The story of Nang Nak (which translates from Thai as “Miss Nak” (the formal/respectful designation for a woman)) has been told ad infinitum and remains a popular (if not the most popular) part of Thai horror lore. The story is supposed to have originated over many generations ago, and is purported to be based on true accounts of an actual woman name Nak whose faithful love for her husband defies death. In fact, the name Nak is so connected with this ghostly legend that “Nak” has almost ceased to become a viable name for new babies; hence you’ll be hardpressed to find anyone in Thailand sporting that name. (Ask anyone about Nak in Thailand and they’ll immediately know who, and what, you are talking about. It’s that widespread.)
Because the legend is so well known, there have been countless movies and TV series on the subject, but Nonzee Nimibutr’s 1999 version is the first big budget adaptation I have seen. The story is a simple one: a woman, whose husband is off fighting a war, dies while giving birth to her son; still in love with her husband, the woman returns as a ghost and welcomes her husband home. Although the rest of the country village that the family resides in knows Nak is dead, the husband doesn’t, and believes everything to be okay. In an effort to keep her husband with her, Nak terrorizes the villagers in order to keep them quiet about her true unearthly state.
Nonzee Nimibutr, probably the most controversial Thai director working today, directs “Nang Nak” with his usual eye for aesthetics and penchant for heavy melodrama. Nimibutr is responsible for “Jan Dara,” the first Serious Art House Movie I’ve seen to come out of Thailand. Like that other movie, “Nang Nak” is a lush film filled with haunting imagery; its scenes in and along a river are some of the most beautiful renderings of the Thai countryside I’ve seen. Because the film doesn’t seek to date itself, you’re never sure when the movie takes place, or even what the war that Mak (the husband) is supposed to have gone to fight is. In those ways, the world of “Nang Nak” seems to exist outside the realm of time, much like the ghostly Nak herself.
“Nang Nak” is billed as a ghost movie, but is in fact not very scary at all. The film is mostly content with subtle ghostly moments for much of its running length, with a few quick bursts of gore in-between. The horror elements are so lacking that for the most part the film’s attempts at horror come across as comical. In one scene, the villagers consider bringing in a “ghost banister” (which I believe is some kind of ghostbuster) to battle Nak; and in another, a man rushes out into a pouring storm with his machete, screaming challenges to Nak, only to have his neck snapped. Ho-hum.
What does work best is the film’s interpretation of Nak (pronounced “Nog”, like “cog”). Nak is a homely, kind woman who simply loves her husband too much, and it is this love that prevents her from passing over. Nak anguishes over the possibility of never being able to be with Mak again, and even as a ghost, she worries that her time with him will not last forever. Despite being a ghost, Nak comes across as probably the most humane character in the whole film thanks to actress Intira Jaroenpura, who mixes next-door beauty with intense vulnerability.
Ironically, had the film remained only a ghost story and kept out the horror elements (such as Nak’s revenge on a woman who stole her ring, or a villager who attempted to warn Mak), “Nang Nak” could have earned its stripes as a haunting ghost story. Why turn a film about an immortal love story into a film about a ghost that whips up harsh rainstorms and breaks people’s necks? It just doesn’t make sense, and the film would have been better if it had stayed true to its roots — that is, Nak’s neverending love for Mak, and her desire to live happily ever after.
In one triumphant scene, “Nang Nak” maintains its ties to the rest of the Nak movies that have come before it by including a scene where Nak, having dropped a lemon through the kitchen floorboards, extends her hand ala Plastic Man to retrieve it. Although insignificant to the movie as a whole, that one scene is akin to the wedding sequence in “The Godfather.” The film just wouldn’t be the same without it.
Nonzee Nimibutr (director) / Wisit Sartsanatieng (screenplay)
CAST: Intira Jaroenpura …. Nak
Winai Kraibutr …. Mak