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Thai horror films have never quite found the same kind of international audience as their creepy cousins from Korean or Japan, in part due to the fact that the country’s genre outings tend to be more grounded in local beliefs and traditions. “Pee Mak” is a perfect case in point, a ghost comedy based around the ever-popular folk tale “Mae Nak Phra Khanong” and shot through with uniquely Thai humour and character. The film was directed by one of the country’s very top horror helmers in Bangjong Pisanthanakun, responsible for an impressive run of acclaimed spooky hits including “Shutter”, “Alone”, “4bia” and “Phobia 2”, and was a massive box office smash itself, emerging as the highest grossing domestic release of all time, as well as enjoying success in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
As per the time-honoured story, the film is set during the war at the beginning of the Rattanakosin Dynasty, and follows conscript soldier Mak (Mario Maurer, “Jan Dara: The Beginning”), who returns home to his small village after being injured with his four army buddies Ter (Freud-Nattapong Chartpong), Puak (Pongsathorn Jongwilas), Shin (Auttarut Kongrasri) and Aey (Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasook). Overjoyed to be reunited with his wife Nak (Thai-Belgian actress and model Davika Hoorne, “Fatherland”) and newborn child, Mak is blinded to the fact that something strange is clearly going on. With the rest of the village shunning Nak, convinced that she’s actually a ghost, Mak’s friends start to have the same suspicions, and set out to try and get to the bottom of things.
While Thai shriekers can benefit from a different and more culturally grounded feel than those from other Asian countries, on the downside a fairly high number of films continue to be made on the same increasingly familiar myths and legends. This is certainly the case with “Mae Nak Phra Khanong”, which has been adapted for the screen more than 10 times over the years, most famously by Nonzee Nimibutr for his 1999 hit “Nang Nak” and recently in 2005 by Mark Duffield with “Ghost of Mae Nak”. Thankfully, with “Pee Mak” Bangjong Pisanthanakun chooses a new and very inventive take on the material, playing it for a mixture of laughs, scares and romance. Infinitely preferable to yet another straight retelling, this approach frees him from the usual constraints, and the film is a delightfully fun and unpredictable affair.
Though horror and comedy are notoriously uneasy bed mates, “Pee Mak” is one of the few films to truly nail the balance, and though the emphasis is mainly on the jokes, there are some well-timed shifts into the sinister. In part this harmony is due to its great ensemble cast, who featured together previously in the less serious episodes of “4bia” and “Phobia 2” to great effect, and who show the same kind of likeable chemistry here. All playing bumbling idiots, their constant bickering and “Three Stooges”-style slapstick are funny throughout, all the more so since Pisanthanakun has them with blackened teeth, ridiculous hair and ragged clothes, in a neat nose-thumbing at the usual glammed up historical costumes and make-up seen in such films. Filled with over the top wackiness and making great use of pop culture and modern cinematic references, the film has some excellently creative set pieces that consistently impress, including a great sequence in which Mak, Nak and the buffoons visit a fairground haunted house attraction.
The film is also surprisingly romantic, Pisanthanakun showing the same deft emotional touch he did in 2010 with “Hello Stranger”, and the relationship between Mak and Nak is genuinely quite affecting. Crucially, the film here also diverts from the usual tears and tragic melodrama, aiming instead for something far more sweet and uplifting, and this fits perfectly with the overall air of manic and macabre merriment. Actually caring about the characters also gives the scares a slight edge, and though the film is a bit too funny to be frightening, it does manage some atmospheric chills and jumpy moments.
“Pee Mak” is hugely enjoyable as a result, and well-deserving of its smash hit status. Easily one of the best Thai horrors, comedies or indeed horror comedies of recent years, it’s another fine effort from the highly talented Bangjong Pisanthanakun, and it’ll hopefully repeat its domestic and Asian success in the west.
Banjong Pisanthanakun (director) / Chantavit Dhanasevi, Nontra Kumwong, Banjong Pisanthanakun (screenplay)
CAST: Mario Maurer … Mak
Davika Hoorne … Nak
Nattapong Chartpong … Ter
Pongsatorn Jongwilak … Puak
Wiwat Kongrasri … Shin
Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk … Aey
Sean Jindachot … Ping