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Ghost of Mae Nak (2006)
19th Jun 06
A modern day story about a couple of newlyweds haunted by a ghost from an old Thai legend.
Have you seen the film about the kids in the Far East who fall foul of a female ghost with long, straight dark hair? Of course you have, many times since Hideo Nakata’s Ring first introduced this sub-genre of Asian horror to Western audiences… but wait, come back, this is one is slightly different. Essentially a love story, Ghost Of Mae Nak utilises its namesake as a protective force rather than a destructive one for much of its duration, although the lines do get a little blurred towards the film’s conclusion.
The ghost of Mae Nak is one of the most familiar characters in Thai folklore. The old legend tells of a young couple in love, Mak and Nak, who are expecting their first child together. The couple are separated when Mak is forced to go to war, and tragedy soon follows when Nak dies during childbirth, along with her newborn baby. When Mak returns to the village Nak comes back as a ghost to haunt her husband and place a curse on those who’d forced them apart.
It’s a tale that has inspired more than twenty movies in its home country, most famously Nang Nak (1999) directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Inspired after watching Nimibutr’s earlier film, British director Mark Duffield took the premise “what if Mae Nak’s spirit was still alive today?” and has brought the fable kicking and screaming into present day Thailand using his own contemporary style.
Our modern young lovers are also called Mak (Chotchaicharin) and Nak (Pacharawirapong) and we’re first introduced to them as they’re house-hunting in the suburbs of Bangkok, prior to their wedding day. Their unscrupulous estate agent, Mr Angel, is very pushy about one property in particular, which – in the grandest tradition of haunted houses – happens to be the oldest house in the area and has been empty for a number of years, falling into disrepair. The way he cackles repeatedly and so obviously pretends that there’s loads of other people interested in the property shows us that he’s clearly a wrong ‘un, but the couple are taken in with his act and Mak naively goes ahead and signs the contract. With the help of some friends they clean up the old house and move in… Then the fun begins.
Mak buys a brooch fashioned from bone for Nak to bring her good fortune, however it’s bad luck that arrives instead when their new home is burgled by a couple of petty thieves, who make off with all their wedding gifts, including Nak’s new brooch. In addition, Mak’s nightmares have worsened and he’s now hearing mysterious banging noises around the house and seeing a ghostly female figure with black eyes, no teeth and a gaping hole in the middle of her forehead. Things then get even worse when Mak is knocked down in the street after giving chase to the robbers, leaving him in a coma fighting for his life – his last desperate plea to his wife, “find Mae Nak!”
Nak turns to her elderly grandmother to explain the story of Mae Nak (Papanai) and as events unfold Nak realises that their new abode is where Mae Nak resided over a century before, and with the help of a spiritualist discovers that the lost bone brooch contains her spirit. As Mae Nak is reliant on the couple to finally lay her to rest, her ghost displays benevolence, protecting them against threats from outsiders.
In addition to the aforementioned Mr Angel (who was planning to use the fraudulent contract to exploit money from Mak) and the two burglars, there’s also the dodgy street trader who receives the stolen goods, plus a crooked housekeeper who wants the brooch for himself. All of these characters are summarily despatched in gruesome fashion akin to something out of the Final Destination movies, and it’s these scenes that are most satisfying for the average cineplex fan. Angel’s demise on the Bangkok subway is marred by some poor CGI effects, but otherwise the death scenes are well handled, especially the moment of body slicing which is as good as any I’ve previously seen on film.
The two leads became huge national stars while filming, winning awards for their work on a popular daytime soap, and their natural chemistry is clear to see, so it’s rather a shame when Mak is taken out of action midway through the film. With Mak off in coma-land it falls to Nak to exhume Mae Nak’s corpse and restore the brooch to the skull, so setting her spirit free. There’s a distinct shift in tone as the plot suddenly becomes a race against time with Nak battling to fulfil her mission, thereby saving Mak (now possessed) before a brutal exorcism rite can be performed. After the pace and excitement of the first half of the film, this latter section looks set to gallop along to a swift resolution, yet unfortunately it feels drawn out with an extended encounter with a medium and then a last minute twist which I found totally unnecessary.
Minor quibbles aside, Ghost Of Mae Nak is a well crafted film and must rank as a particular success for Duffield who not only wrote and directed the picture, but also worked as Director of Photography. Quite an achievement for someone who, by his own admission, can’t speak the language and had to have everything translated during filming. A special mention must also go to Stephen Bentley-Klein’s music and sound design which is effective throughout, eschewing tiresome thumping rock songs in favour of more measured electronic noodlings and a spooky recurrent main theme.
Overall it’s refreshing to see a portrayal of Thailand that avoids the stereotypes which other filmmakers so often use; there’s no seedy girlie bars, overly camp ladyboys or troubled hitmen, just a bustling metropolis of innocent people going about their everyday lives. With just the one long haired Asian ghost, of course!
Versions Ghost Of Mae Nak is currently unreleased in the UK but is available on region free DVD (with English subtitles) from Thailand.
However, insider gossip tells us that Tartan Video have just signed this for a UK release in the near future, so stay tuned for more news on that front.