Inthira Charoenpura and Winai Kraibutr in Nang Nak (1999) Photo:

Nak’s glorious appearance on the world stage made it “possible to ‘think’ the nation”[1] and to perceive the present as a continuation of a historical past. Nang Nak was among the first blockbuster ghost films to circulate in Southeast Asia at the turn of the millennium. This cycle of films touched on the troubled psyche of a region reeling from a financial crisis, exhibiting a nostalgic desire for a more innocent time. Bliss Cua Lim helps us understand Nang Nak as part of a broad reconfiguration of popular consciousness of the past, one in which the figure of the ghost plays an important role. According to Cua Lim, the ghost can transcend the barriers of a measurable “homogenous, empty time,” (from Walter Benjamin) one that is always presumed to be universal and culturally neutral[2].

Nang Nak is set during the Siamese-Vietnamese War of 1831 amidst a cholera epidemic and it portrays Thailand as a nation on the cusp of modernization. Bangkok is shown as a small village with only the network of temples and monks holding it together like the river system that transports both people and basic commodities. While the film claims authenticity by referencing real personalities, the transposition of the ghost story to this historical period results in a conflation that is almost mythological.

Adadol Ingawanij’s disparaging description of Nak as “Thailand’s national ghost”[3] ridicules the fantasy of Thainess that is manifested in the ghost story. That the film ends by stating that a piece of Nak’s skull allegedly came into the possession of Prince Abhakara Kiartivongse, founder of the Navy, proves the point. Nak cannot just be any ghost. She has to be one that binds all Thai people to a common timeline, one that aligns with the myths of royalty. In her other writings, Adadol Ingawanij also dismisses the film as catering to bourgeois spectatorship; aspiring to connote Thai difference from the West, while also obtaining an accepted “universal” (read: hollywood) standard of filmic quality.[4] Thai culture became an export product that needed to be packaged in a way that made it palatable to global tastes like other commodified and essentialized cultures of the world.

The familiarity of Thai audiences to the story explains the elegiac tone right from the first scene and sustains it throughout the film. It assumes that audiences need no introduction to the ghost story. Lyrical landscape shots and the melodramatic acting of the two main actors characterize the rhythm which tells the legend of a love that extends beyond death. While the tale is old, the visual register was “unlike any other Thai film of the 1990s”.[5]  Despite its relative novelty, the film quickly became studied as a representative of contemporary Thai cinema and this attests to the complex social infrastructure–the film outfits, cultural agencies, and critics–invested in the film’s success. Aside from the financial gains, Adadol Inganwanij points to the rhetoric of the Thai attainment of the desired “international caliber”, configured through textual and extratextual means, in explaining Nang Nak’s claim to an “attentive representation of national heritage.”[6] Its popularity reveals not only the enduring mystique of ghost film but also cinema’s power to project the “bourgeois fantasy”, with Hollywood as the benchmark, and to “provide an expansive site of identification with this fantasy.”[7]

Nang Nak’s success can be compared to Cua Lim’s critique of ghost films from the Philippines and Hongkong as “historical allegories” whose critical reception and conditions of production, mostly state sponsored agencies for “experimental cinema”, assured them a place in the canon of respective national cinemas. This relationship between cinema and nation is a curious thing which, while sharing similarities with Benedict Anderson’s study of print media, often eludes the more complex effect of the moving picture’s ability to narrate the nation. This is why I thought it intriguing and also a bit schizophrenic that in the age of rampant commercialization, a film that imagines Bangkok as a besieged swamp kingdom defended by religious communities and dynastic realms would become so relevant. Parallel to the setting of Nang Nak, the importance of sacred com­munities, languages and lineages are reaffirmed in an age of cosmopolitanism and rapid changes in lifestyles. Upwardly mobile heritage advocates took advantage of the spectral possibilities of film to present another mode of apprehending Thai identity. They rallied domestic audiences to watch the film, thereby elevating spectatorship as a marker of good citizenship. The film was a referendum of Thailand’s place in the world as much as Nak’s place in both the society of the dead and the living; a ghost entangled in the globalized aspirations of a third world country.[8]

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, England: Verso Books), 2016. p.22

[2]Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique, (Duke University Press (2009), 289.

[3] Adadol Ingawanij, “Nang Nak: Thai bourgeois heritage cinema”’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 8:2, 2007. p.49.

[4] Ibid., p. 181.

[5] Adadol Ingawanij, Hyperbolic Heritage: Bourgeois Spectatorship and Contemporary Thai Cinema, (PhD Diss. London Consortium, University of London), p. 14

[6] Ibid., p. 14

[7] Ibid, p. 15

[8] Ibid.

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