Storytelling is about innovating, and ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ proves it

Mak was a man who lived in a now suburban part of Bangkok called Phrakanong around 160 years ago. He is known for being the husband of Nak, a woman who died giving birth and became a ghost waiting for her husband to come back from war. The unsuspecting Mak was happy to be home with his wife and child until the neighbors tried to convince him that the life he was having was not real. One by one, they died.

This is a legend I’m certain anyone in Thailand with the age above five can recite (either with great horror or great sympathy, or both). Everyone had an experience of being irrationally cowered by the sight of a pale, stoic, long hair woman standing quietly in the dark. It’s a national spook experience. And we celebrate it again and again through remakes of the story in films, animations, soap operas, stage production, radio drama, comics, novels, and documentaries to the point where we had probably exhausted the ways of telling this story in every possible media, including pornography.

Then Nonzee Nimibutr swaggered into the movie scene with his version ‘Nang Nak’  in 1999 which just made everyone fall in love with this great romance-tragedy-horror all over again. It gained both critical and commercial success which made it the highest grossing Thai movie of the time. ‘Nang Nak’ was so realistic, so historically accurate, and so good that I believe a lot of us thought there couldn’t be another big production of this story ever again.

Then in March 2013, GTH released ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ and it just became the highest grossing movie of all time in Thailand and set to release in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Cambodia after its first regional release in Indonesia.

Like, WTF!?!

At first glance, it looks like a cheesy re-imagination of the same old legend made for the teenage consumption with teen heartthrob Mario Maurer, a Thai-German actor, as Mak. Seeing him on the poster is sort of strange. He looks nothing like the very Thai, very matured, and very macho Winai Kraibutr who by look and statue is a convincing reincarnation of 19th century Thai soldier. Davika Hoorne’s Nak is also a far-cry from Inthira Charoenpura’s who wore the period appropriate short-crop instead of the more known, and less likely to be accurate, long flowing hair. On top of that, the movie introduce four non-canon characters as Mak’s soldier friends and a band of comic relief to turn the most terrifying love story of all time into a comedy.

Now, horror-comedy movie is not a new thing in Thailand and definitely not the first try on the legend of Nak. Quite frankly, we have horror-comedy around all the time since I could remember, usually with slapstick jokes and a lot of male screaming (females usually get the ghost role; i.e. they do the spooking). The thing is there is so much supernatural joke you could make to captivate the audience and it shows. The genre is, like the story of Mak and Nak, exploited to the limit.

How, then, could you mash the most exploited ghost story and the most exploited movie genre and make it work? I haven’t seen this movie yet as it hasn’t been released on DVD. I can only venture to guess based on the interviews, trailers, behind-the-scene clips, and reviews that the secret to its success is that the director, Banjong Pisanthanakun, doesn’t follow the conventional way of telling a horror or a tragedy. Expect the unexpected seems to be the main marketing of the film. Other versions of the story were stuck with Nak’s point of view, her love, her sadness, her rage, and her denial. This version was promised to be from the point of view of Mak who has been re-imagined to behave like a 21st-century youngster and is totally head-over-heel in love with his wife to the point of being ridiculous. That makes the movie a contemporary piece instead of a period piece and speaks better to the contemporary audience. ‘Nang Nak’ was a hit because of the love of the classic. For ‘Pee Mak’, it seems to be the need of something new and fresh that starts the frenzy.

This needs for something fresh might also be the reason another remake of a classic, ‘Khu Kam’, becomes a flop in the box office at about the same time. Originally a novel, ‘Khu Kam’ tells a story of a young Japanese soldier in World War Two who falls in love with a headstrong Thai woman while the Japanese army occupied Thailand. This story is also remade too many time for its own good. While it is said to be the re-interpretation of the story, the trailer looks like a teen romance story which is, to put it frankly, not a new interpretation at all. ‘Khu Kam’ has always been a romantic tragedy. Repackaging it for the younger audience by reducing the historical background which involves the tension between the two nations and cultures and focus on the sap-factor only serves to make it into another teen romance movie in a market that is already saturated with romance movies. Unlike ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’, this ‘Khu Kam’ might try to be contemporary but there is nothing in it that is daring, groundbreaking, or new.

Breaking storytelling rules like this doesn’t just come out of the blue in an industry that has largely been very conservative in what kind of stories are told and how they are told. Mainstream movie in Thailand was one of the least imaginative landscape when I was growing up, and for the most part it still is. On the other hand, Thai literature has grown more diverse over the years. Experimental writing, now widely read, is based solely on throwing the writing rulebook (and less often grammatical rulebook) out the window.  It didn’t take too long for that mindset to creep into arthouse movies like those directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang or Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose ideas alone are light-years from typical. Most people don’t get these kind of movies (I don’t for the most part) and sometimes they fail (they are experiments after all). These movies were never popular enough to be count as mainstream but has been gaining steady following over the years.  The effect of having these kind of media around is that it breaks the expectations set by mainstream media and make people more receptive to alternatives both in terms of story and storytelling. Given that this has been going on for twenty years, it is about time that the mainstream movies start to take on some of the hipster spirit and allow themselves to break expectation and be ridiculous. It seems to me that this is what ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ tries to do.

I think this movie will still have a lot of drama. I think it’s still going to be more or less the heartbreaking love story the entire nation knows by heart. (Take that out and prepare for an outrage.) But the gist I get is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I couldn’t really think of anyone else aside from Banjong that would have the résumé to go through with this vision. Before ‘Pee Mak’, he has enjoyed a string of success in horror (Shutter, Alone, “In the Middle” from 4BIA, “In the End” from PHOBIA 2) and romantic comedy (Hello Stranger). Unlike Pen-Ek or Apichatpong, he is more tied to mainstream media than being an arthouse name. His ability to be innovative most likely comes understanding the conventions of the genres very well but really doesn’t care about them too much. This reminds me of Christian Mihai’s recent post on writing. He, like me, doesn’t believe that there is a hard and fast rule in how to write. I think the success of ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ shows that there isn’t a hard and fast rule in storytelling in general. What I want to add to Christian’s observation is that after you have observed the masters and practice, you have to try to break the pattern and own it. I believe there is a saying in Chinese to ‘learn it and forget it’, meaning you can learn all the tricks, but you can only use them effectively and playfully if you are not fixated on what you’ve learned.

Not having seen the movie yet, I can’t really say how effective Banjong is in his execution or how good the movie actually is. After all, this is the first movie that he had intentionally break conventions. If the title of highest grossing movie is anything to go by, I’d say he has done something right and has done it quite well. I’m eagerly waiting for the DVD to start shipping so I can have a look for myself what the fuss is really all about. For the time being, I congratulate Banjong and his team for their success. I haven’t felt this intrigued by a movie for a long time, let alone the one that I know the story by heart. For that alone, kudos to you, sir.


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