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Realtime >> Friday October 31, 2008

Seeing is sinning

The latest Thai horror teases the viewers' obsession with seeing dead people on the screen


Someone should compile an anthology of Thai horror movies - it would make an obscenely thick volume. Our constant lust for a fix of fear seems influenced by history and climate; equatorial demons are more sensational than, say, the effete vampires of Europe. They just suck blood; we rip our chests open and show we've got guts, literally. On top of that, Southeast Asia's passion for horror films is instinctive: we want to see ghost movies because we believe in ghosts. We're not traditionally logical people. That's why ghosts (and stock market) fit snugly into our psyche.

Had it been a little edgier, Coming Soon could have been a disturbing critique of our endless appetite for ghost films.

This penchant for seeing dead people on screen is the genesis of the new ghost flick Program Nah Winyan Akhart, or Coming Soon. It's not super-scary, with recycled shock tactics that work technically but not psychologically. But it must be noted that Coming Soon, written and directed by debutting Sophon Sakdaphisit, cleverly dabbles in a shot of meta-analysis of the graveyard-rush to create ghost movies, and of the audience's obsession with manufactured on-screen horror. Had it been a little edgier, Coming Soon could have come across as a disturbing critique of our endless appetite for ghost films and of the filmmakers' increasing recklessness to give us just that.

The film also exploits the architecture of the modern cineplex to good effects, from those plush red seats, eerie in the half-light, to the claustrophobic exit corridor. Best of all, the movie takes us into the projection room and lets us see the rolls of 35mm film - supposedly containing the images of the movie we are seeing.

That's because our main guy, Rashane (Chantawit Thanasewee), works in the projection booth of a typical Bangkok multiplex. A junkie and a gambler - though he looks too healthy to be both - Rashane agrees to pirate a new ghost film that's about to be released, called Winyan Akhart (literally, "Vengeful Spirit"). We actually see this film-within-a-film, a based-on-a-true-story account of a madwoman who kidnaps young children and who's later hanged by the mob of villagers. In her death, half-putrid and angry, the woman returns as a ghost to haunt them.

Rashane screens the film for himself in order to make a bootlegged copy, but the ghost in the movie manifests to wander the multiplex, hell-bent on spooking the living daylights out of the projectionist. The freaked-out bootlegger's sole confidante is his ex-girlfriend Som (Worakarn Rojanawat), who works at the cinema as an usher. When Rashane tells her about the ghost that's no longer just on the screen, Som does what most characters in modern horror films do to solve the mystery: she Googles it. And of course, she finds all the information she wants!

Both Rashane and Som seem to have only one facial expression throughout the entire proceeding: not of fear, but of someone who knows he/she's in a horror movie. They're scared even before we are, and that's not fun. I also wonder why the two ushers can skip work at will to go unearthing the truth behind the "true story" of the film, not to mention their breaking into a building with the ease and skill of professional robbers.

But ghost films don't exist for us to nitpick. They're here to frighten, and Coming Soon succeeds only partially.

What interests me more, nevertheless, is how the director toys with the idea of "seeing" as a form of transgression. This is not original: Ringu, the mothership of Japanese neo-horror, popularised the concept of an ill-tempered female ghost that escapes from the screen to haunt you if you dare watch the movie containing the image of her death. Film - 35mm film - is a physical limbo in which her soul is trapped. When you breach the boundary of the two worlds by watching the film, the act permits the ghost to breach the same border - marked by the screen - to tax revenge from you on this side.

Coming Soon warns us, though its conviction is rather feeble, that our ruthless taste for horror is in a way a show of disrespect to the dead, and that it could backfire.

That's an irony, because the film does all of this not because it wants to caution us against seeing ghost movies. Instead, Coming Soon wants us to see more, starting with itself. And many of us, I'm sure, will comply.

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