George Lucas isn’t the only filmmaker who can turn ancient myth, graphic eye candy, doomed romance, and Buddhist non-attachment into box office gold, so can Nonzee Nimibutr. What’s more, Nimitbutr did it six years ago in Thailand with Nang Nak (recently released on DVD by Kino International), where the film became a popular sensation and helped finance festival hits like Last Life in the Universe (2003) and The Overture (2004).
For my money, Nang Nak is also a lot more fun–and even touching–than any one of the Star Wars prequels or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), for that matter. Not that it’s high art. Proudly wearing genre conventions on its sleeves, Nang Nak tells the haunting Thai legend of the loyal wife: a woman so loyal that she refuses to leave her husband even after she dies, thereby unnerving the town residents. Set in the mid-19th century, the lovers separate in the film’s opening scenes after an effective but utterly random montage of portentous imagery (solar eclipses, beating drums, scattering birds); the young husband, Mak, joins the war effort and leaves his pregnant wife, Nak, to tend to their picturesque hut in the Prakanong Canal.
Mak, however, soon discovers war isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and has to fight for his life while recovering from a chest wound at a monastery, and Nimibutr puts his montage talents to even greater use, juxtaposing Mak’s anguished fever dreams with Nak’s painful childbirth.
Eventually, Mak is healed by a wise old monk and invited to live at the monastery (to ease his bad fortune), but his attachment to his wife and child–whose fates are unknown to him–compels him to return home. “As you please,” the monk concedes, but then adds: “From now on, whatever may happen, remain calm.” Reunited with her husband, Nak does everything she can to please Mak and convince him to ignore the angry townsfolk who claim Nak died in childbirth and are forming a mob with torches.
But hey, summarizing the premise of this film is like listing the ingredients of mee krob noodles–what matters is its combined finesse. And Nang Nak has style to spare with its lush compositions of the flora and fauna and dramatic meteorology of its exotic setting. Clouds roll over palms, a crimson sun descends behind swaying grain, and most effective of all, raging thunderstorms–which may or may not be the machinations of devious spirits–flash their fury, casting flickering light within the shadowy confines of rickety thatched huts.
Nimibutr isn’t above a few clichÈs, however, and he depends a bit heavily on rusty standbys like rats or corpses that lurch into the frame at unexpected moments. But he saves his best tricks for the latter part of the film, offering a series of economic but innovative images; one features Nak in a tense moment, looking into a mirror that splinters, suddenly reflecting her face like a cubist nightmare.
Despite its supernatural build-up, the film maintains sensitivity toward its characters and drama, rooting its horrors in emotion and tragedy like the best of classic thrillers. The romance is presented effectively through simple and archetypical terms, and never severely falters due to clumsy elaboration or philosophical didacticism. And the film enlivens its gruesomeness with touches of humor provided by eccentric supporting characters and an appreciation for the absurd.
Nimibutr also makes conspicuous use of male nakedness; although there is no nudity below the waist, virtually every male in the film who is not a soldier or a monk wears nothing but a pair of shorts. Granted, it’s the jungle, but unless the whole town is staging a silent protest against the multinational garment industry, it seems more like an aesthetic choice than representative of current Thai fashion. Yet the many young and fit men in the film are less sexual than they are vulnerable–perhaps their shirtless lives correspond to their inability to defeat their spirit nemesis.
Nang Nak is ultimately a visually inspired, if somewhat loopy, horror-romance film that manages to preserve its thematic ambitions. Its eccentricities simply increase its pleasures and flavor a unique and pleasurable spin on the horror genre.