Since the glory days of classic horror, we’ve seen that some monsters are misunderstood. Frankenstein’s creature didn’t ask to live again, and Boris Karloff’s Imhotep just wanted to rekindle a millennia-old crush. But the sympathetic and the supernatural have co-existed for ages in legend, which is where Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr found the source of his breakout picture, Nang Nak. It’s one of several films based off the same tale, and while I can’t say for sure that it’s the best, it is the most internationally-known of the bunch. Nang Nak emerged during the Asian horror renaissance, and like its finest graduates, it knows that a simple story told well can be as satisfying as a shiver down the spine.
A long time ago in rural Thailand, there lived Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and his adoring wife Nak (Intira Jaroenpura). Their love was strong indeed, enough so to endure Mak being called to battle while a pregnant Nak tended to the homestead. Not even life-threatening injuries could prevent Mak from making his way back home to his spouse and their new son. Upon his return, though, the mood feels conspicuously off. The other villagers keep their distance, while Nak seems rather insistent that her hubby stay home. But little does Mak realize that he’s sharing his pad with a pair of spirits, his beloved Nak having died during childbirth. The news is hard enough for Mak to handle, but unless he convinces his beloved to move onto the next life, some angry neighbors will do it for him.
I can’t picture any example of American folklore that corresponds with Nang Nak. Yes, we have our ghost stories, but none are so deeply ingrained in our cultural rolodex. These tales just mean more in places like Thailand, where to this day offerings are still made in Nak’s honor. Thus, when you set something like The Haunting in Connecticut against Nang Nak, you won’t get as respectful a feel from the former. “Respect” is the operative word here, as balance figures greatly into Nak’s depiction. During the film, she pulls some pretty nasty stunts, but only on those who directly theaten her (a word to the wise: don’t swipe a dead woman’s valuables when her body’s still warm). Nak’s devotion to Mak is admirable but also leads to tragedy, supplying the story both its heart and its fright factor; nothing’s scarier than a mom who means business.
Nang Nak is more in tune with classical Asian horror than with the Ringus that’ve seized center stage. As in Ugetsu, Snake Woman’s Curse, and several others, true emotion is provided to ghostly players who, for all their incorporeality, end up more fleshed-out than those with a pulse. You may not sympathize with Nak, but you understand her, which is due in great part to Jaroenpura’s performance. It’s always tough making a saint of a sinner, but Jaroenpura tones her turn down and allows Nak’s actions to speak for themselves. I also commend Kraibutr’s handling of Mak, who drifts from not wanting to believe Nak is a ghost to having to convince himself she isn’t. However, I do wish that Nimibutr sorted out the plot’s tone beforehand; as appreciated as the mix may be, it is a bit jarring going from decaying corpses to melancholic glances on a scene’s notice.
It isn’t without the odd instance of grue or otherworldly showmanship, but Nang Nak’s end outweighs its means. As the credits roll, you won’t curse the heavens for any cheap tricks meant to bamboozle you or for being stuck with any particularly dense characters. Nang Nak aspires for greater fulfillment, freaking you out every so often while heeding your humanity all throughout.