A couple of years ago, there was a brief flurry of excitement when Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives won the Palme D’or at Cannes, but this was short-lived and though beloved by the art house crowd, that film remains a very difficult introduction to Thai cinema, so far removed from mainstream offerings that even most Thais find it unfathomable.
Nonetheless, Uncle Boonmee does centre on an integral part of Thai life and culture, namely ghosts and by doing so, it shares its root with many more mainstream local films, one of which, Pee Mak Phrakanong, has managed to bridge the cultural gap and win very favourable reviews. It was the biggest box office winner of last year here in Thailand and at the last count, the second highest grosser of all time behind the war epic and perhaps familiar, The Legend of Suriyothai.
Pee Mak, as it is simply known in European distribution, is a reinvention of a classic Thai ghost story, whereby a husband returns from war to restart his old life, not realising that his wife, having died in childbirth during his abscence, is now in fact a ghost.
This Mae Nak Phra Kanong (Lady Nak of Phra Kanong) folk tale, set in the Rattanakosin Kingdom of hundred years ago, has been made and remade countless times for the Thai audience and their familiarity with it, creates a perfect vehicle for the director Banjong Pisanthanakun to lampoon. He sets about the myth with positive glee, leaving no stone unturned either visually or verbally, as he pokes fun at the two foundations of Thai cinema, horror and history.
It is certainly a departure from his other global hit from 2005, the far more sinister Shutter and here, he cleverly throws the two central protagonists (husband and ghost wife) into a delightfully jarring partnership with the four likely lads who have escorted their love-lorn mate home from battle. It is they and not soppy husband Mak (pronounced Mark, a cheeky in joke at us westerners’ expense) that quickly become aware of Nak’s spectral reality and the film revolves around their ham-fisted attempts to escape her and warn Mak of his fate.
Of course, each attempt ends up ever more hopeless and confused than the previous, enabling the director to give the Thai audience their other great cinematic passion, slapstick, lots of it, some drag, some wigs, silly voices, falling over, slow downs, speed-ups, every comic device they could ever want, all performed with an impeccable timing.
The film has a great self awareness, using deliberately cliched sound and visual effects together with script asides to bring into focus its own artifice, very much like Airplane did all those years ago. Monks too get a knowing stab from Banjong, as their inefficacy in a crisis is shown in all its wimpering lack of glory and the corny saccharine Thai pop song and video, so adored by the masses, gets mercilessly parodied. Throw in modern cultural references to David Blaine, The Last Samaurai and even a discussion of trendy haircuts and you have a film which cleverly keep its audience firmly on its side, laughing with it and themselves at the same time.
A running gag of being able to identify a ghost by looking through your legs becomes a comedy tour-de-force near the film’s end, as one character attempts to do just this, on a canoe, with his four hapless cohorts sitting between him and the ghost/wife in the helm, a scene that will have you laughing uproariously. Thai cinema might not travel too well, but its senior proponents are well versed in their art and this scene in particular is worthy of comparison with the Marx Brothers and 3 Stooges at their very best.
Production wise, the film is impeccably lit and art directed to capture that end of 19th Century feel and this too adds to the ongoing satire of historical drama. The cast does what is required of it, the leads to look like film leads and the four lads to buffoon about and steal the show.
Maybe, the editing could have been a little more ruthless in the last third, but that is a small criticism. Overall, it’s a very funny family film that will leave you with a taste for Thai cinema and hoping that a few more choices wing their way out from Bangkok. Catch it if you can.
Thai with English subtitles. Running time 107 minutes.