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The Terrifying Traditions of Thai Horror

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although Thai Cinema is perhaps not yet as well regarded on the international scene as that of other Asian countries, it has in recent years been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, and has been producing an increasing number of acclaimed and popular films that have found success both at home and abroad. This movement has spanned different types of cinema, from the art house stylings of Pen-ek Ratanaruang, whose Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves were distributed globally, and Wisit Sasanatieng, whose Tears of the Black Tiger was the first domestic film ever to be invited to screen at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, through to the wild martial arts action of Ong Bak star Tony Jaa.

Inevitably, with the modern Asian ghost genre still managing to scare up audiences and remakes around the globe, horror cinema has also played an important part in this, not only scoring a series of impressive box office hits, but providing an arena for up-and-coming young filmmakers to unleash their imaginations and offer up new versions of time-honored supernatural legends. The genre has continued to go from strength to strength, with the success of key films such as Nang Nak and Shutter having been repeated, and indeed outdone by recent horrors including the record breaking anthology Phobia and its even more popular sequel.

Thai Horror through the Years

Given that Thailand is a country with a widespread belief in spirits (referred to as "phi") and the supernatural, it should come as no surprise that it also has a long and rich history of horror cinema which stretches back through the decades. To a large extent, this filmic tradition in Thailand has revolved around time-honored stories such as the tale of Mae Nak, and themes of supernatural vengeance, possession and black magic. Certainly, a fair proportion of Thai horror in the 1980s was based upon folk tales or superstitions, typified by the likes of Ghost Money (1981), which follows a ghost seeking revenge on a group of boys who have been stealing coins from the mouths of corpses.

Interestingly, although the country's cinema has of late made concessions to the new modern Asian ghost form, as popularized and formalized by Nakata Hideo's ground breaking Ringu in 1998, these traditions have lingered, and a strong cultural connection to folklore remains. In many cases these traditional stories and themes have been combined with a new commercial sensibility in order to appeal to younger viewers, and in some cases to make films more attractive for international distribution.

The Return of Nang Nak

The first of what might be considered the new wave of Thai horror arrived in 1999 in the form of Nang Nak, directed by top producer Nonzee Nimibutr and written by Wisit Sasanatieng. A big-budget take on the classic Thai ghost story set in the 19th century, the film follows a man who returns to his village from fighting in a war, only to be told by the locals that his wife died giving birth to his child, despite the fact that he finds them alive and well at home. The unfortunate man slowly comes to realize that the villagers are right, and that he is in fact living with the ghosts of his family, leading to tragic consequences. Even now, more than a decade after its original release, Nang Nak is still a very distinctive film, and it is easy to see why it proved so successful, domestically and internationally, as well as winning a slew of awards at various festivals.

Wisely, Nimibutr and Sasanatieng seem perfectly aware of the story's essential simplicity and the fact that most of their audience will know exactly where it is going (not least since the tale had been filmed many times previously), and so place a greater emphasis on characters and emotion rather than attempting to manipulate with twists. As a result, though marvelously atmospheric and genuinely creepy in places, the film is perhaps even more notable for being moving and sad, in a wistful and romantic fashion. Visually, the film was a real step up for Thai genre cinema, with the budget allowing for a rich, polished look, and with Nimibutr making excellent use of the country's gorgeous rural scenery, making for a real sense of place and effectively underpinning its cultural origins.

Disappointingly, the film's success did not lead to an instant explosion of genre cinema as key releases had in other Asian countries. The next few years were relatively quiet for Thai horror, aside from a few outings such as the joint Cambodian production Snaker, based upon an old tale of romance and snake immortals. Still, Nang Nak had certainly made its mark, with Nimibutr being invited to provide a segment for the pan-Asian horror anthology Three, alongside Peter Chan and Kim Ji Woon. His contribution, "The Wheel", was an effective, traditionally themed ghost short involving a sinister puppet, which more than held its own against the other entries.

The Eye and the Modern Thai Horror Film

Strangely enough, the next big breakthrough for Thai horror came thanks in no small part to two young Hong Kong filmmakers, Danny and Oxide Pang. Oxide actually began his career in Thailand, working for the Kantana Group as a colorist, before making his debut in 1997 with Who Is Running?, which was chosen as the country's entry for the Oscars. Often working as a directorial double act, the Pangs scored a major international hit with the stylish thriller Bangkok Dangerous in 1999, which was recently the subject of a lackluster Hollywood remake that they themselves were responsible for. A couple of years later Oxide made his first foray into the supernatural with Bangkok Haunted, a collection of three ghostly shorts which he co-directed with Pisut Praesangeam. Although atmospheric and rooted in folklore, the film was a distinctly modern affair, very much in the Pangs' fast cutting and flashy visual style.

In 2002 came The Eye, co-directed by the brothers, a massive worldwide hit starring Angelica Lee as a young woman who unwittingly gains the ability to see ghosts after an eye transplant. Although the film was perhaps technically more of a Hong Kong production, much of it takes place in Thailand, with the Pangs making great use of the local scenery and culture to generate an eerie atmosphere. The Thai connection was carried through to the sequels, with The Eye 2, starring Shu Qi and Jesdaporn Pholdee, and The Eye 10 both being set in Thailand. The latter in particular revolves around folklore, playing upon a variety of ways to see ghosts, hence the rather odd title. Sadly, although The Eye was later remade in Hollywood, it made no reference to such local beliefs or to Thailand at all, though given the fact that the film was a critically reviled box office dud, this may not have been such a bad thing for the country's reputation.

Following the success of The Eye, and with the Asian horror business still booming, the next few years saw the genre taking off in Thai cinemas. Unsurprisingly, the Pangs were to an extent involved, frequently working as producers and helping to launch the careers of a few up-and-coming young horror helmers. Many of the resulting films, although still based upon folktales and legends, at least to an extent, were more modern affairs, influenced by the new, internationally popular ghost form and more overtly aimed at a teen audience. A good example of this was Omen, from director Thammarak Kamuttmanoch and produced by the Pangs, a fairly straightforward tale of three young lads who find themselves under supernatural threat and having visions of their own deaths. Reminiscent of the Hollywood hit Final Destination, the film's main draw was the presence of Thai boy band D2B members in the lead roles, though it still managed to serve up some respectably imaginative chills. Other notable releases from 2003 include the creepy pregnancy outing Unborn, directed by Bhandit Thongdee and starring Intira Jaroenpura of Nang Nak, and Rahtree: Flower of the Night, an amusing and inventive horror comedy take on The Exorcist and ghost films in general.

Sadly, not all of the films which emerged from the burgeoning new horror movement were of the same quality, such as the distinctly average productions Diecovery, Hunch, Crying Fiddle, The Commitment, and others. Still, even these for the most part managed some measure of commercial returns, with many being picked up for international DVD distribution around Asia and to the West. More interestingly, another offshoot of the increasingly high profile of Thai horror was that a couple of Westerners tried their hands at making films in the country. British director Paul Spurrier was the first to have made a horror film in the Thai language with his sex and sorcery themed P, while Mark Duffield turned in Ghost of Mae Nak, another more modern and teen-oriented take on the old legend that was surprisingly creditable and made good use of the local scenery thanks to some impressive cinematography.

Shutter and Alone

Another milestone in modern Thai horror arrived in 2004 with Shutter, from the writing and directing team of Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Like most of the great genre classics, the film had a simple, but effective hook, revolving around the sinister and fascinating theme of spirit photography. While its plot was fairly straightforward, following a photographer who, haunted by his past after being involved in an apparent car accident, sees ghostly images in the photos he takes, Pisanthanakun and Wongpoom showed a real knack for making the very most of the conventions of the form. As a result, despite having arrived a good six years after the release of Ringu and having a familiar feel, the film was genuinely frightening in places, and offered up an impressive number of creative frights and effective set pieces. The film was a deserved smash hit at the domestic box office, and following an acclaimed run at various genre festivals, also proved popular internationally, being one of the rare examples from Asia to be released in cinemas around the world. Inevitably, it also attracted a Hollywood remake, the less about which is said the better.

Pisanthanakun and Wongpoom returned a few years later with the superb Alone, an even better crafted and more terrifying chiller, starring Thai-German singer/actress Marsha Wattanapanich. This time, the plot delved into the always disquieting conceit of Siamese twins, with Wattanapanich playing a young woman forced to confront the dark secrets of the past she had quite literally been removed from. The film saw the two directors having matured considerably since Shutter, and having developed more of their own style, still throwing in plenty of scares, but at the same time making the proceedings character driven and surprisingly emotional. Their efforts paid off, and the film was both a hit at the box office and with critics around the world, picking up prizes at a number of prestigious events.

2006 and 2007 proved to be bumper years for Thai horror, with the genre continuing to grow in terms of quantity and, thankfully, quality. One of the best was Dorm, from director Songyos Sugmakanan, set at a boarding school and following a troubled young boy who thinks he may have encountered a ghost. Following more in the tradition of Guillermo Del Toro's classic The Devil's Backbone than the likes of the Korean Whispering Corridors series, the film was as much character drama as horror, emotionally depicting the struggles of a child to fit in whilst coming to terms with life and death. Arayangkoon Monthon's The Victim was another strong outing, adding a twist to the increasingly familiar formula with a true crime flavor, dealing with a young woman who ends up being haunted after taking part in a police murder re-enactment. Colic and Ghost Game both also offered something a little different, with the latter proving a highly controversial affair for its central premise of having a reality television show take place on the site of a Cambodian massacre camp.

Whereas Wisit Sasanatieng's return to horror with The Unseeable did have some cause for excitement, the best Thai horror of the period was arguably Sick Nurses, from director Thodsapol Siriwiwat and Prachya Pinkaew, producer of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong. Although its plot may have sounded like more of the same, with the unlikeable workers of a Bangkok hospital being tormented by their sins and the ghost of a maltreated patient, the film was a decidedly off-the-wall affair, filled with anarchic gore scenes and amusingly creative gags.

Gore, Monsters and Deadly Games

Of course, modern Thai horror has not been limited to the ghost subgenre. The three films of the Art of the Devil series brought a hot dose of bloody mayhem to cinemas, with tales of witchcraft gone gruesomely wrong in the finest style of old Shaw Brothers classics such as Black Magic, brought up to date with a disturbing dash of visceral torture scenes. Unsurprisingly, the films received considerable attention for their graphic content, and proved popular around the world. The country has also churned out a number of monster and killer animal films in the form of The Trek, which saw nature turning viciously against a group of researchers looking for a rare elephant in the deepest depths of the jungle, the Godzilla-influenced fun of Garuda, and the giant crocodile opus The Brutal River.

Director Taweewat Wantha, who recently scripted the popular sports martial arts hybrid Fireball, tried his hand at the zombie game with SARS Wars, humorously retitled Bangkok Zombie Crisis in the West just in case prospective viewers hadn't gotten the point. The film was a wild, censor-bating explosion of surreal humor and gore scenes, throwing in bright colors and bursts of animation to make for a memorably stylish and entertaining experience.

One of the most widely seen and acclaimed genre films from Thailand of late was 13 Beloved (released as 13: Game of Death in the West), a horrific thriller that found Thai-American singer and actor Krissada Terrence (The Adventure of Iron Pussy) playing an unfortunate, downtrodden young man who becomes involved in a deadly contest that brings out the very worst in him. Intelligently scripted, gruesomely inventive and violent, the film delves deep into the darkest recesses of human nature in incredibly tense fashion, and has recently been snatched up for a needless Hollywood remake.

Haunted Cinemas and Fearful Phobias

Whereas other Asian countries have slowed down somewhat in their production of horror, the Thai genre has reached new heights, with ghosts and ghouls continuing to top the domestic box office. Coming Soon, directed by Sophon Sakdaphisit, co-writer of Shutter and Alone, was one of 2008's biggest hits on its Halloween release, thanks in part to an appealing cast of up-and-coming stars, including pop singer Punch and Chantawit Thanasewee (Hormones). The plot provided a relatively fresh take on the old chestnut of a ghost emerging from the screen to haunt cinema goers - or in this case, nefarious, film copying pirates. The film proved worthy of its success thanks mainly to Sakdaphisit's no-nonsense, old school approach to scares and his efforts at character development, which combined to make for a few genuine frights and plenty of eerie action.

The film's producer, Yongyoot Thongkongtoon (who also worked on top comedy The Iron Ladies) had another horror blockbuster in the anthology piece Phobia (also awkwardly referred to as 4bia). The collection brought together an impressive group of top genre directors in Banjong Pisanthanakun and Pakpoom Wongpoom of Shutter and Alone fame, and Paween Purijitpanya, previously responsible for the above average ghost romp The Body, with Thongkongtoon himself also chipping in. Despite the anthology format being notoriously difficult to pull off with any consistency, Phobia achieved just that, with all four shorts being highly enjoyable, offering a nice sense of variety by spanning different subgenres.

Given its commercial success, a sequel was always going to be a distinct possibility, though what was a surprise was that Phobia 2, which followed the very next year, was even better than its predecessor. This time around, the film offered five tales of terror, directed by the returning Purijitpunya, Wongpoom, and Pisonthanakun, and newcomers Songyos Sugmakanan and Wisoot Poolworraluck, a veteran Thai producer who worked on Nang-Nak. Again, the film managed to maintain a high standard throughout, with each of its segments giving fans an entertaining combination of scares and laughs, even throwing in a few surprises and knowing twists on the genre formula along the way, while still staying true to the tradition of utilizing folklore and legends.

The film proved that Thai horror had come of age, breaking box office records and taking its place as the nation's top grossing genre production of all time. With the country producing more and more quality scarefests and an increasing number of talented young ghost-savvy film makers, Asian horror fans certainly have a great deal to look forward to.

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Published February 24, 2010

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