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Realtime >> Friday April 25, 2008

Fearsome foursome

Plenty of shocks - and a good dose of schlock - in new Thai horror showcase


Happiness, an episode in the ensemble 4Bia

Tit for Tat.
4 Praeng (4bia), Four short films by four directors: Yongyooth Thongkongtoon directs "Happiness"; Paween Purijitpanya directs "Tit for Tat"; Banjong Pisanthanakul directs "In The Middle"; Parkpoom Wongpoom directs "Last Fright", In Thai with English subtitles : Four Thai directors dish out a buffet of fear in this horror ensemble, shrewdly titled 4bia in English, and it turns out to be quite a satisfying quartet of curdled tension, anarchist schlockfest, dark parodies and ghoulish fantasies. Mean ghosts in various guises - putrid, voodooised or mummified - actually populate the four shorts that rely on a deft visual rhythm and a good sense of foreboding; in fact, the four filmmakers seem to have been in better form cooking up these bite-sized scares than when they have laboured to orchestrate their feature-length films.

The running theme is death; preferably grisly, photogenic death. Surprisingly, 4bia comes from studio GTH, which is known for its life-is-so-so-so-beautiful flicks that tend to shy away from the darker shades of humanity. But here, the four short movies revel in manufacturing a spree of inventive, bizarre doom and murders as the dead return to wreak havoc against the living.

In the first episode, Happiness (the Thai title, Ngao, actually means "loneliness"), director Yongyooth Thongkongtoon wires a good dose of metaphysical fear and urban disconnection with our new obsession with text-messaging. A young woman (Maneerat Kamuan) is stuck in her flat with a broken leg, though what vexes her the most is not her limited mobility but the utter loneliness. When she gets a text message from someone who claims to know her even though she doesn't recognise his number, they begin a series of back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth SMS-ing. From the titillating stage of cellphone flirting, the woman starts to feel creeped-out when she cannot reach the man by calling him, and when he - or it - finally announces that he will come to see her in her room, uninvited of course.

Channelling the persona of Hitchcock's helpless woman, the diluted version of Polanski's Repulsion, and the raw concrete and bleak high-rise feel of Korean horrors, Happiness is stifling, teasing and effective; the movie has no spoken dialogue, only text messages between the woman and her invisible suitor. This is the first ghost film by Yongyoot, well-known for his Iron Ladies flicks, and he directs it with a relaxed panache rarely seen before in his earlier works.

Perhaps the weakest section is the one called Tit for Tat, by the former MV-director Paween Purijitpanya. Without warning, the man tosses us into his frenzied, messy blur of jump-cuts like a dice thrown onto a spinning roulette wheel. In telling an old-school story of a bullied boy who gets back at his tormentors with deadly black magic, Paween chose a "modern" approach - think late-90s - of disorientating editing and a gratuitous visual concoction that ends up in the realm of a laughable cartoon. Eyes are gouged, necks slit, heads split - but this is no Hostel; it's a fatuous bad-boy movie (with a heavy metal soundtrack and no subtext) that somehow disrupts the creepy aftertaste of the first episode.

Things pick up, though, and plough us through to a frightful orgasm with the next two episodes. Another surprise comes when Banjong Pisanthanakul, one of the directors of Shutter and Alone, gives us a self-mocking ghost tale that's both comical and creepy in a vintage, short story-like way. Titled In the Middle, the movie takes itself at face value and mischievously taps into our cinematic familiarity with the genre to remind us of this: ghost films are never original, but let's have fun with this unoriginality.

In this part, four male friends go on a rafting trip in the jungle. When one of them falls off the raft and fails to reappear, his remaining buddies fear the worst. That night at their campsite however, the missing friend turns up, soaking wet and looking strangely pale, and the party are now facing what's actually worse than the worst: their friend is a zombie that returns to get them.

In his full-length films Shutter and Alone, Banjong didn't let his movies breathe; they're so serious about being scary that at some points they just stop being scary. Here he ventilates his story with banter and self-deprecating humour, while keeping a firm grip on his scare-techniques. Nothing is new in this short, but somehow it feels refreshing after the depressing glut of Thai ghost films that have come out in recent years.

Banjong's real-life friend and co-director of Shutter, Parkpoom Wongpoom, directs the final episode, called Last Fright, an absurd story featuring an airborne mummy. Chermal Boonyasak plays a lone airhostess working on a charter flight whose only passenger is a princess from a fictitious Middle-Eastern nation, who, after an arbitrary twist that we can only forgive for the amount of fear that follows it, soon becomes a corpse wrapped in long strips of white cloth.

Being stuck on an airplane with a dead body reeks of Stephen King's dark slapstick. And indeed it is quite a farce, only that Parkpoom successfully squeezes such potent terror out of the situation that we ignore how stupid the whole setup is. Maybe that's the point of horror movies anyway: to lull ourselves into a temporary state where we actually believe that ghosts do exist for the sake of our own entertainment and money spent. In this case then, 4bia is worth the ticket price.

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