Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: Takien the Haunted Tree (Nang Takien)

  • Directed by Saiyon Srisawat
  • Starring Jiranun Manochaem, Pirapan Arayapan, Tanaton Utsahagun, Sawatgon Nantaban, Prasat Tongaram, Sa-ad Piampongsan
  • Released in Thai cinemas on June 17, 2010; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

Poor Yaibua. The main character in Takien: The Haunted Tree (นางตะเคียน, Nang Takien) is a charming enough girl, but she has a pain in her neck.

That's because she hanged herself. First her city-slicker boyfriend showed their sex clip to his no-good co-worker friends. So she broke up with him. Then she lost her factory job in Bangkok. She goes back to her rural village to find that her entire family has died tragically. So she threw a rope up in a takien tree and stuck her head in the noose.

Because her death was unnatural, according to superstition, she is buried for a time until her spirit settles down and a Brahmin priest determines it's okay to cremate the body.

She doesn't settle down though, and goes about haunting the village and taking revenge on the ex-boyfriend and the local young gangsters who wronged her family.

It's an old story and is shares many traits of another old Thai ghost yarn, Nang Nak, about a woman who died in childbirth, was buried, appeared normal to her husband and terrorized any villager who told him she was a ghost.

A lot of trouble could have been saved if ghosts like Nang Nak and Nang Takien had been cremated to begin with. But without old superstitions, there wouldn't be movies to make.

In Thai tree folklore, takien wood is prized for making boats and offerings must be made to avoid upsetting the tree spirits. Takien wood also makes auspicious amulets. It's thought to have some sort of power.

Many movies about takien trees and takien ghosts have been made over the years. Takien: The Haunted Tree is made very much in the mold of the old Thai horror comedies that involve a lot of running around and screaming by comical villagers, even though there is nothing particularly scary.

The director, Saiyon Srisawat (สายยนต์ ศรีสวัสดิ์), is a veteran of such films. I'm told he made some of the old Baan Phi Pob movies, a long-running series about another female ghost who keeps villagers frightened for their lives.

Same old movie and old-fashioned special effects. There a young cast of fresh faces, but their acting is all very old-style Thai TV melodrama – wooden and over-emotive.

The movie's score also old school. Overbearing and constant, the background music never lets up, urging the audience on during the moments that are scary, serious or funny. Instead of building up the drama, the score saps what little strength the story had to begin with.

Jiranun Manochaem has her moments as the sad ghost Yaibua. She certainly can cry. The trailer-worthy clip where she sits up suddenly and glares at the camera comes right toward the end. Too little, too late.

The rest of the cast is principally dumb, forgettable young men, like the city-slicker boyfriend Pichan (Pirapan Arayapan), who was naive enough to show the sex clip to his dim-witted buddies at work and think they wouldn't talk about what they saw.

"I only showed them that, so they would know how much you loved me," he tells Yaibua.

There's also the village alpha male, who's all sneers and shouting. He and his gang get what's coming to them.

A cold wind blows around Yaibua's creepy old family home, leading one guy to exclaim in the subtitles, "It's awkwardly chilly in here."

The only cast members who make much of an impression are the gray-haired veterans, among them Prasat Tongaram (ประสาท ทองอร่าม), who's the village's black-magic guru, a role it seems like he's played often. He's seeking to take control of Yaibua and use her power for his own greedy purposes.

But the character actor who really shines is Sa-ad Piampongsan (สะอาด เปี่ยม พงศ์ สานต์ ). He had a crucial role earlier this year as a monk in the controversial Buddhist-themed crime drama Nak Prok and was the kindly and learned grandfather in last year's The Happiness of Kati.

In Takien, he's again shaved his hair and mustache and donned the saffron robes, playing the local temple's unflappable abbot. He meets Yaibua head-on several times and doesn't even blink – a paragon of virtuous calm in the face of ghostly rage.

Sa-ad has several monologues about the impermanence of life – the producers at Pacific Island Film want the kids who see this movie to learn something about Buddhism. He infuses his sermons with such grace and power, it's hard not to come away a believer.

In another moment, he's trying to talk to the city-slicker boyfriend and break the news that his girlfriend is a ghost. He explains the difference between the corporeal and the spiritual, but the guy just doesn't get it.

A look of beautiful bewildered frustration crosses over Sa-ad's aged mug, a face that's seen a lot over the years. He's totally in character, but I couldn't help but feel that's how feels about acting in movies like this. But, eh, it's a living.

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