Friday, June 19, 2009

The Coffin (2008)

The Coffin (Ekechai Uekrongtham, 2008)

Ekechai Uekrongtham's The Coffin starts with a reporter narrating from inside a coffin. The camera zooms out from the enclosed space where the reporter is lying to reveal an impressive visual: thousands of coffins, all occupied by men and women, surround a statue of Buddha. An overwhelming buzz of prayers accompanies the visual, adding an otherworldly flavor to the sequence. The reporter narrates that in Thailand, thousands of men and women would flock to Buddhist temples to take part in a bizarre ritual where they would lie inside coffins to get rid of bad luck and cleanse themselves of problems and ailments. The strange ritual, as it turns out, has gained momentous popularity in these hard times. The basic rationale of the ritual is to fool fate or bad spirits into thinking that the participant has died; thus, giving him a clean slate, without all the accumulated bad karma, in his new life.

Uekrongtham mines into this rationale for his film's central conflict. His two main characters undergo the ritual to rid themselves of their respective misfortunes: Chris (Ananda Everingham) wishes that her Japanese girlfriend (Aki Shibuya) wakes up from her coma; Su (Karen Mok), who takes refuge in Bangkok a few days before her wedding to her beloved boyfriend (Andrew Lin), wishes that her lungs are cleared of cancer. True to the testimonials of those who went through the ritual, their prayers are answered. Chris' girlfriend wakes up from her coma while Su is completely healed of her cancer. Unfortunately, their good fortune does not come without a hefty price tag. Su's fiance dies of a car accident while Chris and her boyfriend are continuously haunted by the ghost of a mysterious woman. Fate cannot be fooled. The ritual only disrupts it, displacing the bad karma of the ritual's participants to the people they love.

The Coffin purports to be a horror film. Thus, littered throughout the film are sequences that are designed to scare. Some work, as when Chris is trapped inside the coffin and within the cramped and dark space that he is occupying, appears the token spectre. Most don't, as when Su is haunted by her dead fiance from the mirrors of the several closets. The Coffin musters tired horror tropes and techniques as ancient as Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) to satisfy the necessitated commercial aspirations of the film, making the effort a tad forced, if not totally inconsequential. For sure, Uekrongtham garners a few creepy moments here and there, but the overall effort is quite insignificant and redundant, especially considering that the faddish genre is currently in an extended stay in the cineplexes, sustained only by the few gems (like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's subversive Retribution (2006)) that appear every now and then.

Uekrongtham has mastered visualizing human emotions, considering the fact that his previous films Beautiful Boxer (2003), about a transexual boy forced by fate and circumstance into a manly sport and quite humorously, is good at it, and Pleasure Factory (2007), about the several denizens of the hidden red light district of Singapore, are all very human stories. You can somewhat observe his ease and comfort in emphasizing loss and guilt in The Coffin. There are several sublime moments that tend to release you from the unnecessary whittled tension that the several inserted horror sequences provide, as when Su wakes up to discover her fiance beside her, then discovering that her fiance has in fact died, and looks upon her fiance's ghost with an expression of discomforted pity and guilt. The film's denouement, where Chris reveals the mystery of the girl haunting him, is emotionally engaging, filmed with refreshing simplicity and restraint by Uekrongtham with just Chris and the ghost having an intimate conversation over a field of grass that was once the setting of a nightmare.

Had The Coffin been made as intended by Uekrongtham, an examination on death and loss, instead of the confused shapeshifter that it is now, it could have been something more memorable. Unfortunately, that's a prospect that we might never know. As it is, it is merely passable and harmless entertainment. The Coffin is something you momentarily enjoy before burying it the next day to be forgotten for the rest of your life.

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