I keep singing the praises of a simply extraordinary book I read while I was in Cambodia: The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk by Justin Thomas McDaniel. It is quite simply the best book I have ever read about popular religion in Thailand, and it alerted me to the significance of one of Thailand's favourite stories, the tragic ghost story of Nak and her baby.
I am not giving too much away if I explain the story briefly. Nak is a village girl who falls pregnant to her hunky husband. Husband is called away to war and Nak dies in childbirth. So great is Nak's love, though, that she remains waiting for her husband in ghostly form, complete with ghost baby. Husband returns from war and doesn't realise his wife is now a ghost. She cooks and cleans for him, they have an amazing sex life, and the surrounding villagers are too scared to tell him he's been tricked. Anyone that does is killed by the ghost. Finally things get out of hand, and a powerful senior monk is called (usually Luang Po To) and he subdues the ghost.
I tell you the entire plot because it is familiar to every person in Thailand, and when they go to see a Nak movie they know exactly what the plot will be. Indeed, this assumption is so much in place that often film-makers will neglect to explain key points in the plot, leaving bewildering gaps that a non-Thai viewer simply cannot fill in.
The Nak story is the most re-told one in Thai cinema, and there are 22 versions that have all been enormously popular. While I was in Cambodia a brand new 3D version had come out, and I went to see it and enjoyed it very much. That made me go back and get all of the older versions so I could compare and contrast.
I have just watched the classic version, Nang Nak, seen as one of the best Thai films ever made. Released in 1999 and directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, it is a simple though beautifully filmed re-telling. It does, however, expect the viewer to know the whole legend. I watched it with someone who didn't know the story, and he was occasionally confused.
One has to suspend disbelief when it comes to the male cast of this film. Every one of them is improbably muscular, looking more like a gaggle of modern-day gay go-go dancers than 19th century Thai peasants. I doubt any Thai farmer of that period would have been quite so buff and broad-shouldered. But hey, I'm not complaining. Despite their distracting and unlikely good looks, the performances are solid and even realistic, for the most part.
It is the female cast of the film, however, that really shines. Particularly the role of Nak, played with unglamorous charisma by Intira Jaroenpura. She has a big-lipped, lisping charm that made me believe she could trick her husband into thinking that she was still alive. It's an absolutely magnetic performance, and I don't understand why she's not a bigger star.
Now, the Thai people believe that Nak was an actual historical figure, and there is a popular shrine to her in suburban Bangkok. And the defeat of her ghost is part of the popular legend of Luang Po To, the most famous monk in Thai history who is still revered and worshipped today. He is featured in the film, and the actor chosen bears the most uncanny resemblance.
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