Director: Nonzee Nimibutr
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.
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.
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.
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.