Love and Death
The legend of Mae Nak is one of the most popular ghost stories in Thailand and has been the basis for over 20 movies from the silent era to the present. With such enduring popularity it seems long overdue that an ambitious producer with his pulse on overextended trends would try giving this legend the ol’ J-horror makeover. It’s really simple: all you have to do is exchange a dated, turn-of-the-century country peasant ghost look for white body paint and black hair dye and you’re made.
To exploit their Bangkok connections to cash in on a fad, however belated, was undoubtedly part of the plan for low-budget British production company De Warrenne Pictures with its version of the story, Ghost of Mae Nak. That it was picked up by Tartan Asia Extreme, DVD distributor of Takashi Miike and Ringu et al., further indicates a desire to tap a well that may have run dry. But besides a few gratuitous death sequences and the presence of the titular ghost, the script is much closer to the romantic, folk religion-tinged origins of the original Thai story than the eerie gore of most Asian horror.
The original story concerns a 19th century rural villager, Mak, who returns home from war not knowing that his wife, Nak, is a now a ghost. She died during childbirth while he was away. When the villagers try to warn Mak that the woman he came home to is a ghost, Nak kills and harasses anybody who threatens to separate the two until Buddhist monks finally exorcise her unnatural spirit. Though Mak and Nak are victims of dire circumstances, the village must exert control in order to keep their tenuous society intact.
This tale is related through the grandmother, suitably wrinkled and foreboding, who tells of a modern-day girl named Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong)—who is not dead. In this version, Nak is engaged to her own Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin) (bear with me here). After this cute, idealistic couple gets married and moves into a decrepit house, the original ghost Nak (Jaran Ngamdee), now named Mae Nak for clarity, starts haunting Mak to try and get him to save her still tortured soul. Apparently the Buddhist monks that originally exorcised her had cut out a portion of her skull, which Mak unknowingly bought in a shop (after the bone had been refashioned into a broche), and it needs to be placed back in the corpse’s head before her ghost can finally rest in peace. While they try to figure what it is that Mae Nak wants, the ghost helps Mak and Nak by threatening sleazy city types taking advantage of their precocious naïveté. After Mak is hit by a car and goes into a coma, it’s up to Nak to return the bone to the corpse. This takes way too long to happen; for some reason Nak has to be told repeatedly that she needs to return the bone before realizing this might be a good idea.
If there’s a subtext to be gleaned from this sloppy narrative, it involves the evocation of ancient traditions connecting the two Mae Nak stories. Several key scenes (including the couple’s opening marriage and a final exorcism) involve Buddhist rituals and the putting down of Mae Nak corresponds with the idea of ending cycles of rebirth. Mak and Nak live in a Bangkok of dreary sheet metal facades, where smart young adults work in high tech office buildings only to return to cramped homes on dirty streets. Mae Nak is a connection to a simpler past of devoted families and loyal marriages. But this past is corrupted and it is Nak’s duty to reconcile these errors to restore a sense of balance to the present.
Technically, the film is pretty crude. The images are grainy and framed without any tension. Montage and scare scenes progress with arrhythmic awkwardness, further marred by premature money shots of a spirit willing to show her face early and often. Mae Nak is a funny ghost. She helps and seems to like Mak and Nak, but also scares them and eventually possesses Mak without explanation. More than anything the ghost exists as a “shit happens” malevolent force, used to liven up the story, rather than a character with consistent motivation. Her method of killing is dull and accidental; usually she simply shows herself and the seer falls out of a window from fright. Overall director Mark Duffield is clueless as to how to scare an audience; a “gotcha” coda is completely fumbled when Mak and Nak out-gotcha the gotcha.
The film is much more successful at upholding the conservative values of a happily married, religiously observant young couple. While Mak is in a coma, Nak hast to run through a gauntlet of corrupting forces—a shady real estate dealer, a couple of thieves, a geeky crush who won’t take “no” for answer—in order to save her husband and restore the goodness of her marriage. She is helped by Mae Nak who, as in the past, harasses whoever gets in Nak’s way. But Nak’s success is finally due to her plucky persistence and reliance on traditional rituals and values to achieve her ends.
By creating a modern correlation of the Mae Nak legend in order to uphold traditional values in an industrializing society, Ghost of Mae Nak projects a certain sweetness. However, by updating the story with a much happier ending from the original lore, the film ignores the creepier and more subversive elements of the original story that I suspect are the reason for the legend’s popularity. Mae Nak is much more interesting than Nak, a devoted wife who apparently feels no qualms about living with her husband as a ghost and is devoted to the point of murder. This is an amusing play on the conservative ideals of a devoted wife. (And really, if the husband can’t figure it out on his own, why not just let them be?) Both stories are essentially about the sacrifices a couple makes for their marriage, but the original story presents sacrifice in a much more complicated light, as an intersection of personal and societal obligations that don’t always resolve themselves.
Perhaps spicing a moral story up with the odd decapitation was Duffield’s way of creating a ribald contrast to the golden couple. But the horror story and the love story never sufficiently gel together, making for an awkward muddle of a genre hybrid. In the end, I would rather watch another movie about the old bewitched odd couple Mak and Nak than the perky do-gooders of today.