The Unseeable (Pen Choo Kab Pee)

Director: Wisit Sasanatieng
Year: 2006

I had a chance to catch the film the other evening at a late night screening at MBK mall and have just a few comments to make.

Before the film even began it got off to an interesting start. As the lights began to dim, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a group of some dozen young women had entered the theater all dressed to the nines and built like leggy runway models. That should have given me a clue. They all look for their seats and they turn out to all have ones around mine – maybe my lucky night I wonder – Kismet in overtime? One squeezes by me and her knee rubs up against mine – accident or flirtation I think to myself. After they find their seats they begin to talk to one another - in oddly low rough voices and it finally dawns on me that I am in the middle of a girl’s night out – or would that be a guy’s night out? The film begins and they grow silent. No one pays any attention to me - I don't know whether to be relieved or insulted!

The film is a complete u-turn from Wisit's two previous films - "Tears of the Black Tiger" and "Citizen Dog" in terms of style and mood. Both of those were drenched in colors so rich, unreal and lurid that it felt like they were dripping off the screen. That along with his visual puckish humor and the general surreal nature of the narrative made both films into festival favorites around the world though apparently they didn't do so well inside of Thailand. Perhaps their failure at the local box office is partly behind this much more conventional film and palette in a genre that Thai movie goers eat up with relish - ghostly tales.

Wisit avoids the path of following recent horror trends influenced by Japanese horror films but instead seems much more influenced by the eerie supernatural films from an earlier period where atmosphere and a sense of foreboding run throughout the film but actual gore and violence is kept to a minimum - films like "The Innocents" (1961) and "The Haunting" (1963) come to mind. Gothic creepiness set in an old house with the unknown permeating everything. In the interview Wisit mentions that he was inspired by the ghost stories of Hem Wejakorn (a Thai writer), but the story also feels very much soaked in traditional folk lore. It takes place seemingly in the 1930's and has a certain lush gorgeous antiquated style about it.

The story has a simple set up and takes place almost entirely within the fecund grounds of a lovely but aging Siam estate near Bangkok. The compound has the smell of decay about it - a visceral weariness and disregard for the outside world echoes within. A young woman, Nualjan (Sirapan Watanajinda) from the countryside knocks one day on the outer gate of the home of Madame Ranjuan (Suporntip Chuangrangsri) with a sad plaintive tale of looking for her husband who went missing some months ago and left her pregnant. She is reluctantly given boarding by the high collared and rigidly autocratic housekeeper Ms. Somjit (Tassawan Seneewongse) who seems to have come from the same housekeeping school as Mrs. Danvers ("Rebecca"). Nualjan soon meets Choy, a backwards servant, who fills her in on the peculiar inhabitants of this odd menagerie - the mysterious Madame Ranjuan who never leaves her room since being brokenhearted by the death of her husband, an old wizened crone who only comes out at night, a man who can be spotted shoveling under a tree in the darkness and a young unknown woman who has been seen standing on the swings going back and forth. Ms. Somjit severely warns Nualjan not to go near the main house and to keep to her servant quarters and to avoid the ghosts because . . . they are everywhere.

Of course Nualjan does not heed her warnings and wanders about indiscriminately pushing up against the past and things that go bump in the night. She finally meets the Madame of the house - a beauty stuck in porcelain and time - her bobbed hair, white powdered face, silk dresses and stark red lipstick make her appear almost other worldly as she plays her melancholy records into the night. Something is clearly amiss here, but the naive and innocent Nualjan seems unaware of all the phantoms that seem to surround her and her baby is on its way.

Unfortunately, the film isn't entirely successful in its attempt to evoke this mood of shivering creepiness. It is very much harmed by an alarmingly intrusive soundtrack that announces in the loudest manner possible every ghost and moment of suspense. And there are just too many ghostly appearances - the ghosts are indeed everywhere - around every corner and peering in every window - and each one gets its own triumphal crescendo of music like a calling card letting us know that we are about to be introduced to them. After a few of these it becomes almost ho-hum - oh another ghostly image - now back to the news. The truth is that Wisit doesn't really handle suspense and horror all that well - the ideas and imagery are there but there is no rhythm or urgency to the pacing and these constant attempts at jarring scares feels almost cheap and tawdry at times - a play for the backseats. What he does love is melodrama and the detail around the story - the sets, the old records, the clothes, the red lipstick against the white face - and here the film is much more successful. It is lovely and elegant in its retro feel and the love story that emerges feels much more dear to his heart than the horror elements. This is a case where less would be more - fewer ghosts and overtly obvious attempts to scare the audience and instead trust them to be pulled into the story slowly and hypnotically with a story of tragic romance among the living and the dead.

The Lady Boys clearly enjoyed the film it seemed to me – in particular whenever the Madame came on screen they all began gesturing and rapidly chatting like this women or the character had already gained some sort of iconic stature in their world – all made up with no one to love her.

The chill of the film did stay with me for a bit after leaving the theater. I made a stop in the men’s room and when I came out the lobby was deserted except for four of the Lady Boys sitting primly on the couches waiting I assume for their brethren to come out after a make-up makeover. So it turns out is the mall – all the stores closed down, most of the lights turned off, the escalators shut off and no one around to show me how the hell to get out. After I nervously walk around with no idea which way to go and wonder if I will be stuck in here till morning I finally spot a couple walking not too far ahead in the shadows and I decide to follow them. They get to a corner and turn and when I get there a few seconds later they have vanished. Perhaps everyone in the theater watching the films were ghosts – or as it turned out maybe they got on the elevator that was to my right. But that was definitely the creepiest moment of the night for me.

My rating for this film: 6.0