Saturday, March 01, 2008

Movies: Nak nak. Who's there?

First, let me apologize for the title. It was the best your humble host could come up with. It was worse. I originally went through the whole joke and it ended with a "nak your block off" bit. Anyway, I'm sorry, very very sorry.

Let's start this review with a little story. Once the was a film blogger. Let's call her Janet. She was pretty popular, as film bloggers go. Of course, that means she got about one thousandth the readership of just about any review in a major newspaper and perhaps reached slightly less than 1% of the folks a major television reviewer gets. But still, she had quite a few fans. She had even captured the attention of some famous readers – namely a reviewer we all know who, for the purposes of this little illustration, we'll call Klobert Revert. Revert has praised Janet's writing style, good taste, and sharp humor. Janet was gracious. Everybody was happy.

Then, sadly, Brown Bunny came out. Revert, who saw the original cut at Cannes or Sundance or wherever people go to do such things to themselves, famously declared it the worst movie he'd ever seen. There was a very public fight the with film's writer/director/and blow job recipient, we'll call him Limpcent Fallow. Fallow attacked Revert, claimed he didn't understand art, and – in a flourish that underscored just how deep and intelligent Fallow was compared to Revert – made a fat joke that inexplicably compared Revert to a slave owner. However, despite Fallow's belief that Revert looked like a fat slave owner, he did make several cuts and editorial changes to his film. When it was released, it was the edited and reworked version everybody saw.

This brings us to Janet. Janet loves Fallow. And when I say love you best believe I mean love: LUV. I'm not sure what the draw was. She never explained it. The closest she got making Fallow's draw clear for the readers was a strange aside where she called him beautiful and implied that she would like to be accosted by him in a lavatory and have him do things of a naughty nature to her backside. The important thing for our story is that you don't talk smack about the man who should, in a perfect world, be sticking his Little Limpcent up Janet's Brown Bunny. A woman won't stand for it! She attacked Revert and the thrust of the attack went thusly: Brown Bunny can't be the worst film ever made because 1) the version she saw was alright and 2) although she admitted to having never seen the original version, the removal of what amounts to 15 minutes or so of film simply can't alter a movie that much.

Whether Brown Bunny is not among the worst films ever made or whether Janet's burning desire for oily butt-sex with Fallow has blinded her to obvious is not the point so much as the removal of even a minute or two of film can drastically improve a flick. Ladies and gentlemen of the blog, I point to exhibit A: The Ghost of Mae Nak.

A mix of Thai-flavored J-horror tropes and mainstream Western horror sensibilities, British writer/director Mark Duffield's Thai-language fright flick, 2005's The Ghost of Mae Nak, is a well made old-fashioned ghost story that, after a perfectly satisfying false ending, utterly collapses into an unsatisfactory mess in the last six or seven minutes of the film.

Like 1960s Mexican production Curse of the Crying Woman, the chief baddie in Mae Nak is something of a national specter. Mae Nak, or "Mother Nak" in English, was a beautiful young bride who, with her husband Mak, lived in what is now the Phra Khanong district of Bangkok. Nak become preggers and husband and wife eagerly await the baby's arrival. Sadly, before the child is born, Mak is called of to fight the Burmese who, for nearly a decade in the late 1700s, attempted to invade Siam. Mak is injured in the fighting and left of the field of battle. Luckily, a group of monks find him and tend to him. After a long and difficult recovery, Mak heads for home. There he finds his beautiful wife and infant child waiting for him. But, of course, all is not well. His neighbors will no longer come to the home and nobody speaks to him anymore. Those that do eventually speak to Mak try to warn him of something, only to end up dead in mysterious and grisly ways. Eventually Mak pieces everything together and figures out that Mae Nak and the baby died in childbirth. He's been living with their ghosts all this time. Mak flees to a nearby temple and the ghost of Mae Nak, who pursues her husband, is exorcised and sent on to the next life. The ghost is a popular figure in Bangkok. She's been featured in three feature films, an animated feature, and an opera. There is also a public shrine to Mae Nak and her child where devotees leave gifts for her and her child. She gets mostly dresses, which hang behind the shrine. The child gets lots of toys.

Unlike Curse of the Crying Woman, which barely referenced the original legend, The Ghost of Mae Nak borrows heavily for the popular story. Starting with the name of its chief protagonists, the newly weds Mak and Nak. Looking for a new home in the grim city that is modern Bangkok, Mak and Nak end up buying a unique fixer-upper opportunity in the Phra Khanong district, a once rural area that was incorporated into the voracious and ever expanding urban sprawl. Unfortunately, their little love nest is on the site of the house Mae Nak inhabited more than 200 years ago. Once in to their new home, Mak falls under the sway of the love-starved spirit of Mae Nak, who seems to have decided that the new model Mak is just the thing to replace the husband that fled her long ago. After several inexplicable encounters, Mak is steered by the ghost into becoming the victim of a hit and run. He slips into a coma and, with the traditional roles reversed, it is his wife, Nak, who must unravel the supernatural mystery.

There's a lot to recommend Mae Nak. The flick is shot on location in Bangkok and this gives much of the film stark urban realism that is a real treat for the eye. The film has a real sense for the sometimes poetic details of urban squalor. It never degenerates in some Jacob Riis-style docu-drama about livin' in the big bad city, but it seems to take a genuine pleasure in representing the concrete heart of the modern city. The city also acts a metaphor for Westernization and modernization; the rural ghost is a fine metaphor for the violent and rural history of Siam lurking in the shadows of the thoroughly modern metropolis of Bangkok.

The story, which relies more heavily on Thailand's cultural traditions than, say, The Ring or The Grudge does on any specifically Japanese cultural traditions, is never alienating. Perhaps this is because of the originally English screenplay and the presence of a director from the UK. It combines the Thai source material with J-horror trappings now familiar to a global audience and a villain whose powers are picked up from The Omen. Despite the new context, the story (until the very end, and we'll get to that shortly) has a careful, almost slow build pace that's a welcome nod to classic ghost stories like The Haunted and Poltergeist. The title does appear on the Tartan Asian Extreme label which is, I think, a bit of an overstatement. Aside from one scene in which a plate of falling glass turns a gent into something like a biology textbook cut-away diagram – emphasis on the "cut-away" – the film is more about the characters trying to wrap their heads around the fact that a two century old legend continues to haunt Bangkok than it is about the over-the-top gore one associates with the phrase "Asian extreme."

As an aside, I've only seen three Tartan Asian Extreme DVDs and I have to say that the "extreme' is a bit of a bait and switch. All of them featured some gore, but nothing particularly beyond the pale. Not that I'm complaining. So far, the quality of the Tartan titles seems to be in inverse proportion to their extremeness: the worst being a half-assed abattoir of a samurai flick, the two best being well told ghost stories that spent more time on plot than splatter.

So, what's wrong with The Ghost of Mae Nak. Bringing us back to our original point, the greatest flaw in the flick is the last five or six minutes. After jumping through some hoops to appease the ghost, our characters live happily ever after – or do they! After a perfectly good ending, we get not one, but two "oh my God, it was a dream" style scares. These come in rapid succession and do nothing but undermine the sense of closure and make the previous hour or so of the flick seem slightly irrelevant. I don't pretend what was going through the mind of the filmmakers, but I suspect they've come to believe – as nearly every horror filmmaker seems to these days – that you film is incomplete without a "twist." Problem is that this twist, like so many of the oh-so-surprising endings one sees these days, seems tacked on. The only way it can keep the story going is to basically throw out the rules we've been playing along with and force the story to trudge forward a few more steps. The result, rather than being surprising or frightening, is often frustrating. I'm not against twist endings, but they aren't really twist endings unless the new development stems in a logical, but unexpected, way from the existing information the viewers have. Slamming extra action on to the ass end of your plot isn't the same thing. In this case, it takes what would be a fun and clever flick and ends it on a WTF note from which the viewing experience cannot recover.

So here's my official recommendation, go ahead and check out The Ghost of Mae Nak. Enjoy the real story, and when the movies first ending – don't worry, you won't miss it – shows up, stop the DVD and ensure yourself a pleasing viewing experience. There's a good ending inside The Ghost of Mae Nak, you've just got to catch it.

No comments: