The Thai legend of Mae Nak is something of a nationally accepted superstition, like The Jersey Devil or Bloody Mary, but unlike those tales, Asian culture runs rampant with stories of the dead – indeed in 1904 a famous book collected Japanese versions known as Kwaidan – a title that has been interpreted to mean “Ghost Story”. In 1965 a few of these tales were later adapted for the screen by director Masaki Kobayashi, creating what is arguable the first J-horror film. Like the tales of Kwaidan, the legend of Mae Nak has been interpreted in many different ways, leading to some 20-filmed versions.
The latest illumination comes from the vision of former cinematographer and first time feature film helmer Mark Duffield. Duffield, who based his film adaptation on the 1999 Thai hit NANG NAK does a credible job of relating the story – but by adding elements of western style horror to amp up the death scenes, the film slips from the lyrical beauty and overall atmosphere usually attributed with Asian horror cinema and clearly reveals the outsiders perspective.
Over 100 years ago Mae Nak – a beautiful village girl, married to Mak – her true love –soon became pregnant – but the good news was short lived as her husband was taken off to war. After suffering in battle he returned home to be with his new family, but quickly Mak began to notice that the villagers had begun avoiding his home. It seems that Mae and the baby had not survived childbirth and that Mak was now living with the ghost of his former wife.
This background is the basis for Duffield’s take of a newlywed couple, Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong) and Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin), whose new property is the dwelling ground for the spirit of Mae Nak (Pornthip Papanai). After a robbery, Mak suffers a blow to the head – leaving him in a coma and leaving his new bride alone to try and uncover the mystery behind the ghost.
The performances from the cast, especially Pataratida Pacharawirapong – a Taiwanese Soap Opera star and model – who makes her feature film debut here – are altogether excellent, eliciting audience empathy at all the precise moments. Pacharawirapong, who is asked to virtually carry the movie is exceedingly capable of portraying the exasperation her character must face – dealing with a new home – a critically injured husband and a paranormal mystery that only she seems equipped to solve. Pornthip Papanai who portrays Mae Nak fairs better in the flashback sequences – where she has some emotionally charged moments – than she does as the pale faced ghost whose features are muted and eventually obliterated by some super creepy CGI.
As I mentioned before, Duffield’s approach to the film suffers from a decidedly western gracelessness and while this might make the film more readily accessible to American audiences it also hinders the emotion behind the storytelling – turning the death scenes into Hollywood styled slaughters and neglecting the often equally shocking but wholly more subdued tones of true J-horror. Some viewers might love what the director has done, but I found that the elaborate exsanguinations detracted from the films overall appeal. I don’t need, nor do I expect, rivers of red from my ghost stories – that’s what I watch HOSTEL or THE DEVILS REJECTS for, not RINGU.