Thursday, October 12, 2006

She's A Mae Nak

Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin) is tormented by Porntip Papanai as the GHOST OF MAE NAK.

GHOST OF MAE NAK
2005, Tartan Asian Extreme, DD-2.0 & 5.1/DTS 5.1/MA/16:9/LB/ST/+, $22.98, 105m 5s, DVD-1

This new horror film from Thailand has the distinction of having been scripted and directed by an English cinematographer, Mark Duffield (KISS KISS BANG BANG, BUTTERFLY MAN). Based on a Thai legend previously filmed more than twenty times, it's the story of a young engaged couple, Mak and Nak, whose lifelong devotion to one another mirrors the eternal love of another Mak and Nak who lived a century earlier. Taken away from his wife shortly after their marriage by war duties, the first Mak returned home to find Nak the mother of his child; they lived happily ever after... until their neighbors confided to Mak that Nak had died during his absence, while pregnant, and that he was being deceived by her ghost. The ghost wreaked its vengeance against the villagers for destroying her last chance at happiness, and her mortal remains were exhumed by monks who silenced her by removing a piece of her skull, which they engraved and formed into a protective amulet for Mak. A century later, the new Mak finds the amulet in an antiques shop and gives it to Nak as a wedding gift. When Mak suffers an accident and falls into a coma, the amulet becomes an device through which Nak receives a desperate psychic message from her husband: "Find Mae Nak!" Only by returning the medallion piece to Nak's buried remains can Mak be freed from her thrall.

Duffield's film is being well-received by some mainstream reviewers, but experienced genre buffs are sure to see it for what it is: an overlong, utterly unoriginal fusion of contemporary J-horror tropes and 1970s possession excess. Opening with a creepy spoken introduction by Nak's elderly aunt (recalling Katherine Emery's narration of THE MAZE, 1953), it gives us the overused J-Horror plot of a dark-haired ghost with a grudge, then throws in elements of PATRICK (a comatose man channelling destructive psychic energy), DON'T LOOK NOW (the blind "seer"), THE OMEN (a series of grisly showy deaths, including one involving a falling sheet of glass that's the most interesting I've seen since the opening of DEATH SHIP), THE EXORCIST (levitation, exorcism), and so on. There's a Cheech and Chong-like pair of cat burglars out of Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, and the cliché-o-meter runs amok with medicine chest mirror scares and shots of Mak jolting out of nightmares in a cold sweat. To Western sensibilities, the performances are too cloying, too wholesome to be believed (when Mak is told the amulet will bring him good luck, he beams as though he's won the national lottery), and the storyline is too scattered and rambling to hold together, the off-the-rails excess of the final half hour becoming laughable. When was the last time you saw wire-work involved in an operating room sequence?

Making this mediocre film even less attractive -- and this is particularly surprising for a film directed by a cinematographer -- the picture quality is overly dark and muted, with mostly ugly colors and some deliberately blooming whites. Tartan's disc offers three sound options, all in the original Thai language, one in Dolby 2.0 and two 5.1 options in DD or DTS. The two five-channel options are quite active and functional in context, but a sampling of individual moments reveals a lot of ambient "haunted house"-type sounds that rarely let up. The extras include a very dry, play-by-play-reliant audio commentary by Duffield, which is nevertheless informative and useful toward understanding why this love story shies away from depictions of kissing. A 65m 52s video diary of the film's production takes us on-set and finds almost everyone speaking perfect English. Viewers with an obsessive interest in Thai filmmaking procedures may find this material of value, but for the rest of us, the feature itself doesn't really warrant any more of our time than has already been wasted.

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