaths that will not allow them to pass completely into the world of the dead.

But in the universe of Nak, there are good ghosts who live in heaven, and bad ghosts who live in ghost hell. Heaven for ghosts is an idealized rural Thailand, where everyone lives in tiny wooden houses on stilts and there is a temple fair every night. The ghosts here exist to help humans out of the various bumps and scrapes they may experience in their lives. These helpful ghosts include Mae Nak of Phra Khanong, who in the original legend is an angry, scary ghost of a woman who died in childbirth while her husband was away. In Nak, she has apparently come to accept that she is dead and can no longer be with her husband. She has risen through the ranks of the ghost hierarchy, and now sits in council with the ghost elders.

In this small village, the good traditional Thai ghosts are trying to protect a boy named Tee, who has a strange marking on the back of his neck. Increasingly, evil city ghosts are invading the village and trying to take Tee, but Nak and her friends, Kaew the Headless Ghost and Udd, the shape-shifting fat or tall ghost, and a strange dog named Tong, keep the boy safe from harm when he is riding his bicycle earlier in the day. Later at night, though, Tee sneaks out with his sister to the temple fair. They are watching a movie (shown the traditional Thai way, with narrators humorously acting out all the voices) when the evil female ghost from Ringu pops through the screen and grabs the boy. Hundreds of other evil minions are present to help fight off Nak and her friends.

The boy's sister Kaem then follows the Headless Ghost and the others across a magical, disappearing bridge into ghost land, where there are floating dots of light like something out of a Miyazaki movie. After some deliberation by the ghost council, Nak decides she will go to the city with Kaem and try to retrieve the boy.

As introduced from the back of a ghost-driven tuk-tuk, Bangkok in the world of Nak is an imaginative thrill ride, which waggles a finger at all the commercialism and materialism. Western fast food is derided as "Rotten Burger". The iconic MBK Center becomes the MAD mall. Fat-cat ghosts wheel about in their luxury cars, with zombie schoolgirls decked out in too-tight white blouses and too-shirt black skirts. Never mind that one of the sponsors of Nak is Dairy Queen. Kids, it's okay to have ice cream and pies from The Pizza Company, but stay away from those awful hamburgers.

Soon, Nak is joined by Kaew, Udd and Thong, and wearing Dead Ex uniforms they bluff their way into the headquarters of the evil ghosts where the boy is being held, leading up to a thrilling, action-packed ending that reveals the sad mother Nak's true motivation for leading the rescue effort, and a triumph for Thai traditional ways over evil, foreign-influenced commercial city culture.

The animation is a weird mix. I'm told it is computer-animated 3D that uses cel-shading, which gives it a sort of 2D look. The character design is also a mix of influences -- it's a bit of Thai design, anime, Disney, Pixar (mostly The Incredibles, I think) and even some Rankin-Bass. Nak herself is a slender big-eyed heroine with pink hair, a bare midriff and breasts that jut out underneath a wrapped cloth. She's not supposed to be sexy, but she's drawn that way.

Nak's superpower is her ability to stretch out her arms and pack a powerful punch. She uses it to the max when she has to face the Ringu ghost again. It's modern technology vs. Thai tradition as Nak punches out the video monitors that give the Japanese ghost her power.

While the fight sequences are a lot of fun, the dialogue and action are an uncomfortable mix, with the mouths not so much as moving, but blinking on and off in such a way that the tone and intent of the speech doesn't match the facial expressions. And ... there ... are ... these ... uncomfortable ... ... ... pauses ... when people are speaking. They just stop talking and stare blankly. I wanted to holler out to the screen and say "What!? Spit it out!"

The dialogue not matching up with mouth action is unfortunate, too, because there is some decent voice casting. Petchtai Wongkamlao, or Mum Jokmok, was brought in to do the part of the Headless Ghost after another actor had been cast, and I think his part was recorded after the animation had been done, instead of the other way around as it should be done -- record wacky Robin Williams doing crazy ad libs, and then animate. Chukiat Auimsuk, or Nui Chernyim, is Udd. I think he must be a brother of the comedian Choosak "Nong" Auimsuk. Nak is voiced by singer-actress Sasikarn Apichataworasin. And a big surprise for me was finding out that one of my favorite comic actors, Somchai Sakdikul, voiced the leading evil ghost, credited as the "fireball ghost".

Fans of Thai ghost stories will notice other famous ghosts, such as Phee Pop, depicted here as an elderly woman with really fast hands. The elderly treasure chest ghost is also famous. Another cute female ghost is the banana tree ghost, who wears a yellow tube top and wields bananas as weapons. The krasue, the floating vampiric head that trails her glowing entrails and depicted in dozens of films and TV series, is the leading Thai ghost elder. There's a lot of other ghosts I don't recognize, like the ghost who flies using round rice-sorting trays as wings, and another female ghost, with sultry eyes and no legs.

Then there's the scene stealing dog, Thong, voiced by Suparb Chaiwisuthikun. I've asked some Thai co-workers about this character's origins and no one seems to know. "Don't ask me about the dog," said one Thai colleague before I could even get a word out. Perhaps he's the Scooby Doo for this bunch of meddling ghosts.

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(Cross-published at The Nation Weblog)

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