Nang Nak (1999)

Director: Nonzee Nimibutr

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

You know a film renaissance is taking place in a country when one of its indigenous products outgrosses one of Hollywood’s juggernauts. That’s exactly what Nang Nak did to Titanic in Thailand, showing that the Thai New Wave was alive and real. Nonzee Nimibutr tapped a popular and enduring legend that had already received numerous film and television adaptations; from that standpoint, he was ensuring he had a built-in audience. But the huge popularity of his film in Thailand spread beyond the country’s borders. What ignites this version of the legend and gives it universal appeal are the deeply felt performances of its principal actors, Intira Jaroenpura and Winai Kraibutr, as Nak and Mak, a wife and husband who share a great and enduring love.

The film is set in the late 1860s in a rural area near Bangkok. Mak has been called to war. He tries to comfort his grief-stricken wife Nak as a row boat paddled by his friend comes down the stream on which they live to take Mak away. Nak clings to Mak as he arises and moves toward the stairs that lead to a small pier. She reluctantly lets go of him and plaintively calls his name as he climbs into the boat and slowly disappears from view.

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The film moves forward to show the separate situations of Mak and Nak. Mak, in the middle of a battle, looks for his friend Prig, whose voice he thinks he hears. Gunfire and strewn bodies lay in his path. Injured himself, he passes out near Prig, who is near death. Coming to, he urges Prig to hang in there, but Prig’s eyes roll up in his blood-spattered head. Mak yells in a panic for the medics to come to his aid. From this point on, Mak’s injury will put him near death’s door for many months.

Meanwhile, Nak is revealed to be pregnant. She learns of Mak’s condition, but is unable to go to him. Worried, she goes to the head of the Buddhist temple in her town. He tells her that Mak’s good fortune remains strong and will help him through his illness. Nonetheless, she asks him to pray for Mak’s recovery. As she tends to the family farm, she feels a sudden spasm of pain. The town’s midwife is called, and Nak begins a very arduous birthing. At the same time as Nak goes through her ordeal, Mak has terrible dreams, ending with a horrifying image of Prig’s face at the time of death. He awakens with a scream, as Nimibutr cuts to Nak’s scream as the midwife cuts her vagina with a piece of glass to allow more room for her baby’s head to pass.

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Eventually, Mak recovers from his illness and sets off for home. The stream on which he pushes his boat is marked with signs of decay and destruction. However, when his own home comes into view, Nak is standing on the pier. They call each other’s name, this time with joy. Mak discovers that his wife has borne a son, Dang. Nak is especially protective of Dang, keeping him with her always, even as she goes off to perform an errand Mak intended to do. Nak and Mak would seem to be off to a good life together, but strange warnings from their neighbors and unexpected problems at home—rats below the house, an unexpected break in a formerly solid rung on the front steps, strange forebodings of separation that keep Nak up at night—threaten their happiness.

If you know the story of Nang Nak (a term that has become synonymous in Thailand with “faithful wife”), you know what’s troubling Nak and the village. If you don’t know the story—as I did not—Nimibutr plants disturbing scenes throughout, from the horrifying image of the dead Prig to tense close-ups of Nak shaving Mak with a straight razor, to guide the viewer toward the truth. As the film progresses, the villagers reveal the secret that some viewers may already have suspected.

I found myself both anxious and saddened by the fate that was bound to befall the loving couple. In the interests of suspense, I won’t reveal some of the events that mix traditional folk beliefs and remedies with Buddhism in a tantalizing look at Thai culture. Just know that Thailand was revealed to me in richer detail, with brief and stunning fixed shots of natural settings announcing the passing of time through the changing of the seasons as well as the strength of culture that has helped the story of Nang Nak persist. The story is the strength of this film and carries it through some of the rudimentary acting and occasional clumsy editing. I was a bit baffled by the poor English subtitles, but never lost.

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Most affecting of all was Intira Jaroenpura as Nak. A willowy actress of subtle beauty and grace, Jaroenpura imbues Nak with a poignancy that is very moving. Her first separation from Mak is grudging and helpless; her last, heartbreaking but filled with a kind of acceptance. It is said that a Nang Nak actually lived and that a relic of hers, inscribed with story and prayer, has been passed down from one Buddhist monk to the next until it passed out of the monastery, never to be seen again. The relic has become a symbol of eternal love. While some Thai fear the legend of Nang Nak, Jaroenpura restores the emotional core of the story with power, beauty, and sympathy. l

  • Daniel spoke:
    30th/05/2008 to 2:08 pm

    Yikes. Not the best idea to read this as I was snacking on my lunch.
    “Just know that Thailand was revealed to me in richer detail, with brief and stunning fixed shots of natural settings announcing the passing of time through the changing of the seasons as well as the strength of culture that has helped the story of Nang Nak persist.”
    This is the heart and soul of any foreign film for me, and even domestic films. Sometimes it makes you wonder why you even watch films that are lacking such deep elements. Thanks for exposing this one to me.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/05/2008 to 3:16 pm

    Don’t choke on your Pad Thai!
    The atmosphere of this film is really great and something I look for, too. It’s also one of the reasons I love silent films–they’re like time capsules of another society for me.

  • Brian spoke:
    31st/05/2008 to 5:59 pm

    Great piece! I actually watched this without subtitles when I was living in Thailand. I’ve meant to come back and revisit the film in a subtitled form, but have never gotten around to it. You’re comment about the poor subtitling reminds me that, for such a visual film, the lack of subtitles wasn’t that much of a hindrance to comprehension (though I’m sure it helped me that I was somewhat familiar with the legend and that I understood a little Thai).
    I miss your Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On piece at Film of the Month. What happened?

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    1st/06/2008 to 8:32 am

    Strangely enough, Wise Kwai just wrote to me proposing a Nomzee blog-a-thon. A couple of us seem to have thought about him and Nang Nak at a similar time with my recent posting on the film Ghost of Mae Nak. I encourage you to get the import DVD The Unseeable by Nang Nak screenwriter Wisit Sasanatieng for comparison.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/06/2008 to 10:29 am

    Brian – Thanks so much. Yes, subtitling helps with the specifics, but this film stands on its own through the vividness of its images, which tell the story surprisingly well.
    As for the Film of the Month Club, I feel kind of intimidated. The conversation is at such a highly theoretical level, I can’t understand some of it (and I’m used to reading technical material, but not academic theory). The lack of response to my post made me feel that my contributions were not the type the members were interested in. I’m actually quite surprised that you mentioned it. Thanks for noticing.
    Peter – Thanks for the recommendation. I am quite interested in this legend and would be interested in how various Thai filmmakers view this well-known tale.

  • Brian spoke:
    2nd/06/2008 to 2:58 am

    I will second the recommendation for the Unseeable (or any film directed by Wisit, actually) and chime in that it would take wild water buffalo to keep me away from participating in a Nonzee Blog-a-Thon.
    Some of the discussion at Film of the Month Club uses jargon that I’m a bit intimidated by, but I hope that doesn’t mean that only certain kinds of posts are welcome. As Chris wrote, he was hoping the project to facilitate conversation “between academic and cinephile, political and aesthetic, popular and avant-gardist…”
    I thought your post was an extremely valuable part of the conversation. I haven’t seen the Errol Morris film yet myself but I loved how you tied it in with your point about the messiness of the messages sent by documentarians and their subjects, who, even when they may have a particular point they want to get across, tend to subvert it one way or another. I also liked that you pointed out Okuzaki’s sexism. And what you said about the taboo of criticizing Japan’s emperor brought to mind a well-intentioned but, to me, frustrating documentary I saw at Sundance this year called Yasukuni. I was going to make a comment about the latter on your post (it seemed the most sensible place to bring it up) but then found it missing.
    Lack of comments on a blog post can indicate a lack of interested readers, but it can also be attributed to other causes: a post that is so self-contained that adding to the content seems extraneous; or a post that sends readers in directions so unexpected that they have to take a while to collect their thoughts before responding. And those are only two examples.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/06/2008 to 11:37 am

    Brian – Thanks for the encouraging words. Rick Olson said many of the same things to me. I thought I might be overreacting, but I’ve had some bad experiences in the past that kind of overruled my judgment. I’ll reinstate the post tomorrow.
    As for whether the mix Chris wants will pan out in the end remains to be seen. I’ll hope for the best.

  • dame spoke:
    25th/02/2011 to 10:22 pm

    ‘t was a very good movie though sometimes the subtitle of the one i watched was not that good.. And i was impressed of the director of the movie for doing such thing…It made people realize how hard living life on the past which we should thankful and grateful for we had not experienced the same faith that they had experienced.

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