Nang Nak (นางนาก)
Director: Nonzee Nimibutr
Written: Wisit Sasanatieng
“Nang Nak” is not simply another ghost story. It is a Thai legend, deep rooted in the nation’s psyche and imagination. It has been made into numerous films, TV series, theater plays and even comic books. The Nonzee’s interpretation is mostly enshrined in a Theravada Buddhist philosophy, showing its strength and superiority against the folk religion beliefs. This is a story about the fatal effects of desire and attachment that transcend the boundaries of life and death.
The story is set in early 19th century Thailand (or Siam), in the village of Phra Khanong (now district of Bangkok). Mak (Winai Kraibutr), husband to his beautiful wife, Nak (Intira Jaroenpura), has to leave for war. Nak is pregnant, and it is very difficult for her to take care of their rice farm. Eventually overworked, she goes into a painful labor and dies in the hands of a local shaman-midwife. At the same moment, Mak is badly injured in the war. He is taken care of in a Buddhist temple, and eventually recovers. The monk who saved him, Somdej Toh, suggest that Mak should become a monk to clear away his karmic bad luck. However, longing for his wife, Mak decides to return home. There, he is greeted by his wife Nak and his baby son. But what he does not know, and cannot see, is that they are both ghosts. This part of the story could be a plot twist, like in the movie, “The Others,” but it is not used as such. A narrator tells the viewer what will happen from the beginning. All Thais know the legend, so it wouldn’t serve as much of a plot twist for local audiences anyway. Back in the story, other villagers avoid the haunted home, as the vengeful ghost of Nak has been ravaging the village before Mak’s return. Mak is warned twice, first by his best friend, and then by the local Buddhist monk. Mak does not believe them either time, and shoves them away, clinging to his happy fantasy; however, the illusion is broken very soon. Nak drops a lime while making somtam, and it falls into a lower level of the elevated house they live in. Instead of going downstairs, she simply extends her ghost arm, and picks up the lime. Mak, downstairs at the time, sees this happen. Scared and disillusioned, he runs away to the local temple. Meanwhile, villagers try to get rid of Nak’s ghost. One group tries to burn their house, but get killed in the fire as a result. Nak’s raging spirit says this is self-defense since they attacked her first. Another group brings a shaman-exorcist to Nak’s grave, but he fails to exorcise the powerful ghost. Only a monk who comes to village, the highly revered Somdej Toh, manages to calm the ghost down and solve the problem in Buddhist ways.
The story encompasses quite a few historical, political, religious and cultural ideas that go beyond the movie as a horror film. First is the idea of the superior state of Buddhism as a means for community to solve problems. Mak refuses to believe that Nak is a ghost even when told by his best friend. Nak kills the friend who dares to come and talk to Mak, and it is at this point the villagers decide to take action. Some men group together to go and burn their house. If Mak refuses to come out, they will burn him along with the ghost. This is a very straightforward act of aggression that turns against them. Therefore you cannot fight “fire” with fire. Other villagers decide to call a shaman, who uses Vedic chants beside her grave and performs a ritual. But his magic is still not enough to control the ghost, and Nak possesses and kills the shaman. Therefore, the local folk beliefs and magic are shown as insufficient. Local Buddhist monks take a passive approach to the situation. They wait for Mak to realize the illusion himself. They do not try to persuade him aggressively, just give him some guidance. They also call for the Somdej Toh, whose superior knowledge should solve the problem. When Mak does realize the illusion, he runs to the temple where monks protect him with sacred thread and chanting. Then, Somdej Toh himself appears with a novice monk. They walk in with light surrounding them in the deep night of the jungle. All calms down then. The monk does not perform an exorcism, per se. Instead, he invited Nak’s ghost to talk, and she starts feeling guilty in front of him, acknowledging her sins. The monk also allows her husband to say his last farewell. They both have to let go of the attachment they have, and realize the illusion of permanence. This is the only way to restore the natural order of things. Nak’s ghost is captured in an amulet made from the bone of her forehead, and her spirit has to serve the monk until she repays her bad karma. Mak becomes a Buddhist monk, as he was encouraged to do in the beginning of the film. All sides of this conflict reach an agreement by accepting the superiority of Buddhist philosophy, and willingly surrendering themselves to the path.
Arnika Fuhrmann, in the paper “Nang Nak- Ghost Wife: Desire, Embodiment, and Buddhist Melancholia in a Contemporary Thai Ghost Film” suggests that
Nimibutr’s film is the first to present Nak’s story in a significantly nationalist context – which is in turn underwritten by the Buddhist narrative.
I agree with this point of view. Buddhism was very important role in building contemporary nationalist Thailand. In the movie, Buddhism is show as a superior religion, and the best way to organize community life. However, the need for Somdej Toh to solve the Nak ghost problem reveals the nationalist theme. A community is not able to be self sufficient, even with Buddhist path. They need a superior force from the outside to intervene. This outside support is ensured by the national system. The need for this nationalist system legitimizes the demands forced on the citizens of the country, such as conscription to military. Even though Mak lost a lot of his friends in the war, was himself injured, and lost his family due to it, the individual sacrifices are not so important looking at the bigger picture. By submitting to the Somdej Toh suggestions at the end of film, the characters also accept the national system. One could argue that in the 19th century there were no such issues in Siam, and it is true. Fuhrmann mentions “Nang Nak’s” historical inaccuracy, as the movie is portraying the 19th century while actually taking up current issues. The movie tries to give a historically based, continuous, and progressive congruency of ideology, which is so important in building the story of a nation. In this light, the movie serves as an assuring story for Thais of their contemporary national ideal.
The other central theme of “Nong Nak” is femininity and the female role in Thai society. It is presented as a very complex issue. On one hand, Nak is an exemplary wife, so devoted to her husband that she comes to serve him even after death. One the other hand, this strong desire unbalances the natural order of things and violates the boundary between the dead and the living (which in Thai traditional belief is a very thin boundary as both realms exist very close to each other). It causes suffering to others, as well as to her and her husband, as their illusion of happiness is so short lived and painfully broken. Dr. Stewart McFarlane, in his article, “The Role of Nang Nak in Thai Media and Imagination: Dangerous Ghost or Protective Goddess,” talks extensively about the ambivalence of femininity in Asian culture in general. There is not a separate idea of a “female” in traditional society. They have a certain status in society through their social roles as daughters, wives and mothers, with the latter being the most important role (especially as mother of sons, those continuing the family line). These roles are always portrayed as servitude – to the father, the husband and to the son. Even as a ghost, eventually Nak has to serve the monk:
I must go to serve High Dignitary until I pay off my karma. I can no longer serve you.
The natural processes women go through in their becoming are also viewed as dangerous, mysterious and polluting, such as menstruation as they becomes a fertile, and childbirth. McFarlane talks about the menstrual and birth blood being viewed as dangerous traditionally, especially to men. In the film, there is a lot of childbirth blood, especially when midwife shaman woman uses a medicine ritual to help the birth, but it doesn’t work (the scene of childbirth is shown simultaneously with Buddhist monks healing Mak, emphasizing the superiority of Buddhist medicine compared to traditional folk, as well as the strong spiritual connection of Mak and Nak). Nak’s suffering shows the difficulty females experience complying with these ambivalent roles, and fulfilling them in real life.
Women’s sexuality in Thai culture is also controversial. On one hand, the sexual desire and connection between husband and wife is legitimate. On the other hand, the sexual desire, especially the desire awakened by a woman in a man, is viewed as dangerous. It is not only Nak’s ghostly powers that keep the illusion; it is also her husband’s desire for her that fuels it. In the traditional view, it is the woman’s “fault” that this desire is aroused. In Buddhist core beliefs, it is desire and attachment that cause suffering in the world. To get rid of these is to set oneself free from the circle of samsara (the cycle of life and death). Feminine desire, both sexual and family oriented, is viewed as even more dangerous. Females have a strong connection to nature, which in the movie is first portrayed by a storm during Nak’s childbirth. After that, her ghost always appears during stormy nights, and she uses the powers of nature for her vengeance. It is due to this powerful connection to nature that the strong desire of a female embodies a dangerous force.
The ambivalence of the role of Nang Nak is also evident in contemporary worship of her. There is a shrine devoted to her, located within the Mahabhute temple in Bangkok. She is a popular Mother Goddess figure, and people leave her offerings to receive protection. She is widely worshipped, even though Nang Nak is not an orthodox Buddhist figure. However, she is also acknowledged as a vengeful, dangerous ghost. Her name is used to pacify crying children:
Be quiet child, or Nang Nak will come and eat you.” (Source: Tai-chi).
As McFarlane concludes, this seemingly contradictory approach to portraying Nang Nak is culturally embedded. It is complex and multidimensional, and it goes along with cultural ideas and meanings rather than contradicting them. I would add that it is also a Buddhist-Daoist approach of no absolutes. There is no absolute evil, and no absolute good. In the end, it is the Buddhist monk who has enough compassion to see Nak’s side of the story, calms her down, and restores the natural balance.
Having discussed many of the cultural and philosophical nuances of the story, it would be appropriate to say something about the movie itself. There are things I liked, things I did not quite understand, and things I did not like. I liked the visual appeal of the movie, such as all the shots of the Thai jungle and rural surroundings. The horror part of the film worked well too, at least it did for me. It is uncanny to watch Mak living there, blind to the fact that Nak is a ghost. Of course, the strongest part of the film is the Buddhist interpretation of the story, which is emphasized with Nak too. It doesn’t only portray her as a vengeful ghost, but also as a loving wife and mother.
The part that was quite lost on me was the life of the village. When Mak came back from the war, he did not see other people for days. Of course, villagers avoided the haunted house, and Nak did not want her husband to see others; but he did not seem to find it odd that no one was there. Also, villagers seem to have been very uncaring about Nak even when she was alive. Despite being pregnant, she had to work hard plowing the field. Not all men were at war either. There were many others that had either returned, or never conscripted. Only the Buddhist monk offered his compassion by saying, “I really pity you, Nak.” Even the midwife not only lost both mother and child, but she also stole Nak’s ring (Nak did take revenge on this woman, bleeding her out just like it happened to Nak, then leaving her body untended for wild animals to eat). This contrast could be a tool enabling the viewer to empathize with Nak. However, this does seem to be very different from the typically idealized and nostalgic portrayal of rural communities as being supportive of each other and living in harmony.
I did not care for the acting that much. I think Intira Jaroenpura did a great job portraying Nak, but Winai Kraibutr wasn’t very believable as Mak. What I find mostly regretful though, is that the movie did not meet its full potential. I guess they had to water it down a bit for it to fit more international audience tastes. Also, they resorted to some cliché horror “scary just for being scary” scenes that did not serve the plot at all, like Mak’s nightmares about the war, and his best friend dying in his lap. There are a few times he sees these memories in the beginning of the film, but they are not really connected to the overall plot, nor have any resolution. The rest of the story is devoted to Nak, and no more war memories or war remorse is mentioned. Maybe these scenes are shown to imply that Mak earned bad karma because he was involved in the war, and has to pay it off by becoming a monk; however, if this were the case, it would contradict the otherwise nationalist notions of the film.
Considering the typical horror genre, “Nang Nak” is truly a gem. For Thai audiences, it is a culturally significant film, and for international audiences, especially Western, it is a good taste of what a Buddhist ghost story looks like. And if you like to go deeper, the “Nang Nak” story could serve as a window into the Thai psyche, culture, philosophy and imagination.