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Art of the Devil 2 (Long Khong) (2005)
6th Mar 06
Six teens find out that dabbling in ancient rituals can have dire consequences when their former teacher exacts her revenge on each of them in a grisly manner.
When a series of graphic poster designs advertising an unknown Thai horror film called Art Of The Devil 2 filtered onto the internet at the end of last year, here at Eat My Brains we sat up and took notice. The disturbing trailer which followed also caught our attention, culminating as it did with the image of a beautiful young lady preparing to do business with a flaming blowtorch.
With Western horror films entering a harder, grittier phase personified by the ‘gore-nography’ of Eli Roth’s Hostel and Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake, the indication was that perhaps Asia was looking to tread a similar path. But could a small production from Thailand really avoid the ubiquitous spooky ghosts and comedy sidekicks that normally dominate their domestic releases and deliver something all the more brutal? Well, the Ronin Team have certainly given it a good shot and the result is a lively picture with enough gore to give the film every chance of being a breakout hit and finding a global audience.
Of course, a film with 2 in its title implies there already exists an Art Of The Devil, and indeed there is (available only on Thai DVD without English subtitles), but the good news for us is that the sequel is a follow up in name and theme alone, rather than continuing a particular storyline or following a set of previously established characters. It makes its intentions to shock clear from the beginning as we watch a guy in a fishing boat reel in his catch, then somehow he impales his finger on one of his own fish-hooks and starts having convulsions. Next he’s being helped along a dark alleyway to see Madam Sulee who only needs one look at the sores on his torso to deduce that he’s the victim of a Cambodian curse – unfortunately for his sake we can only sit back and watch as fish-hooks start ripping out his stomach, toes and eyes until he collapses screaming…
We’re then introduced to our main protagonists, a group of six friends who graduated from college two years ago and who are reunited following the death of Ta’s father. Ta has had a pretty tough childhood; his mother died when he was young and his father remarried Ta’s pretty teacher (Panor), a strict disciplinarian who beats the lad when he gets into trouble. He’s also been dumped by his girlfriend Kim and later blamed and imprisoned for the drowning of his brother Nong. Life has been hard for poor Ta, but his friends rally around and agree to come out to his village to pay their respects to his late father. Kim is now with Por, a bespectacled chap who likes to surprise his new girlfriend by playing dead in her refrigerator. Making up the rest of the group are Ko, the joker of the pack, and Tair and Noot, two girls who might just be lovers, although Noot is clearly hiding a secret fella in the background and is keen to get away from the village at the earliest opportunity.
In a series of drawn out, sepia-tinted flashbacks we get to learn about the secrets that bind these six friends together. Por catches their sports coach – now revealed as the guy with the fish-hooks problem in the pre-credits sequence – having an affair with Panor, so in order to prove her infidelity to Ta’s disbelieving father, the kids decide to film the couple’s next encounter, alas they’re discovered and subsequently sexually abused by the coach. Seeking revenge, the kids approach a local shaman who requires three things in order to place a curse on him: his birthdate, a personal item, and the dirt that he walks on. The shaman’s curse, as we already know, is a powerful and effective one and the coach is killed. Meanwhile Panor, her exploits having been broadcast around the whole school, is found stabbing her legs behind locked doors and becomes a recluse, returning to the village where she now pickles mangoes.
As the six friends settle in at Ta’s home his stepmom’s outward demeanour to her former pupils is very welcoming, yet we sense that underneath that calm façade lurks madness and the group don’t have long to wait before they fall victims of her crazed imagination. When Noot disappears to rendezvous with her secret admirer and ends up as the main ingredient in Panor’s spicy chicken broth, they quickly realise that she hasn’t forgotten the past at all and is cooking up something nasty for each and every one of them.
It’s hardly the most original of plots but it’s a well-worn formula that works effectively enough. If you can sit through the somewhat ponderous flashbacks that litter the first half of the film then your patience is duly rewarded in the second half when the visceral horror that marked the opening scenes finally returns. Panor is one cold-hearted bitch and her methodology, using her own set of rituals and black magic is not for the faint of heart. Without giving too much away let’s just whet your appetite with the mention of a little flesh eating, eye gouging and tooth pulling, and all that before she even reaches for her trusty blowtorch…
Art Of The Devil 2 is a production of Ronin Team, a seven-strong team of filmmakers whose previous credits include the first instalment and the historical war drama Bang Rajan, and together they’ve pooled their talent to actively make a film which will appeal to a Western audience as much as it will a young Thai audience. The direction is of the competent, no frills variety, but the standard of make-up and special effects is actually quite high for a Thai movie (in my experience) and what is also pleasing is the decision to play the story straight and, for the most part, reel in the actors’ performances. The young cast do a reasonable job without too much ‘over-acting’ and they’re complemented by a fine performance from Napakpapah ‘Mamee’ Nakprasit (Mae Bia, Butterfly Man), one of the most popular model / actresses in Thailand who subverts her sexy tabloid image in the role of Panor, the cool, calculating killer.
The film’s influences are there on screen for all to see, most obviously Takashi Miike’s Audition, with Asami’s calm approach to torture clearly shaping the character of Panor. I also felt shades of Cannibal Holocaust in there, especially the sense of impending doom as the friends make the slow boat ride out to Ta’s village, and more explicitly when a bit of candid flesh munching is caught on videotape. Yet the film still retains its own local identity, with its strong Buddhist theme - the kids choose to turn to prayer rather than flee when in peril - and its use of sacred rituals which are familiar to many Thai people (see also Paul Spurrier’s P for a different example of this). Of course there’s a message within the film, that life is all about choices and your past defines who you are, and as the shaman sagely warns, “It’s like riding a tiger – it can bite back at any moment.”
It’s not a flawless movie though, and the dialogue – or at least the English subtitling – and storyline is hardly dynamic and often riddled with clichés. What’s that strange noise that Kim hears? “It’s probably just the wind,” reassures Por. Will Noot suddenly be unable to get a signal on her mobile phone in the middle of the village? Of course! Will Kim stupidly follow the cat’s screeching into the grandmother’s room? Oh yes, sure she will! There’s also the all-too-common decision to saddle the film with an unnecessary twist right at the end, although in hindsight it just about hangs together without disappearing into a gaping plot-hole. Then there’s the latter scenes supposedly set deep in the woods which are the most obvious studio sets since the woodland finale of the Assault On Precinct 13 remake, just glaringly awful.
In the end though the main reason Art Of The Devil 2 will be remembered is for its explicit imagery and in that regard the film certainly doesn’t disappoint. After so many Asian ghost stories it’s refreshing to see a slightly different approach to the genre, and judging from the film’s early success – it’s the highest grossing Thai film ever in neighbouring Malaysia, and recently picked up the Jameson’s Peoples Choice award at the BKKIFF – that success seems likely to continue on a more global scale. It’s a film that quite literally gets under your skin.
31st Jan 05 Peter Cushing appears to have modestly declined from participating in any of this kung fu nonsense although there is a charming battle later on when he gets a little carried away with a big flaming branch...