Although perhaps not as internationally recognised as that of other Asian countries, Thai genre cinema has over the last few years been responsible for a growing number of popular hits and cult favourites including the likes of “Alone”, “Dorm”, “Sick Nurses” and others. Added to that list is “13 Beloved” from director Chukiat Sakveerakul (more recently responsible for the romance “The Love of Siam”, and who wrote the screenplay for the all-action “Chocolate”), a violent, darkly comic suspense thriller which has already won an international release (under the somewhat more exploitative title “Game of Death”) as well as having been snapped up for a Hollywood remake.
The film centres upon Phuchit (Krissada Terrence), a downtrodden young man whose problems with work, money, love, family and indeed life in general most viewers will sadly be able to sympathise with all too easily. One day after losing his job, he receives a mysterious phonecall telling him that he has been selected for a gameshow and offering him the chance to win 100 million baht if he completes a series of 13 tasks. Unable to believe his luck, Phuchit eagerly carries out the first task, which simply involves killing a fly. Sure enough, his bank balance leaps up. The second task is rather less pleasant, requiring him to eat the dead fly, though since it wins him even more money, he complies. Now hooked, he begins the game proper, with the challenges growing ever more strange and dangerous, sending him down a violent road from which there may be no return.
Although the plot may sound fairly simple, “13 Beloved” is not a case of mere wish fulfilment for frustrated working stiffs, and Sakveerakul uses the premise to craft a complex and bleak tale of human morality. As such the film works both as a thriller and as a slice of bitter social criticism, exploring the very worst in human nature by illustrating just how far people will go for money and respect. The narrative unfolds in intriguing fashion, not only focusing on Phuchit, but also on the police efforts to bring his rampage to a halt and on the investigation of a female co-worker into his sudden transformation from victim to aggressor. Through this, Sakveerakul also works in elements of conspiracy theory and detective mystery, slowly edging closer to the sinister secret lurking behind the game. All of this works very well, and the film is taut and intense, keeping the viewer on the edge of the seat right through until the unexpected end, which surely marks one of the most shocking and hard-hitting conclusions since “Oldboy”.
Adding a bit of emotional substance is the fact that Phuchit is a likeable character that the viewer can identify with, and the sense of desperation that allows him to become sucked into the vicious game is all too believable. The viewer experiences the ride along with him, from the initial elation at receiving the money through to the awful moral dilemmas he is later faced with. This adds another layer of tension, especially since Sakveerakul directly implicates the viewer in the action through a number of deliberately voyeuristic touches, and there is a definite sense of accusation aimed at raising the question as to why watching a man enduring such physical and emotional tortures should be entertaining. This is underscored by a wicked streak of dark gallows humour, with certain scenes being blackly amusing in their grotesqueness, though again at the same time with a similar sense of guilt that they shouldn’t really be funny at all.
All such highbrow concerns aside, on a more basic, though equally important level, “13 Beloved” makes for incredibly visceral and gripping viewing. Sakveerakul shows an expert touch in notching up the tension, and the film is refreshingly original in the way that Phuchit’s tasks escalate, becoming not only more criminal and violent, but also more creative. The film never takes the most obvious route or panders to providing cheap shocks, though it does pack in a fair amount of nastiness, especially towards the end with a handful of outstandingly cruel set pieces. It certainly earns its category III rating, though this is through psychological and moral horrors as much as blood and gore.
All this adds up to easily one of the most nail biting and stunning thrillers of recent years, and “13 Beloved” is an absolute must see for fans of hard edged and challenging cinema. All the more effective and horrifying for its cynical and nihilistic view of humanity and modern society, it strikes countless nerves through its convincing depiction of a man’s descent into personal hell.
Chukiat Sakveerakul (director) / Chukiat Sakveerakul (screenplay), Eakasit Thairatana (comic)
CAST: Krissada Terrence … Pusit
Achita Wuthinounsurasit … Tawng
Sarunyu Wongkrachang … Surachai
Nattapong Arunnate … Mik
Alexander Rendel … Tay
Penpak Sirikul … Maggie