Nonzee Nimibutr resuscitates the folkloric tale of ‘Mae Nak’ in his 1997 production of Nang Nak. The film centres on the ghost of Nak, with the main source of horror being Nak’s monstrous femininity. Barabra Creed writes that “all human societies have a conception of the monstrous feminine, of what it is about the woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” (1993, 34). Nak’s body becomes the source of great literal and symbolic pain. She takes us across many borders into uncomfortable realms of femininity, sex and death. “The concept of a border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film; that which crosses or threatens to cross the ‘border’ is abject” (Creed, 1993, 29), and Nang Nak is replete with scenes in which the feminine, in her various forms, crosses the line and becomes monstrous.
The first border which Nimibutr takes us across is that of the living and the dead; the fleeting possibility that Nak and Mak can live in a strange sort of harmony despite Nak being dead. Kong Rithdee writes that “the possibility of harmonious existence between people of different learnings and nature is precisely at the heart of our current social conflict. The ‘ghosts’ are among us”, (Rithdee, 2013), a concept that is most unsettling for viewers. This social tension is also visible in Nimibutr’s portrayal of the Abbott as Somdej Toe, a key figure under King Rama IV. Toe represents the monarchy and the state; therefore when he heals Mak and has the power to put down Nak, the message is clear: the power of the state, and the masculine, prevails.
One of the few women we meet in Nang Nak is the midwife, and she does not fare well. Her “ritualistic incompetence” (Adadol Ingawanij, 2007, 184,) is starkly contrasted to the Abbott, who, to simplify it, essentially prays Mak back to life with his official state Buddhism. The contrast of the two ‘healers’ once again raises the question of gender. It is interesting that the midwife, one of the only female characters, is portrayed as incapable, ritualistic and rural, and so, to restore the balance, dies a gruesome death with her body disrespected and violated by monitor lizards, an “abject metaphor in the Thai language” (Adadol Ingawanij, 2007, 184). On the other hand, we have the Abbott, who we meet for the second time when he comes to banish Nak’s ghost. “Rather than through conventional methods of exorcism, Toe subdues the ghost through the power of his speech” (Adadol Ingawanij et al, 2012, 48). This exemplifies the use of masculine logic and the power of the state combining to overcome feminine hysteria and rural tendencies.
Another example of masculinity overpowering femininity is the relationship between sex, birth and death. The scene which sees Nak and Mak copulating is interspersed with scenes from Nak’s death. In doing this, Nimibutr juxtaposes sexuality with death; pleasure with pain; sex with duty; and brings the conflict of femininity to the fore. The viewer cannot avoid the intermingled scenes of childbirth, death, sex and passion, and rather disconcertedly recognises the similarities that they share. The horror stems from the realisation that the maternal body is a site of “conflicting desires” (Creed, 1993, 40). As Nak lies on her back in labour, giving birth to a son, so too does she lie on her back whilst another man, Mak, is between her legs. Is it perhaps that one cannot live whilst the other survives? That Nak chooses Mak, and as a result, she and her son die. Fhurmann writes that “Nak dies in some sense in order for Mak to live” (2008, 52).
As mother, and as wife, Nak is a dutiful woman. These roles begin to overlap, and the border between each fluctuates uncomfortably, creating a subtle source of horror. The viewer is posed with deeply unsettling questions: should Nak be a wife or a mother? Should she be sexual or maternal? Is she alive or dead? What should her female genitalia be used for?
Nimibutr also uses blood to connect Nak and Mak. “Throughout the film, Nak and Mak bleed in near synchronicity” (Adadol Ingawanij et al, 2012, 50). However, whilst Mak bleeds from his chest, Nak’s blood comes from her mouth and her genitals; the potential source of two feminine evils. When the midwife makes a cut to widen Nak’s vagina, it finally pushes Nak into death. The cut literally and symbolically widens Nak’s ‘wound’. Thus what ultimately kills her is the exposure and widening of the source of her femininity.
The film is always warning us of the dangers and horrors of female sexuality. When Mak day dreams about tilling the fields, we see a sexually charged interaction with Nak. The scene changes suddenly and Mak witnesses his best friend die and rapidly decompose. Nak’s sexualised flirtations are not only in the same day dream as the death, but precede it and cause it by association.
Nimibutr also uses “malevolent nature” (Adadol Ingawanij, 2007, 184) as a pivotal source of horror. The “fateful eclipse” (Adadol Ingawanij, 2007, 182) depicted in the opening scene, was predicted by King Rama IV before his death, which was a “traumatic loss” for the Thai nation (Adadol Ingawanij, 2007, 183). It can therefore be inferred that the shot of the moon foreshadows the death to come, and that for a Thai audience, understanding this connection creates a sense of fear and foreboding.
In addition to the eclipse, we see silent waters, haunting and deathly trees, subdued lighting and storms, reflecting “a world of intimate connectedness between nature, spirit and human beings” (183, Adadol Ingawanij). It is through nature that the ghostly, unseen, abject takes a physical form, representing the “fragility of the law…which separates out the living subject from that which threatens its extinction.” (Creed, 1993, 37) Another layer added onto this is Nak’s traditional lullaby, which hangs eerily over the landscape. Taking a tune which Thai viewers would recognise, and turning it into a fear inducing device brings the horror closer to home.
Adadol Ingawanij, May (2007), Nang Nak: Thai Bourgeois Heritage Cinema, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 8:2
Adadol Ingawanij, May & McKay, Benjamin (2012), Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia, Cornell University
Creed, Barbara (1993), The Monstrous Feminine, Routledge
Furmann, Arnika (2008). Ghostly Desires: Sexual Subjectivity in Thai Cinema and Politics After 1997. America: Chicago, Illinois
Rithdee, Kong (2013), Films Write History Always and Forever, http://www.bangkokpost.com/print/344179/
Rithdee, Kong (2014), Mae Nak Through the Years, http://m.bangkokpost.com/life/342541