The Genuine Article
A Dark and Scary Place
Mak and Nak are a young couple about to be married. They buy the oldest house in their region of Thailand, a seriously run-down property with a reputation for short-term owners. Mak purchases a brooch for his wife, but from that moment - and particularly after the wedding - events seem to conspire against them. Mak is plagued by visions of a terrifying ghost, their house is broken into and the wedding gifts stolen and, when Mak later notices the gifts being sold on the street and gives chase, he is struck by the thieves' car and ends up in a coma. Nak discovers the brooch and when Mak tells her through his coma to find Mae Nak, she learns that their house is on the site of Mae Nak who is a legendary ghost from a hundred years in the past. When people who have done the couple harm begin to die in a particularly gristly fashion, Nak begins to suspect the ghost is protecting them. But what does it want with her? And why is it holding Mak in a coma...?
This is a beautiful tale well told; one of those East Asian supernatural horror films which stand out from the rest in terms of acting and direction. Yes, it has elements of The Ring (particularly when Nak uncovers the buried body), but it's difficult not to find a ghost story from this part of the world which doesn't remind you of what started this captivating sub-genre. The film works on several levels. It's been described as a haunting love story, but I'd venture to suggest it closer resembles a supernatural drama or thriller with comedic elements.
Yes, comedy. How can you fail to be amused when a character is killed in a scene which belongs to Airplane or The Naked Gun? After being terrified by the ghost, he staggers back knocking over a pot of boiling water on to himself. Whilst throwing himself about in agony, he is struck by a vehicle and thrown on to a food stall containing naked flame and set ablaze. The death is so ridiculous, but it works because it is carefully kept separate from the frightening appearance of the ghost. In other words, the apparition has departed before we witness the consequences of its presence. Another amusing moment comes when another character is cut down the middle by a falling sheet of glass (borrowed from the original The Omen, perhaps), and a dog runs off with an arm.
Don't get the wrong impression by thinking this is a spoof or send-up. There are only small moments of humour and these are carefully balanced along with every other emotion we are persuaded to feel. The humour is a release, however, and leaves you less prepared for the next scene. The plot is constantly moving and evolving. The primary characters behave in a believable manner, and when circumstances demand they suddenly act unnaturally the periphery characters react accordingly with shock - something which doesn't happen in too many movies, when they forget how we reflect on each others lives.
Westerner Mark Duffield, who wrote and directed this film, has to be commended for creating both a powerful and emotional tale, especially as he was playing the potentially dangerous game of toying with a famous Thai ghost legend - an undertaking which could so easily have ended in ridicule and disaster.
(Review originally written by Ty Power for reviewgraveyard 2007)
British writer/director Mark Duffield has worked for over ten years as a cinematographer on several 35mm independent feature films, including Butterfly Man, shot on location in Thailand for which he won a Best Cinematography Award at the 2003 Slamdunk Film Festival in the USA. Ghost of Mae Nak is his debut feature film. He came up with the idea for the film after learning about the legend of Mae Nak Phrakanong from the film Nang Nak. After extensive research, he wrote an original screenplay for Ghost of Mae Nak in English, which was then translated into Thai. Ty Power caught up with him as Ghost of Mae Nak was due to be released on DVD...
Ty Power: As a western cinematographer turned writer/director, how did you become involved in a Thai film?
Mark Duffield: I first went to Thailand in 2001 as a cinematographer and worked on the British feature film Butterfly Man. In 2003 I was awarded 'Best Cinematographer' at the Slamdunk Film Festival Park City USA for Butterfly Man.
I have worked as a cinematographer on eight British feature films. I have also developed my skills as a scriptwriter and have directed several short films. Recently I teamed up with Brian Clemens writer of The Avengers and writer/director of Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, as well as many other genre movies. We made a short film together called Face to Face. I especially love the Horror/Fantasy/Sci-Fi genre and I have been writing spec scripts for some time.
So in Thailand I became fascinated with the Thai ghost stories and legends and I saw the potential for a Thai 'ghost' film. I wrote the Ghost of Mae Nak script in English and had it expertly translated into Thai. I knew I had written an exciting project that was a unique take on the Mae Nak Ghost legend. When I showed it to Thai investors, the response was amazing and there was a mini 'bidding war' for the project. A lot of the Thai's were surprised to discover I was British, but this was also a bonus as they were keen to work with a western filmmaker who would direct a Thai film with western feel. And within a short time the film was funded with a Thai distribution deal in place before I had filmed anything.
TP: This ghost story is based on the famous Thai legend, which has already seen several film versions - including Nang Nak, Thailand's most successful film. What made you want to revisit the story, and what do you think you have offered which is new and different? Did you feel under pressure to do the legend justice?
MD: Ghost of Mae Nak is based on a famous and true Thai legend. It is a hundred year old dark tale of a young couple named Mak and Nak who were deeply in love. After being called to war, Mak returns to his wife Nak and their new-born child. When he is alone, the villagers try to warn him that he is living with a ghost and that his wife died during childbirth. Mak refuses to believe them and returns to confront Nak. That night the ghost of Mae (mother) Nak gets her revenge on those villagers who tried to take her Mak away from her. The next morning several villagers are found dead with terrifying expressions of fear on their faces.
The remaining villagers prove to Mak that his wife Nak is a ghost, exhuming her, revealing her decaying body and dead infant. They summon an exorcist monk to put the ghost of Mae Nak to rest by cutting out a piece of bone from her skull and sealing her 'revengeful' spirit inside. The exorcist monk wore the piece of bone as a belt brooch until he died. The brooch holding Mae Nak's spirit was passed on until it was lost in time...
During my first time in Thailand I heard of a shrine that is devoted to a famous Thai ghost called Mae Nak. I visited the shrine and was surprised to see hundreds of Thai people pray and give offerings to Mae Nak and ask her for a blessing or guidance.
I then began to research the Mae Nak story listening to the various versions from the Thai people I knew. Each story varied but at its heart was the tragic love story and the theme of love transcending death. I also discovered that there had been many films about Mae Nak over the last 50 years. Most were hysterical comedies with poor production value and OTT acting.
I watched the definitive Mae Nak period film called Nang Nak directed by Nonzi Nimiburt. This film concluded with the 'evil' spirit of Mae Nak being held captive in a piece of bone cut from her forehead by an exorcist monk, and the bone was lost in time. It was here that I was inspired to write my script and continue the Mae Nak story. In Thailand Mae Nak is a legend and there are many stories about her. A lot of people believe the legend to be true and the Monk who exorcised her did exist. The legend is as famous to Thailand as Dracula or Jack the Ripper is to the west. Yes, I was under a lot of pressure to do justice to the legend but I felt I had written a unique idea that treated the ghost with reverence.
TP: I've reviewed a lot of Tartan Asia Extreme films for Review Graveyard and, although I enjoy most, it's easy to point out influences. In Ghost of Mae Nak there are elements of Hideo Nakata's Ringu, The Omen, and even Ju-On: The Grudge. Was this a conscious decision to employ what has proved to work best cinematically?
MD: Yes you are right these films had a strong influence on my film. I was going to write and direct a Thai ghost feature film so I was keen to include elements from my favourite horror/ghost films. Other films that I pay 'homage' to are The Haunting (1962), The Exorcist, The Omen (1976), Final Destination and of course many Japanese, Korean and Thai horror films. But what was important was to be inspired by cinematic scenes or ideas that were right for the storyline and were also true to the Thai locations and culture.
TP: You've managed to succeed by making your film creepy, wistful and humorous. These elements seldom work well together, but here they are carefully kept separated. A very funny moment, that wouldn't look out of place in an Airplane or Naked Gun movie, is when the ghost appears and we see the consequences of a man's terror: he knocks boiling water over himself, gets struck by a vehicle, and sets himself ablaze. It seems to work because the ghost has vanished before the comedic elements take place. Can you tell us a little about the intended structure and the decision to include some dark humour?
MD: Thank you for your accurate observation. I spent a long time on the edit and trying to get those elements right. For the death scenes in Ghost of Mae Nak I wanted them be almost matter-of-fact but have a shocking impact, a bit like being a witness to a sudden road accident. Obviously Final Destination had influenced me, and also The Omen (1976), but I also wanted to be true to the Mae Nak legend in which those who 'wrong' her would die a sudden and terrifying death. I guess the humour comes out of the 'absurd' or even surreal aspects of the death scenes. What I also did was to quickly get on with the story once the death scene had happened.
TP: The only part of your film I had a problem with was the attempted exorcism by monastic monks. Did your research show that cutting the victim open with a knife ousts possessive spirits? In a modern society this appears to be a rather barbaric method.
MD: Yes I did research the history and theories of Thai exorcisms. And the actual barbaric ritual of cutting out a piece of skull bone to hold the 'evil' spirit did occur in the past (so I'm told). This was clearly illustrated in the Nang Nak feature film, which was also an inspiration for Ghost Of Mae Nak. Obviously it's a question of belief. In the west, the Victorians were very keen on removing limbs or healthy organs as a prevention of suspected disease. Even lobotomies were seen as a cure for psychiatric patients.
There's been a recent news story about an American couple that are removing organs and restricting the growth of their disabled child. Is this a form of modern exorcism? But I did speak to several Thai Monks (through interpreters) and was told of many variations on exorcisms. I was using the present day exorcism scene as a dramatic licence in my storyline that was also a mirroring of a past event, but also I try to justify it by the previous supernatural outrageous events that force the parents to take drastic measures. A note inspired from Mrs McNeil in The Exorcist?
TP: East Asia has produced a number of high quality supernatural tales, since Ringu. What do you think is the appeal of this genre?
MD: I think the appeal for East Asian horror and supernatural tales is that they are easier to believe in. On one hand everything is different to the western eye - people, language, locations - but on the other we can still identify with it. It's easier to put our beliefs in East Asian ghost legends and myths; their history is still mysterious and complex.
But what is interesting to also see is that we have the potential in the west to reinvent the genre and take a note from the East Asian tales.
TP: Some audiences still seem to be short-sighted when it comes to subtitled foreign language films (America in particular). How do you see sales going in Britain and other English-speaking countries? What feedback have you received from Thailand and other countries?
MD: The film was released all over Thailand and went to number three in the Thai box-office. There was a big Thai media attendance at the premiere in Bangkok. The distribution company actually built a Mae Nak shrine outside the cinema on the pavement. They had an official Buddhist consecration ceremony with Monks and the cast attending that was headline news on Thai TV. This was to pay respects to Mae Nak and bring good luck to the film. People took the shrine very seriously and would even pray in front of it.
The film was shown in cinemas in Singapore, Malaysia and Korea and had sold well internationally including Tartan for USA and UK DVD distribution. It has been selected for several international festivals like Egypt, India, Bermuda, England and San Francisco where it was screened at the excellent "Another Hole in the Head Horror Festival" last July. In the UK it was shown at Bradford, Cambridge and London film festivals respectively. It was recently shown in London at the "Frightfest" festival to a large genre based audience. And it was selected for the San Diego "Asian Film Festival" and New York horror film festivals.
Critically the film has reviewed well in the US from Variety, Film Threat and many US horror websites. Asian Cult Cinema Magazine gave it a cover story.
The reaction has been very good and the feedback I get from people is they enjoy the characters' dark journey with the Mae Nak legend and the gory moments, especially the "shocking" gory sheet-glass splitting moment that everyone talks about after the film.
Yes, it's a shame that a (large) percentage of audiences won't see a film if it has subtitles. But what is good about the DVD market is that it is a world market that allows audiences to discover a film at a different pace to a cinema showing film. So I feel the 'subtitled' watching (reading) audience is growing with the help of DVD. However the German distribution company Nixbu who produced an excellent DVD product for the German market expertly dubbed Ghost of Mae Nak into German language.
TP: The Ring, The Grudge and (my personal favourite) The Eye, have all undergone lacklustre American remakes. What is your own opinion on these remakes, and are you likely to be approached to remake your own film?
MD: I feel the remaking of these now classic East Asian horror films is a good thing because it actually gives great publicity to the originals as well as their filmmakers and the archive of East Asian horror films. Yes the remakes have undergone lacklustre translations, but the majority of the audiences would be seeing it for the first time and probably experiencing the same feelings we felt when we saw the originals.
What I find difficult is when western filmmakers do not highlight or acknowledge the East Asian original, like the remakes of Infernal Affairs or even City On Fire? I hope an astute journalist like you will expose and shame them? As for a Ghost of Mae Nak remake, I do have a really interesting western concept that would be more 'reinventing' rather than 'remaking'. It's a really creepy idea and I'd love to (re) do it. It will be my Heat?
TP Now that you've left your mark in an impressive manner on the supernatural horror genre, will you be returning to it for another venture? What lies on the horizon for Mark Duffield?
MD: Yes. I am writing a new horror script. It is vampire story that I feel is genuinely unique - I can't wait to direct it. It's still early days so anyone from Pathe, NewLine or Lions Gate reading? Give me a call. I do have other horror projects I have written and am developing, and I am keen to continue with the horror genre - I love it. I do also have a really scary Thai ghost/horror story, but this time in English language and with western characters. It would be great to go back to Thailand to direct this story.
On a 'Sci-Fi' note, I would love to create and direct an original intelligent sci-fi idea. My favourite sci-fi film is Planet Of The Apes (1968).
Finally, I would like to thank Sci-fi-online for showing interest in the Ghost of Mae Nak and myself as writer and director. I would like to thank the fans of Ghost of Mae Nak. I appreciate your support. And for those who have not seen then I hope you will give the Ghost a chance and allow yourself to be taken on a ghostly thrill in Bangkok, Thailand and discover a true Thai legend.
TP: Mark Duffield, thanks for talking to us.
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