Nang Nak (Nonzee Nimibutr, 1999)
Nonzee Nimibutr's status in Thai cinema is somewhat that of a pillar: a stalwart overachiever whose merits is the fact that he can detect filmmaking talent rather than his inherent filmmaking talent itself. From the films he has directed which I have had an opportunity to see (the erotic no-brainer Jan Dara (2001), and his boisterous and confusing contribution to the horror tryptych Three (2002), overshadowed by Kim Ji-woon's tired and conventional ghost story, and Peter Chan's marvelous entry), he likens himself to a cultural provocateur. His scare techniques doesn't consist of shocks, but of xenophobic alienation, making use of his native land Thailand's more endemic cultural features as sources of terror. His eroticism consists of gimmickry, and provokes with tired notions of rape, abortion, and incest.
Nimibutr became internationally known when his ghost story Nang Nak won a few awards in several film festivals. I've been curious to see the film, but have always been prevented by my dislike of Nimibutr's filmmaking methods in his later films. I finally got the chance to see it, and while it is a few notches better than Nimibutr's later products, Nang Nak is still lacking, both as a horror film, and as a love story.
The film is based on a Thai folk story, which has reportedly been made into a film a few dozen times already. The plot, about a young man who returns to his wife and baby from the war, and discovers that his wife and baby are actually dead, and the folks he's been sharing his home with are ghosts, is also quite used. Japan has made a number of films depicting romantic (or at least seductive, and vengeful) relationships between the dead and the living, the most famous of which is Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953). Nimibutr however concentrates in juggling both horror and marital love. He's successful sometimes, but most of the time, he stumbles and never seems to get back on the right track. The film is drowned with a lot of wailing, a lot of crying, a lot of puppy-eyed longing from the married couple, that it offsets whatever attempt at horror Nimibutr has prepared. The attempts are exactly that, attempts. There's a huge reliance on mood and atmosphere, setting the ghost story in the middle of a Thai rainforest where flora and fauna consist of dark, looming trees, tarantulas, and large lizards. The atmosphere might have worked if Nimibutr's filmmaking wasn't clumsy and his visual sense wasn't stunted with his seemingly hyperactive tendencies. He edits too quickly, his camera moves too frequently, when the film requires tenderness in its romance, and stillness in its horror.
Nang Nak is written by Wisit Sasanatieng, who would later on direct the offbeat Thai Western Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) and the visually inventive urban fairy tale Citizen Dog (2004). Nimibutr will also be producing much of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's works, including two of his best, Mon-Rak Transistor (2001) and Last Life in the Universe (2003). He would also be financing a few of the Pang Brothers' projects. To call Nimibutr a failed filmmaker may be brash and unjust. What he lacks in filmmaking prowess, he has converted into huge bucks to finance up and coming Thai artists who would later on make waves internationally. If I have to thank Nimibutr's internationally renowned Nang Nak for that, then by all means, I would. But that doesn't remove the fact that the romantic ghost story is an utter failure right from the start.