Friday, May 19, 2006
2006 SF HOLEHEAD—The Ghost of Mae Nak
It's absolutely appropriate that the (Yet) Another Hole in the Head Festival has included Mark Duffield's The Ghost of Mae Nak in this year's line-up since the ghost has a big ol' hole in her head! How much more relevant could this movie possibly be?
Just before today's press screening, filmbud Brian Darr—who lived for a while in Thailand—advised me that Duffield's film is only the latest incarnation of the Thai folk legend of Mae Naak Phra Khanong. A little research reveals that it's about the 20th incarnation, the most popular of which has been Nonzee Nimibutr's mega hit Nang Nak (1999). As I understand it, Ghost of Mae Nak kind of takes up where Nang Nak leaves off, shifting the story into a modern setting and doing Nang Nak one better through computer graphics that have improved much since 1999.
Yesterday Variety reported that one bit of business that's taken place at this year's Cannes Film Festival has been Tartan Film's acquisition of North American and U.K. rights to Ghost of Mae Nak. Tartan Films' Asia Extreme line is well-known to aficionados of Asian horror. Ghost of Mae Nak, which reached No. 3 at the box office in Thailand and No. 2 in Malaysia, now seems poised to give Nang Nak a run for its international money! It's already done quite well on the festival circuit.
Watching Ghost of Mae Nak reminded me of comments made by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien at a December 2002 seminar and published in Rouge. His concern was about finding new directions and new genres for Taiwan's film industry and he approached that issue from various angles. One such angle was the effect of J-horror on Asian cinema. He stated: "We can now approach the issue from another direction after the success of the Japanese film Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1988), which was the ignition point that brought about an explosion of ghost movies. Just like Shiri was the ignition point of Korean cinema, Ring started the Asian frenzy for making ghost movies. The crucial element of their success lies in the use of local elements. The films are firmly rooted in local culture." He offered by way of example the fact that the Taiwanese often pray to the god of house foundations. "If we come to think about this god," Hsiao-hsien proposed, "he is in fact quite terrifying, for he protects you by staying in your house and constantly watching you high up there. He has his own biography. So if you want to tell a story about him there will be plenty."
What struck me about that statement was how the alphabetical momentum of Asian horror has shifted from J-horror to K-horror and now to T-horror in an enthused appropriation of, as Hsiao-hsien states it, "local elements."
I had never heard of the legend of Mae Nak before. There are various versions where the details differ, but in gist, Mae Nak was a beautiful young woman from the Phrakhanong district who married a handsome man named Mak. Some sources state that the couple were childhood sweethearts who grew up together. While she was pregnant with their first child, Mak was conscripted into the army and—during his absence—Mae Nak died with her baby still inside her. Although they were buried instantly according to local tradition, her strong spirit refused to perish so that when Mak returned from the war, he found them waiting for him. When they embraced he was shocked to feel her unusually cold and thin body but thought nothing of it. In most versions it is while she is preparing him dinner that she reveals herself to be supernatural. Some say a sudden gust of cold wind made Mak drop his spoon, some say a knife, others say Mae Nak dropped a lemon, the point being that traditional Thai houses were elevated on piles and whatever fell went two meters below the floor. Mae Nak lengthened her arm through the floorboards to reach it and it was then Mak realized his wife and child were ghosts.
In other versions—more in line with the current story in Ghost of Mae Nak—it is Mak's neighbors who inform him that he is living with a ghost. This is where the supernatural romance transforms into a macabre horror. Mak, terrified, runs away from his ghostly wife and she relentlessly pursues him, enraged that her neighbors have exposed her. She takes her anger out on them for interfering and kills them. Eventually an exorcism has to be performed in order for the community to be freed of Mae Nak's vengeful spirit. In one version an exorcist (mhor phi) puts the ghosts in a pot or a bottle and throws it into the water. But in this movie's version trepination is performed upon the skull of Mae Nak and the medallion of bone is configured into a broach. This accounts for the hole in her head.
Ghost of Mae Nak is not really a scary movie as much as it is a haunting love story. If you're expecting to jump out of your seat, it's not going to happen. Variety describes the film as "unhurried without dragging its heels." Where it will appeal to horror buffs is in its gory, gruesome deaths, which are reminiscent of The Omen, Final Destination, and 13 Ghosts. The ghost herself resembles that of The Grudge. Though there's not really a lot that's new in Ghost of Mae Nak, its blend of gothic modernity has a certain appeal, though I imagine not to all.
Ghost of Mae Nak will be screening at the Roxie Film Center on Sunday, June 11, 2006, at 7:00 and Tuesday, June 13, 2006, at 2:30.