One of the country’s most infamous ghost stories, the allegedly true story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong is a favorite among Thai people who gather from all over at a popular shrine dedicated to her near where she lived. Although film adaptations have been sparse, it still remains to be said that the most celebrated version is the 1999 masterpiece directed by celebrated Thai auteur Nonzee Nimibutr.
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In 1868, Mak (Winai Kraibutr) is summoned to the army to fight in the war and leaves his beloved wife Nang Nak (Inthira Charoenpura), who is pregnant, alone in their isolated house in the village of Prakanong. Mak fights with his friend but is seriously wounded while his friend dies. He miraculously survives and after several years, he returns to Prakanong to finally meet Nak and their son, and they live happily together. However, one day a friend comes to visit him and tells Mak a secret about his family he does not believe to be true and brushes off the accusations. That doesn’t stop the insinuations, though, and as a series of strange incidents strikes the villagers he discovers the truth about his family and tries to prevent himself from being drawn into the darkness.
Nimibutr’s version is an impressive effort overall. Among the many positives here is the fact that this one really sells the idea of making a classy feature of a simple ghost story. Although the subject matter is somewhat traditional in terms of how it tells the ghost story, instead it stays in a far more composed manner that almost reaches respectability. Focusing on their relationship for the main part of the film, their attempts at reconnecting with each other and exploring those scenes together is where “Nang Nak” really works well. Nimibutr presents this section of the film with grave seriousness, utilizing Mak’s return and cluelessness over the situation to add a fine dramatic layer on top of the established relationship they share, being as devoted to each other as they are. The sweetness and obvious care they share comes across nicely and really grounds so much of the later half here by really making it clear what the two mean to each other.
With this early relationship setup established, the ghostly exploits are handled with incredibly strong skill. The nightmarish visions of ghosts appearing to Nak in his dreams, warning of the impending dangers have a nice flourish to them. As well, the later dream of visiting his fallen friend features plenty of great effects on the melting body turning into dust in his hands. A fine action scene of the villagers attempting to burn down their house is also rather fun, with the fire turned on the group in a rather brutal fashion. The spiritualism of the finale, with several spiritualists trying to calm the spirit down through various means and failing to do so until the final monk arrives, not only bring this to a somber and heartfelt conclusion, but gives the film a strong resonance that carries over incredibly well from the setup established earlier. It’s a fine twist on these types of films with a different take than expected and really helps to end this on a fine note.
However, the film does present a few minor issues. While it’s important to separate Mak and Nak at the beginning when he gets called off to war, the in-depth nature of showing him being treated for war wounds is overdone and drags the film’s opening needlessly. From being carried off the battlefield by the soldiers, to the treatment in the war-time hospital, to the services by the monks and the final recovery scenes in the shack out in the wilderness, this is all way too long. It easily could’ve been simplified into a more streamlined retelling that gets the idea across in a shorter span of time. Likewise, because the film has to spend so much time convincing Mak that Nak is not actually actually dead, he comes across as way too blind and oblivious to the truth. Not being able to realize what’s going on is one thing, but missing out on clear and irrefutable pieces that trusted friends are rightfully bringing up to convince him, makes Mak look foolish more than anything. Granted, it’s supposed to be that way for the reveal but does distract for this one slightly.
With plenty of strong technical aspects and equally impressive supernatural action, “Nang Nak” still holds up to this day as a great effort not only in the genre but from the country as a whole. This version is highly recommended to fans of Asian horror or classy ghost stories while only ardent non-aficionados of Asian horror won’t be fans of the film.