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Film review: Pee Mak Phrakanong

Andrew Sun

 

Pee Mak

Starring: Mario Maurer, Davika Hoorne

Director: Banjong Pisanthanakun

Category: IIB (Thai)

 

The unheralded horror-comedy Pee Mak has been smashing box-office records in Thailand and is now looking to break out regionally. Released less than two months ago, this ghoulish romance story has already topped 525 million baht (HK$137 million) in domestic ticket sales.

But can it be another pan-Asian hit like Bollywood's 3 Idiots?

Based on a folk tale, Pee Mak is about a soldier, Pee Mak (played by Thai-German heartthrob Mario Maurer), who returns from war to reunite with his beautiful wife and baby. He comes home and settles into what seems like normal life - but there's one problem: his wife died during childbirth while he was away and he is now living with their ghosts.

It is reminiscent of the 1999 film Nang Nak by Nonzee Nimibutr, who had stuck to the tale's sombre tone.

In this campy, slapstick version, however, Pee Mak comes home with four war buddies. Immediately, the goofy friends - each sporting a wacky pompadour unlikely to be authentic in Siamese traditional culture - notices something odd about the wife, Nak (played by Thai-Belgian actress Davika Hoorne). When they mention Nak's name, the villagers' fearful reactions make them even more suspicious.

As the devoted (albeit naive) husband, Maurer maintains an adorably dopey hangdog expression, while Hoorne is very good at giving a creepy expression. Most of the scenes, though, are devoted to the four army buddies who act like they're on a Scooby-Doo adventure.

Banjong Pisanthanakun, the director of two other spookers ( Shutter and Alone), tweaks the tale into a wild slapstick comedy. No stranger to genre mixing, Thailand has produced its fair share of horror-comedies. Remember the 2004 hit Sars Wars, where a mutant avian flu strain creates zombies?

Pee Mak is about as scary as Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, with just a couple of "Boo!" moments.

It borders on parody, judging from the inside jokes about pop culture. The characters may have blackened, lacquered teeth to match the 19th-century setting, but the dialogue is anachronistic - they talk about David Blaine card tricks, taking "acting lessons from Ang Lee" and Nak's less-than-stellar "cordon bleu" cooking. When a ghost suspends upside-down from a temple roof, a character compares it to the famous scene from Spider-Man.

Overall, Pee Mak is more silly than funny. What makes it (and the legend) popular is its inherent overarching romance. Much like the Chinese tale of the Butterfly Lovers, it's about two people in love who are wrenched apart but reunited despite the odds.

Pisanthanakun goes for a less morose ending to the legend, suitable for a film that is a strong contender for feel-good, surprise hit of the year.

Pee Mak is screening now

 

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