Thursday, January 3, 2008

Movie: The Ghost of Mae Nak

I question how appropriate it is for Ghost of Mae Nak to appear under Tartan's Asia Extreme label -- after all, it's an English director shooting a film based on the Thai legend of Mae Nak. Besides, Thailand has already produced its own definitive version of the tale -- Nang Nak. I suppose I might be taking too much of an essentialist view of what "Asia Extreme" should be. But still, you can't trust those gweilos.

Ghost of Mae Nak follows a young, modern-day couple in Bangkok as they act all cutesy in love before facing true horror: home ownership. What's the Thai word for "variable rate mortgage"? Worse, the house is haunted by a black-mouthed spirit who seemingly protects the house from those who would do the couple harm. She's a sort of spectral mezuzah. But the ghost seems to want something more... I'll give you a hint: she's a young bride who died in childbirth. Jewelry is the appropriate gift in such circumstances.

Issues of cultural appropriation aside, Ghost of Mae Nak shares the promise and flaws of the emerging Thai film industry. On the upside, the cinematography seems competent. Film stocks switch often, but not necessarily arbitrarily. You've got to love that hazy black-and-white "romantic flashback" stock, which they must sell with a per-reel discount over there in Asia.

On the downside, Thai films also have a habit of being langourous and slow. And while this may work for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for horror, it's the kiss of death. Despite an effective, yet annoyingly cheap jump scare, (something passing in front of the camera + loud noise on soundtrack = damn it, I fell for it again!), the first half of the film seems to be our hero sitting up in bed after a dream. I'm surprised the actor didn't get repetitive strain injury.

We're also treated to ominous inset shots, a gloriously cheesy soundtrack, a boom that's too close to a ceiling fan, and Grandmother Exposition. I suppose she serves the same function as America's "old, world-wise black man who spouts out morals and messages-of-the-day," but her stories raise an interesting question: if this was intended for Thai audiences (it reached #3 in the Thai box office, would they need the lengthy explanation of the Mae Nak legend? Or is this the director explaining the movie to himself and a perceived Western audience?

I sense a dissertation chapter in there.

In any case, the visual effects budget don't seem to have matched the director's vision. The cheapness of subway decapitation made me groan, and the CGI sky in the opening shot seemed awfully generic. Duffield must have been saving his money for a death sequence which hearkens back to The Omen and Final Destination II. It's a startling moment for a film that vacillates between chanting monks and somewhat laughable ghost-related deaths. But the death's aftermath (slopping viscera, a dog carrying off a severed arm) make for black humor that's sorely missed elsewhere, and instantly becomes the most memorable moment. You heard it here first, people: big sheets of glass are dangerous.

Ghost of Mae Nak is a nice diversion, but doesn't succeed much beyond that. In the end, it devolves into "must return the MacGuffin before the ghost kills us all." Although the final twist at the end shows some promise, alas, it returns to people waking up in bed together, as if to say that marriage is the real horror here.

Oh, I see. Maybe the ghost was trying to warn them.

1 comment:

Theresa said...

Thanks for writing this.