Asian horror takes its most peculiar turn yet in former pop video maker Monthon Arayangkoon’s 2006 film “The Victim” (“Phil Khon Pen”), the predecessor to the young up-and-coming Thai director-writer-producer’s hyperbolic ghost story-cum-murder thriller “The House”, which is for some reason only now getting its UK debut DVD release. The film dives off at the deep end right from the start, establishing a truly odd tone that makes it hard to fathom whether we’re meant to be taking any of what transpires at all seriously or not. Part of the initial problem with it is “The Victim’s” outlandish central conceit: a bizarre but apparently real Thai social convention (which the film always takes for granted without comment) that pictures Thailand’s police force staging re-enactments of the country’s most grisly crimes -- involving rape and murder and a combination thereof -- simply for the benefit of an unashamedly ghoulish media and in order to maximise positive publicity after the successful closure of a big case. These are reconstructions which occur at the original sites of the murders, with the authorities and the media all in tow, in which the victim is played by an actress while the role of perpetrator is taken by the very same person convicted of the original crime! Pitchanart Sakakorn plays cutesy aspiring young Thai actress Ting -- who is eager to take on the job of becoming just such an actress, and is employed by the police after being talent spotted by a handsome young police Lieutenant (Kiradeji Ketakinta) while she’s demonstrating her newly learned acting skills for the benefit of her uncle in a crowed street-side eatery.
It seems Lieutenant Te has been having difficulty finding anyone professional or skilled enough to take on this arduous task, and we see a flashback montage of his other shambolic attempts at re-staging various city stabbings and rapes etc.: a heaving, sweaty crowd of newspaper photographers clambering to get a good view while nervous, handcuffed real-life murderers and rapists are forced to relive their crimes with the aid of rubber knives and fake blood, etc., but faltering due to their lack of acting skills! Arayankoon shoots these sequences as off-the-wall absurdist comedy with a slapstick element, and at first it appears that this whole movie is to be a very strange mixture of ghostly scares and black comedy throughout: Ting is insouciantly happy to have escaped a life of shallow bit-part roles for lowbrow TV where she has to make do with acting out the part of an enthusiastic audience member on moronic TV quiz shows, swapping this nondescript fate for what is surly a much more challenging and substantial job; but at the same time she’s scared that playing these real-life characters of the dead is akin to ‘insulting their souls’.
Perhaps taking her acting classes just a little to heart, Ting sets out to fully inhabit each victim she is assigned to play, researching their lives beforehand and offering prayers to their spirits so as not to offend their memory. The viewer is privy to one chilling fact which at first Ting herself doesn’t appear to be fully aware off, though -- which is that the spirits of each victim (usually grossly deformed through mutilation) whose final moments she seeks to reconstruct are still hanging about each murder site – foetid and pale and dripping black blood, and sometimes missing various body parts to boot! Nevertheless, Ting wows everybody (including the murderers themselves, each brought in to act out their own crimes once more!) with her commitment, and the authenticity of her performances.
If this set up doesn’t already appear odd enough to be going on with, Ting actually becomes something of a celebrity because of her role as professional murder victim. Next thing we know, police forces all over Thailand are cuing up to employ her, and she’s offered a role in a soap opera off the back of her rather-morbidly-obtained national fame. However, when the strange case of a former Miss Thailand runner-up called Meen Wijitpaisarn (Apasiri Nitibhon), comes to prominent media attention, not least because it is claimed that the authorities were led to some vital forensic evidence, which eventually convicted her husband Dr Jarun (Chokchai Charoensuk) of the murder, by a ghost, Ting is persuaded to take on her most demanding and high profile role yet. Plunging into researching the life of the dead woman with her usual zest for the task, Ting attempts to take on every aspect of Meen’s persona, even training herself in the art of traditional Thai folk dancing – an activity at which Meen was an expert practitioner; but soon it becomes apparent that Meen is even more present than were the spirits of Ting’s previous cases, and she’s taking an scarily active role in preparing Ting for the coming re-enactment, especially after the young actress revisits the crime scene at which Meen’s hacked-up body was originally found -- in her own bath and wrapped in plastic sheeting. Ting finds herself being led into a hallucinatory world where fantasy and reality become more and more confused as Meen’s spirit reaches out to inform her that Dr Jarun is actually innocent of the crime she must in anycase now re-enact alongside him.
Viewers of “The House” will be familiar with the fairly traditional Asian horror furrow Arayangkoon is for the most part content to plough here: increasingly over-the-top and bloody haunting sequences occur during a series of set-pieces which start off being inventive and striking but soon start to seem overdone and overblown as the director apparently feels the need to top each excessive image with yet another, even-more grisly and surreal one, immediately after it. Thus the film comes across, in its first half, rather like “The House” did – as a crime mystery overlaid with a marginally successful ghostly thriller where CGI-laced imagery and a never-ending stream of jump moments eventually begin to outstay their welcome, seeming tedious and repetitious through a lack of subtlety. Even the initially hallucinatory disorientation induced by Arayangkoon’s constant use of wide angle lenses in effective overhead shots gazing down on stark corridors or ill-lit rooms, comes to feel like an overused device and is less and less affecting after a while. The initial comedy vibe is dumped pretty quickly and the viewer starts to scratch his/her head at these odd shifts and changes in tone when, mid-way through the film, Ting suddenly finds out about a secret lesbian relationship Meen once had with a well-to-do female plastic surgeon (Penpak Sirikul) who lives in a posh, clinically minimalist apartment – and the film, all of a sudden, mysteriously seems to come to a premature climax with still over forty-minutes of its running time left soon after the young protagonist decides to visit this woman to find out more about her murdered subject’s former life.
It turns out that the movie has one last (not entirely original) trick up its sleeve which involves us in having to process another initially radical shift in style and tone, but this time one which gradually bleeds back into following exactly the same tired and overstated Asian ghost story formulas as before. Metafictional narrative play and concepts of fractured or splintering identity have a large role to play in this unexpected new ‘twist’ – both concepts which are no longer quite as novel as the film seems to think they still are – and the opening statement of the film, heard during Ting’s acting class (‘when you become one with your character -- that is what we call acting’) is contrasted with the concept of actual spiritual possession in a new plotline involving the makers of an Asian horror film being haunted by a spirit who is trying to take over the body of the leading actress.
This is one road out of the burgeoning cliché which was beginning to hold sway across the first part of the film; and indeed, the way in which the two parts of the tale begin to mirror each other, with Ting’s ability to take on the persona of her dead subjects echoed in the desire of the ghost that’s haunting the film set to take over the actress who’s telling her story on film (‘I want to become you’) at first makes these ideas potentially quite interesting; the film seems to be attempting a sort of abstract Lynchian analysis of identity construction through the manipulation of Eastern horror genre conventions in the way “Mulholland Dr.” or “INLAND EMPIRE” utilised Hollywood noir as a template, and the odd tone of the first part of the movie is at least potentially explained by the revelations later on. The striking and versatile performance of actress Pitchanart Sakokorn certainly contributes to the success of this element of the film.
Soon though, Arayangkoon seems content to slip back into the usual incoherent concatenation of shock jump moments which play out as a series of De Palma-esque dreams-within-dreams or visions-within-visions, spinning out the run time nicely but failing to maintain sufficient atmosphere or forward momentum in the plot as all grasp on reality and her former identity starts to slip away from the supernaturally beleaguered protagonist. The end credits play out alongside footage from the film-within-a-film -- zooming in on apparently real ghostly manifestations hidden the whole time in the background of shots devoted to the fictional movie makers’ more contrived attempts to scare (also a creepy idea that’s much better-executed in the Australian mockumentary thriller “Lake Mungo”): if Arayankoon had taken this quiet approach to the whole movie, he might have ended up with a much more subtle and affecting piece of work on his hands. As it stands, “The Victim” is another well-made but not very memorable foray into familiar Asian horror territory ,which gets a decent enough transfer but no extras whatsoever from this MVM release on DVD in the UK.