Nang Nak Review
Back in 1997, I wrote a university essay on the economics of distributing foreign-language films in Britain, and while the tone was mostly pessimistic, I ended on an upbeat note as I predicted that the then brand new DVD format, with its unprecedented capacity for multiple languages and subtitles, gave the best hope of increasing access to world cinema than that offered by any invention since the introduction of subtitles and dubbing in the first place. And I'm delighted to confirm, less than four years down the line, that this prediction has come true with a vengeance - and as a result I'm getting my hands on cheap permanent copies of films that I might have had a hard-to-impossible time even getting to see just once in the past.
Take Nang Nak, for instance. A box-office smash hit in its native Thailand (where it grossed in three weeks what Titanic took three months to achieve) that generated a fair bit of festival buzz elsewhere, to date it has not been picked up for commercial distribution in the West in any medium. Five years ago, that would probably have been it - the truly dedicated cinéastes might have caught a festival screening, and the more obsessive types might have tracked down a probably unsubtitled VHS or VCD copy, but the rest of us would be blithely ignorant not just of this film but of a huge number of similar films from countries that simply don't register on the international radar.
That said, because this film comes from a culture that's been pretty much ignored by the West (look up filmed representations of Thailand, and Emmanuelle and Kickboxer are pretty much the highest-profile candidates), this means a film like Nang Nak is going to be harder work than the average mainstream blockbuster, purely due to its sheer unfamiliarity. It's perfectly comprehensible in narrative terms, but there's little context-setting, either in terms of the period or the underlying social and religious structures. Just as the not dissimilar The Exorcist requires at least a basic grounding in Catholic doctrine in order to fully grasp what's going on, so Nang Nak assumes a passing knowledge of Buddhist concepts, particularly those involving karma and reincarnation.
The story, too, is based on what is apparently the Thai equivalent of Romeo & Juliet, which presumably explains the somewhat vague and allusive narrative in the film's early stages. I imagine director Nonzee Nimibutr simply assumed that his audience would be more than familiar with the broad brushstrokes - and with considerable justification, as this is apparently the twenty-first screen version of the tale. So to the untrained eye, the film takes a bit of time to get going - but stick with it, as things pick up considerably towards the end, ending in an all-stops-out climax of considerable visceral and emotional power.
Set, apparently, in the nineteenth century, the film takes place in a small village in the midst of a lushly overgrown tropical jungle, where everything seems to be linked by the river and its tributaries: this is a place that makes Venice look dry, and there's barely a scene that isn't surrounded by an expanse of water. A suitably sinister note is sounded right at the beginning, as a lunar eclipse casts a foreboding shadow over the village, hinting that all is not well even before the hitherto inseparable lovers Nak and Mak are separated after Mak is called up to fight for his country.
This separation sets in train the ensuing tragedy: Mak is badly wounded in combat, witnesses his best friend die in his arms and has to spend months recuperating in a Buddhist monastery. Meanwhile, Nak gives birth to their child - but the labour goes very badly, to the extent that it's somewhat surprising that when Mak returns, Nak and the baby are waiting for him.
What follows could be construed as a spoiler... were it not for the fact that a Thai audience would be well aware of what's really going on (and in any case it's given away by the DVD box and the fact that the title is subtitled "Ghost Wife"!): Nak and the baby actually died in childbirth, but she can't bear to leave her beloved husband, so by a supreme effort of will she appears as a ghost and tries to restart their life as it left off. She's helped by the fact that Mak is just as in love with her, and is therefore completely unsuspecting - but when the other villagers try to break the news to him and reveal that instead of a life of domestic bliss he's actually living on his own in a run-down, cobweb-covered, rat-infested shack, Nak realises that the only way to keep her family together is to resort to murder...
I won't reveal any more of the plot, except to note that it takes a sharp change of direction at this point, turning into something rather more reminiscent of The Exorcist and A Chinese Ghost Story as the villagers, the local monastery and a freelance ghostbuster-for-hire attempt to get rid of Nak's ghost. But second-time director Nimibutr wisely resists the temptation to go for all-out excess - the central love story takes precedence over everything else, and the couple's passion for each other and their desperate desire not to be separated even when it's clear that they can never return to the past comes across powerfully even during the more obviously crowd-pleasing set-pieces, leading up to a genuinely heart-rending conclusion.
What most impressed me about Nang Nak is that it completely sidesteps the usual Manichean good-versus-evil framework of most horror films, preferring instead to follow the great Jean Renoir's maxim that everyone should have their reasons. What makes Nang Nak a genuine tragedy is that everything that happens does so for a perfectly rational and well-meaning reason - but the characters are faced with impossible dilemmas: how do you explain to your best friend that his wife and child are ghosts without destroying both your friendship and their marriage? Is spreading lies about someone justified by the fact that the truth could be all too literally devastating? And is murder justified if you yourself are a ghost and sincerely believe in life after death?
As with other recent horror films such as The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense and Ring, Nang Nak is very much part of the "less is more" school - before the all-stops-out climax, there are only a couple of special effects, but their relative paucity means that they pack a sledgehammer punch when they appear. These moments and the final scenes apart, the emphasis is on creating a lushly sensual, almost erotic atmosphere (the waterlogged and heat-drenched tropical setting means that clothing is kept to a minimum, and the cast members of both sexes look gorgeous), which paradoxically makes it even more unsettling. Nimibutr makes very effective use of the setting (there are startling close-up shots of the exotic local wildlife, some of which make memorable encroachments on the main narrative) and despite the languid pacing at the start he knows how and when to cut for maximum impact.
Obviously, I have no way of knowing if Nang Nak is typical of Thai cinema, whether it's exceptional or indeed whether it's considered below average (though its domestic commercial success suggests that it's highly rated by many) - but from a Western point of view this is a refreshing break from the norm, as well as encouraging proof that despite its relative stagnation on this part of the globe, horror cinema is going off in a whole range of intriguing directions in Asia. Nang Nak, Ring and Audition are very different films, but they have genuine strangeness and unpredictability in common - and that's exactly what's been lacking from the genre throughout much of the past decade.
Ocean Shores rank among the most infuriating companies currently servicing the DVD market. On the one hand, I'm immensely grateful to them for releasing certain films on DVD at all - their catalogue includes Wong Kar-Wai's much-loved Chungking Express and Shohei Imamura's Palme d'Or-winning The Eel, and their prices are commendably low - but it's a crying shame that their transfers are so mediocre. Nang Nak is one of the better efforts I've seen from them, but that's not what you might call a compliment.
The print is in reasonable condition (though I'd expect better from such a recent release) - there are a few spots and scratches, but nothing more serious. The (largish) subtitles are burned into the print, and are in Chinese and English. The translation is mostly very good, though there are a few howlers (plus some rather touching phraseology, such as when we're told that a man killed in battle "is buried in no-one's grave") - but the occasional Thai scene-setting intertitle isn't translated.
The biggest problem with a film like this is that a huge amount is set at night in the deep countryside, with few obvious visible light sources. So in an ideal world, it would get an anamorphic transfer (to maximise picture resolution) that pays close attention to shadow detail, on which this film is more than usually reliant. Sadly, it gets neither - it's non-anamorphic NTSC (with very obvious line structure when zoomed into my TV's 16:9 mode), and shadow detail is practically nonexistent, with the result that you're often squinting at the screen trying to work out what the hell's going on (copious artefacting, especially during the night scenes, doesn't exactly help!). Indeed, the picture overall is decidedly dark, even during the daylight scenes.
Worse, this has just about the most blatant edge enhancement I've ever seen on a DVD - it's so strong that occasionally characters seem surrounded by mysterious haloes, especially if they're standing against a light background such as the sky. In its favour, though, is the fact that for a non-anamorphic picture it's pretty sharp, and the rich, deep-toned colours come across well - but those familiar with Hong Kong DVDs won't rate it as any better than mediocre, and those more accustomed to major studio releases in the West will label it downright poor.
The sound is listed as 'Dolby Digital' on the box, though my level meters suggest that it's basic stereo. Still, it's several notches above the picture in terms of impact, and is often very atmospheric, particularly during the storm sequences that signify that Nak is about to wreak her wrath. The subtle, low-key music score with its gently throbbing percussion also comes across very effectively. All in all, this is one of the better soundtracks I've heard on a Hong Kong label DVD, and the fact that it hasn't been given the usual crude 5.1 remix helps immensely.
There are twelve chapter stops, selectable via animated video clips on the menu (the fact that it has a menu at all makes it a cut above other Ocean Shores titles that I've seen) and no extras whatsoever. Certainly, were this released on a Western label I'd have expected something context-setting, but given that the disc is from roughly the same part of the world as the film, the absence of anything along those lines is forgivable. The very low price, too, is a major incentive - in fact, that's what tempted me to take a flutter on a film about which I knew next to nothing (you should be able to pick it up for well under a tenner from a Hong Kong DVD dealer).
So despite the DVD's manifest flaws, it's still worth a look - much though I'd like to see a state-of-the-art anamorphic 5.1 version, I have to be realistic here: bitter experience tells me that with films as obscure as this you grab them the first chance you get! And the film is strong enough for its virtues to come through loud and clear even with a very poor picture. All in all, Nang Nak is a fascinating introduction to Thai cinema, and indeed Thai culture in general, and I was intrigued enough by it to want to know more.