Pee Mak Phrakanong and the changing script of love
Title: Pee Mak Phrakanong
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Horror, drama, romance, comedy
Warning: Spoiler-y review… again.
Is there such thing as a movie that deserves to be written about twice? Apparently, there is.
That is because the first time I wrote about Pee Mak Phrakanong, I hadn’t watch the movie yet. The excitement from Thailand, however, was too palpable to ignore, and I devoured all the material there was at the time. The movie turns out to be the highest grossing movie ever in Thailand. While the intentional audience is teenagers and young adults, the movie found fans from all demographic. Let’s just say nobody could have predicted the success of the movie, and I don’t think anybody really understand what happened either.
Part of it was probably luck. Pee Mak came out the same time as Khu Kam, both being beloved stories in the country, so the cinema goers were probably only weighting between these two movies despite having others on show. And more tightly focused the interest is, the more likely it is that either of them got selected rather than, say, G. I. Joe. Moreover, Pee Mak was marketed as romantic-horror-comedy. For people who were stressed out all week, this sounded like a better option than a romantic-tragedy that Khu Kam is.
That being said, the success of the movie didn’t just come from luck. The movie itself is actually pretty good. It is bold in the way it takes a much beloved horror folktale and put a spin to it. What I didn’t expect, though, is how bold it is in the way it discusses love.
Both Khu Kam and Pee Mak are about love. Khu Kam is about a patriotic young woman who becomes involved, unwillingly at first, with a Japanese soldier during Japan occupation of Thailand in WWII. The original novel is a classic in the way it discusses the conflict of the nation and the heart, but it also uses a very particular script for romantic relationship. The girl plays coy about what she thinks or feels and pushes the guy away, making him chase after her like they are playing catch in a forest in a Bollywood movie (cue to the Bollywood music here). In Khu Kam, it is justified because he is an enemy and she was involved with another person before she met him. Still, that script is so old and so overused (The Cather in the Rye anybody?). Sure, there are people whose relationship still follows that script, but the question is how many of us really thinks that is the way to go in this day and age.
Mae Nak, the original story of Pee Mak, uses a script for different stage in the relationship. Mak and Nak are already married when Mak has to go to war and leaves his pregnant wife behind. Nak waits for his return day and night even after she died while giving birth and scared off people who see an apparition of a woman standing on a pier holding a baby in her arms.
Nak, despite being a scary ghost, is always thought of as the symbol of everlasting love. She waits for Mak even when she’s dead. She cares for him when he is back injured. But that love is a selfish kind of love, the one that will not let go even when that love hurts both of them. In the folktale, Nak has to kill people to shut them up, so she can maintain the illusion of a happy family for her husband. Being under Nak’s spell, Mak becomes isolated from the community due to them being threatened by his wife. When the illusion is broken, Mak is overcome with fear and flee to get help so he can be free from Nak.
I have always thought that Mak is a Mary Sue in the story; i.e., that he is a character that does not actually have a character. He reacts to knowing that Nak is a ghost like he has no previous history with her whatsoever. He is also highly objectified, like a trophy that Nak has to keep to make her life complete. And that is a script used for a long, long time since before classic Disney animation came along with their highly objectified princes.
What I like about Pee Mak is that it puts character into Mak. The movie isn’t his story precisely, more of his friends’ watching Mak and Nak together and deciding how to interfere in what is potentially a fatal relationship. I think Banjong Pisanthanakun’s genius is in knowing that his audience has a preconceived notion of the story. But instead of catering to it, he runs with it. Since the beginning, he investigates the detail of the story and turns to question our understanding of it. Is Nak really dead or did something happened that people in the village treated her as an outcast? Did she really kill any of the villagers or was the death a false attribution? Is Nak the one who is dead? It is a pleasant surprise to find a horror movie that is cerebral while making us snicker along with its slapstick jokes.
To me, the biggest punch line comes at the end when Mak is dragged along with his friends to escape Nak who, by then, already shows herself as a ghost. Unlike previous incarnations, he doesn’t run from her right away and seemingly unable to comprehend that she is a ghost. I think that is a more realistic reaction than running for the hills since he wouldn’t really be able to reconcile his loving and seemingly alive wife with a spirit that easily. He still cares about her and does not want her to get hurt but at the same time being absolutely scared and can’t really look at her without crying like a baby. And Nak is scary at that point. She is furious that people destroys her chance at a happy family and now taking Mak away from her. She goes after him, but that is where the parallel to the folklore ends.
And that is about where Banjong challenges the previous script of a romantic relationship.
In the old script, Nak looks as Mak as her object of affection and would do anything to keep him with her. When he runs, she hunts him down despite knowing that she scares the living day light out of him. It is a very unbalanced, unthoughtful relationship. In this version, Nak stops when Mak faces her in tears. Even in the height of her anger, he is not an object to her but a person she deeply cares about. So, without the prompting from the monk she needed in the folklore, she decides to let him go and move on, only to be told by her sobbing husband to stay put and let him talk.
That is when I realize how much more balanced their relationship is in this movie. Mak doesn’t see his dead wife as a scary ghost but as a woman he fell in love with and married to. And he is right, because she is still as intelligent and self-aware as she was when she was alive. She is just able to extend her arms and defy gravity now, which scares him because those are not normal, but doesn’t change who she is to him at all. Mak’s confession that he has known for a while that she’s dead serves as a great tearjerker because we have seen throughout the movie how he tries to keep the status quo without even realizing what he is doing. This Mak might not be the macho soldier like in other incarnations, but he is definitely the strongest in his willingness to fight against social convention for what is important to him.
And I think that reflects a lot of how we see love in this day and age. Before this, the ideal love has to fit the social convention and the underlying script of a romantic relationship. The ideal love in Pee Mak is more about being thoughtful to one another, which is itself a new kind of script but a much more flexible one. The end credit scenes from Pee Mak also hint at what thoughtful love can do in a larger context. When Mak is able to get over the fact that his wife is no longer human, he starts to appreciate her and even be proud of her for what she is. Nak walking the ceiling to fix the leaks while Mak chats away with the monk is one of the more adorable moments in the movie and also shows that accepting the differences is a source of power not decline. Mak’s openness is also infectious to his friends who witness their exchange and come to accept Nak as well. Of course, it is not that the whole village is suddenly 100% okay with a ghost living among them. She is still ‘the Other’, the outcast, and their love is viewed as ‘unnatural’ because it doesn’t fit the usual boundary of love. However, the movie doesn’t portray Nak as the tragic heroine who fights for and loses love but acknowledge her as having the right to love and happiness like anyone else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that touches on marriage equality in such a powerful and convincing way. That is, of course, if anybody reads that much into it as I do, although I don’t think the message is subtle at all.
I like to think that if money can vote, the grossing of this movie shows that the people of Thailand is ready to acknowledge the right to love.