Review: Nang Nak (1999)

Directed by:
Cast: ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

There’s not many movies that tell you straight up what’s going to happen. And you’d think that, if they did, you’d be pretty let down by the movie, right? “What a cheap trick”, you’d think. “They must be desperate to find a way to make the point: what must the film be like if they can’t do it in the story?!?”

Well, this film does just that, and it works. We’re told in a voice-over that Nak, a young wife, dies in childbirth while her husband Mak is away in the army, but she loves him so much that she returns to live with him. This Thai legend is famous locally, which may be why it was such a runaway success at the Thai box office, although it’s clearly not the only reason: the simplicity of the characters, and the raw emotion generated in this sad love story, are intensely moving. For more details on the legend behind the movie, look at the site linked below.

We first meet Nak and Mak as Mak is leaving for the war: it’s clear that neither of them is happy about it, nor is Mak’s friend, waiting discreetly in his canoe. The first thing to hit the eye is the beauty of the scenery. The couple’s wooden house is set on the river, a lush jungle setting that wraps virtually every frame of the film. As Mak steps from his small jetty to the waiting canoe, we realise another of the aspects that make this film special: it seems that most, if not all, of the cast are non-professional actors. I can’t confirm this, but the honest simplicity of the performances seems to indicate that it’s the case. And it’s convincing: when Mak and Nak are crying, they’re crying all-out, as though their hearts will break. Nak standing on the jetty watching her husband disappear sobs inconsolably, which made this somewhat soft-hearted reviewer go a bit misty too.

The music that underscores much of the film also helps this emotional tone, without drenching it in saccharine.And so we get visuals, music, and simple unaffected performances combining to convey an impression of gentle harmony in the domestic scenes and keening sadness in the ghosty bits. Throughout the movie, we feel sorry for Nak, even though we know what is going on, because the strength of her love is shown clearly. Like everything else, though, it’s done largely without dialogue: the interactions between the characters, and the visuals and music, shine through.

The tragedy of excessive love having unfortunate consequences for others is shown in several scenes, where we see Mak’s view of what is happening versus the villagers’ views. Mak sits contentedly at night, watching Nak rocking the baby in a sling, and glows like a proud father and loving husband as Nak sings a gentle cradle song. Meanwhile, the villagers huddle in terror at the sound of Nak’s voice winding through the forest, accompanied by an unnatural wind.

But even with Nak’s elimination of several villagers who threaten her dream, we don’t turn against her: she remains a sympathetic character even through the exhumation and ensuing exorcism (a rather distressing scene, to be honest). And I’m not really sure how this happens, because I’d expect that a ghost who kills several people and threatens lots more would be less likeable. The credit for this must surely be shared between the writer and director, who crafted the story with such skill, and the actors (Indira Jaroenpura as Nak and Winai Kraibutr as Mak), who are unfailingly tender towards each other.

On the downside, it must be said that this film won’t appeal to all: the largely non-verbal development of mood does mean that you’ve got to make an effort to start with. Similarly, the simple acting can seem too simple at times, mainly in the case of minor characters. And I for one found the betel-stained teeth pretty distracting at first: I kept wondering whether they had the same fashion of staining teeth as the Japanese, until I saw them eating the betel nuts (I’m a bit slow at times, okay?).

But if you feel you’re willing to give it a go, it’s a great film, and remember that combination ghost-horror/love-stories don’t come along all that often.

8 Betel nuts out of 10.
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