Sunday 15 November 2009

The Victim (2006)

Director: Monthon Arayangkoon
Stars: Pitchanart Sakakorn, Apasiri Nitibhon and Penpak Sirikul
Recording off the Sundance Channel's Extreme Asia season with the expectation that this was the 1999 Hong Kong movie called Victim, made by Ringo Lam and featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai, it turned out instead to be a Thai ghost story called The Victim, made seven years later by director Monthon Arayangkoon, the middle of his three films as writer and director, after a monster movie called Garuda and before The House, a true murder story. This one contains plenty of murders too but it's far from a conventional film: part ghost story, part thriller, part something else entirely that I'll get to later.

Our lead character is a young acting student called Ting who becomes employed by the Bangna Metropolitan Police to do a very Thai job: to play the part of the victims in reenactments of crimes with the real handcuffed criminals playing themselves, so that pictures can be taken and published on the front page of Thai newspapers as closure. This is such a bizarre job for anyone to have that we half expect Steven Seagal to play it but fortunately it goes to the charming young Pitchanart Sakakorn, who looks notably younger than her 25 years and who was already on her seventh movie at this point. She apparently has an interesting set of roles behind her, including blind characters and cripples. I'd like to see more of her work.

Ting is demonstrating how she can laugh from within to someone at a bar when police lieutenant Teerasak Kedkaew notices and hires her. She's good at what she does, as we soon discover. In reenacting a mugging she gets into the character so well that the people watching get caught up in the moment and beat up the perpetrator. When she prays to the victim offering respect by burning incense at a small shrine nearby, the victim appears, though in this instance we have no idea whether she's appreciative or not given that she has no head. Further cases build her reputation, not just with fans around her that she knows but on the other side of the veil too. As she plays more and more victims, we see more and more ghosts and they are definitely appreciative of her respect.

Soon she gets a huge case to reenact. A former Miss Thailand, Meen by name, has been missing for some time, presumed dead. Finally the police find traces of her body, which was apparently chopped up into pieces and left in a bathtub by her estranged husband, Dr Jarun. Ting wants the job, of course, but it goes to a female police officer instead. However when she prays to Meen with the heartfelt promise that if she had got the part she'd have played it with all her worth, the cop gets killed in awesome Asian ghost story style and the job becomes hers after all. Meen even helps her out with her research, helping her through the Likae dance and other things.

Ting literally has a fan club beyond the grave. Throughout the first half of the film there is a consistently good use of mirrors as we see ghosts that the characters mostly don't, but these scenes get awesomely creepy, especially when Ting climbs into the bathtub and experiences a horrific vision. As she walks down a corridor, passing a bleeding victim that turns into Meen, the ghosts crowd around her as if she's a star who they want to help them, reminding of nothing less than Val Lewton's Bedlam. During this vision and at points afterwards Meen explains to her that Dr Jarun is not the killer after all and sends her instead to visit Fai, a lesbian plastic surgeon friend of Meen, who is the real killer.

And here we discover how great the editing is that we've been enjoying throughout, because it isn't just about how it's done but also in what is done. Halfway through the film we're given a revelation through a powerful piece of editing. The story of Ting channelling the ghost of Meen to discover her real killer ends at a crucial moment and becomes a reenactment of that story portrayed by the very actors we've been watching. Ting is really May playing Ting, just as Meen is really Oom playing Meen. Suddenly everything we think we know goes out the window and we have to look at whole new characters in a whole new light and work out whole new motivations.

Most importantly we have to work out just how the whole concept of ghosts possessing live people continues into this new reality, as apparently Meen wasn't just possessing Ting in our reenactment, she's also possessing May to play Ting as she's possessed by Meen. Oh, there are levels here, that's for sure. We get dreams within dreams within dreams and it takes a lot of concentration to keep up with what's really going on. Unfortunately I'm not sure I was up to that task. Everything during the first two thirds of the film makes total sense to me, but from then on it kept drifting into new territory that didn't appear to fit.

So we're left with a whole slew of questions that apparently go unanswered. Who's really possessing who? Why do people who are apparently happy with other people suddenly torment them? What's the meaning of the Likae dance and especially the headdress used during performances and why do these things keep coming up as reference points? And where's Ting? We know Meen is dead because the investigation of her murder is a huge part of the first half of the film, but what happened to the Ting that's portrayed there? Was she even real or just made up by the filmmakers we watch change the story?

So while it's mostly very well done indeed, there are flaws and these questions are chief among them. It looks great, both as far as the cinematography and the effects, but the inspiration behind them seems to be notably inconsistent. Some of the shocks are gloriously done, taking inspiration from the greats and turning them into something new, but others come across as less inspired copies, meaning that half the film is stunning and the other half is much closer to blah.

These things are much harder to forgive than the flaky subtitles, which come with the territory, giving us characters called Joke and Shane which really doesn't seem to fit. If I could find answers to those questions this would go back up a notch or two for me but otherwise it's a very well played and ambitious Thai horror movie shot at real crime scenes and real haunted houses with a number of actors believably playing double roles, but which falls apart two thirds of the way through.

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