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Realtime >> Friday August 22, 2008
MOVIE Review

One foot in the grave

Thai director better known for social dramas succumbs to the lure of the horror genre


Long Tor Tai (The Coffin)

Feeling comfortable? Ananda Everingham plays a man who performs the ritual of lying in a coffin to dispel bad luck.

- Starring Ananda Everingham, Karen Mok, Aki Shibuya, Napakprapa Nakprasitte. Thai-dubbed in all theatres. Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham.

The seduction of freshly-dug graves seems overwhelming. At some point in his career, a director often finds himself drawn by the lure of the horror genre, or precisely, by a rare chance to put unsightly makeup on his otherwise good-looking cast and ship them off into that dreaded limbo between life and death.

So Ekachai Uekrongtham - whose best work remains Beautiful Boxer, his feature debut about the life of a transvestite boxer - gives us The Coffin, a kind of visual manifesto on cinematic pax Asiana in which the cast of Hong Kong, Japanese, half-Lao and pure Thai characters encounter the ultimate truth in the art of terror: Siamese ghosts are the real emissaries of globalisation, fair and indiscriminate in its posthumous enthusiasm to scare people regardless of their nationalities. Exciting, but only if they have a little more ingenuity in their pan-Asian spook campaign.

The Coffin alternates between two story lines, each involving a character who takes part in a pseudo-Buddhist ritual in which he/she lies in a coffin, hands tied by a sacred thread, as monks chant dissonant prayers outside. This is believed to be an ISO-guaranteed method of "cheating death" and warding off bad luck for people under threat of the stars, or fate, or the stock market, etc. The first shot of the film is a marvellously staged panorama of this mass coffin rite, a funeral for the living, in which a few hundred coffins encircle a giant Buddha statue fronting limestone mountains. It looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie, or a promotion brochure of some post-apocalyptic cult, and I just wish the whole film had maintained the chilly mystique, the baroque Orientalism, of the impressive opening sequence.

In one storyline, Ananda Everingham plays Chris, a half-Thai (I think) man who performs the ritual of lying in the coffin to dispel bad luck from his Japanese girlfriend, Mariko (Aki Shibuya), who's in a coma. Paralleling this plot is the ordeal of Su, a Hong Kong bride-to-be (played by Karen Mok), who arrives in Thailand to get inside the coffin in the hope that it will cure her cancer. And, doctors behold, it does.

The only problem is that bad luck is a non-biodegradable currency, so when you force it off someone, it will go and find a new host, usually someone close to you. I believe this is both scientific and metaphysical, like the lottery, so there you go. Anyway, when Chris successfully chases death away from Mariko, he experiences a near-death experience and is hounded by a female ghost with a badly-damaged face (played by Napakprapa Nakprasitte, surprisingly a sensitive actress, though she's been repeatedly typecast in several Thai horrors as an exotic banshee.). Meanwhile, Su, her cancer cured to her astonishment, transfers her bad luck to her groom-to-be Jack (Andrew Lim), who's in Hong Kong. Su, too, is nagged by the presence of a ghost with a half-putrid face while staying with her friend (Florence Vanida) in Thailand.

Modern ghost movies are often morphed into detective stories - the haunted track down the origins and the motives of the ghosts, usually with the help of scientists, undertakers, and Google, all featured in The Coffin. What challenges director Ekachai, however, I think, is to extract the human drama out of the tired formulation of a ghost narrative. Love, longing, despair, crushed hope - these are the emotions the film tries to unearth from the heavy pile of creepy setpieces and sound effects. And although the film has a strong oomph for scary sequences, it can't really dig through its own conceits to find the genuine ache of these people defeated by fate. (A recent success case is The Orphanage, a Spanish ghost drama that manages to end with something like an epiphany of motherly love.)

Ekachai, who's a well-known theatre director both in Thailand and Singapore, has a good eye for small gestures that make his films echo, as he did in Beautiful Boxer, and less impressively, in Pleasure Factory. He seems less nimble here in his first horror outing, whose playbook requires him to shock us every five minutes. It just feels mechanical. "How could you make death so seductive?" said Chris, commenting on his girlfriend's painting. The Coffin sets out to do the same, in earnest, and almost succeeds.

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