What would you do for unconscionable wealth? How desperate would you have to be, financially, to face your past and all the humiliations and pain within it? That’s the question posed to recently unemployed musical instrument salesman Pruchit. Drowning in debt and unable to support his family’s growing needs, it seems like life is constantly kicking this hard working if harried soul. Into his miserable existence steps 13 Beloved.com, a website which - unbeknownst to him - offers an online reality game show featuring fabulous cash prizes. All our hero has to do is complete an unlucky number of tasks, and he will be handsomely rewarded to the tune of 100 million baht.
Of course, there’s a catch. Instead of standard stunts, Chit is required to sink deeper and deeper into the bowels of amoral activity. His first few goals are menial - kill a fly, eat said insect, make three children cry, etc. But when he reaches the fourth stage, and sees a dinner plate of feces awaiting him, both our lead and the audience know that things are only going to get worse - much worse. Indeed, as Chit plays along, he is challenged to both save and end lives, cause and prevent harm, and come face to face with his mixed ethnicity past, the father who abused him, and the horrible feelings of inadequacy and shame that such a situation fostered.
One thing Sakveerakul definitely knows is suspense and cinematic strategy. He is keenly aware that the inherent narrative drive - read: the 13 tasks - will keep even the most disassociated viewer glued to the screen. As long as he can deliver intriguing tricks and quests, we’ll follow along. At first, it appears the errands will be tame, following a standard formula of humiliation and taboo busting. But Game of Death defies many expectations, and when Chit must rescue a rotting corpse from an in-house well, we see there is much more to this movie besides challenges and choices. Sakveerakul’s attempts at humor are more or less effective, as are his violent set pieces. One semi-decapitated victim definitely leaves a lasting impression.
But there are also times when we fail to sympathize with Chit. He often comes across as purposefully ineffectual and weak, showing no backbone and even less will to change. Some may see the different confronts as a way of shaking him out of his shell, to stand up and be counted among the many making their way in the world. Yet there is a fatalistic feel to everything that happens to our lead. It’s as if the cosmos is convinced that Chit is a loser and is looking for ways to prove it time and time again. Thanks to the intrinsic nature of where the story is going, we continue to be invested. But Chit’s attitude tends to countermand such cinematic awareness.
And then there is the whole slightly surreal element that comes from the Thailand setting. Unlike other Asian horror or genre efforts, there is very little of the ghostly superstition or traditional terrors here. Sakveerakul keeps everything centered well within the real world, the better to make his occasional bouts of social commentary stand out. If you look carefully, you see slams against neglecting the elderly, police corruption, cyberspace anonymity and criminality, as well as slightly more goofy statements regarding cell phones and laundry lines. Clearly, 13 Game of Death is more interested in fear than focusing on major Thai concerns. But there are some subtle jabs intertwined with the dread.
That’s why we recognize how readily the movie harkens back to the more meaning-laced offerings of the Me Decade. Sakveerakul wants his ideas to resonate beyond the simple gore and torture porn many will infer into this film. Yet aside from a couple of blood soaked shots, the grue is relatively tame and the brutality centered on main character Chit. In fact, it’s safe to say that 13: Game of Death is one of the more unusual efforts to be associated with the post-Saw/Hostel world. While it reflects the mindset that made those films, it also argues for a differing, more unique approach to such subjects. It’s something that Sakveerakul discusses in the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an 18 minute Making-of featurette.
Still, the story remains all too familiar - a desperate man doing unspeakable acts for the sake of some strings-attached coin. The cabal-oriented conclusion feels tacked on and the major plot twist is telegraphed a good five minutes before it happens. Yet 13: Game of Death is a good little thriller. It keeps you occupied and finds a way to work, even in spite of itself. While it probably won’t change the world’s perspective on Thai horror, it will definitely delight the adventurous fright fan. And with a message about money and its roots of all evil front and center, it has something to say as well.