Man-Eater (2004) is a Thai film based on a supposed true case of a serial killer who preyed on children back in the late 1940's. When it comes to tales of killers, I don't mind a film that tries to go deep and probe into the darker depths (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), and I don't mind it when they aim straight for the pulp, the fanciful, the exploitative (Hannibal), or even healthy mix the two (The Untold Story). However, Man-Eater just treads shallow ground which results in a film that lacks both dramatic insight and exploitative thrills.
Li Hui (Long Duan) is a Chinese emigrant to Thailand. Literally fresh off the boat he stowed away on, Li Hui gets an unfriendly greeting, including a new name, Zee Qui, an Thai-i-fied version of his Chinese name. He's deloused and placed in a dank, cramped holding cell while he is processed by belligerent, uncaring officials. His uncle arranges a job/living quarters for Zee Qui, but his employers are mean and their children tease him. It isn't long (15 minutes in film time. Who knows what it was in reality) before he robs from them and takes off in the night.
Here the film begins to establish its uneven ideas. On one hand, it makes Zee Qui out to be a total put-upon innocent, who suffers in this new, cruel land. Flashbacks reveal him to be nothing but upstanding and sane, yet, after some teasing by little kids, he's lurking around corners with a gaze of ill-intent and robbing the people, who unfriendly or not, are doing him a favor by giving him employment and residence.
Zee Qui finds work as a manual laborer but he isn't a very good hauler because his small size and chronic tuberculosis makes him a sickly thing. Once again, for no apparent reason, the dark cloud continues to follow him and he is bullied and teased by his co-workers at every turn. The foreman's little daughter gives him a flower, the bullies crush it. He saves away for an herbal cure to treat his sore lungs, the bullies smack him around and ruin it. He then, in the midst of a dream/nightmare, accidentally kills the foreman's daughter.
At this point I'd had it. The film clearly tries to paint his maniacal side as a result of Job-like suffering, which I'm sorry, is complete bullshit. It even provides a dandy of an excuse for his first child-murder, that it was an accident. I guess its was just to hard for the limited writers to paint mental illness (probably the true cause of his problems) in a sympathetic light, so instead they go for a tawdry notion that he was somehow driven insane because of all the unfair torture he underwent as a lowly sick emigrant. The film also provides some flashbacks that he'd seen the horrors of war, but again, it is served up as a feeble small catalyst for his craziness. He shows brief shock and remorse at his actions, but that all dissolves in the last act of the film where he becomes just a drooling, coughing maniac.
Again, he is shown kindness (By the very foreman whose daughter he killed) and is given another job looking after a small crop of land, but he falls asleep during a rainstorm and the crops are destroyed. Ah, cry out to cruel fate again! Just to hammer the point to death, at this job, he is again mocked by village children. See, kids, it isn't just for dopey, nerd-goth teenagers. Teasing can turn an adult man into a killer too. Pretty soon, he starts chopping up kiddies and making heart stew, in yet another semi-excuse for his actions, because it was an herbal cure his mother once used to treat him.
Its really disheartening to me that the film uses two different, crime pathology ignorant explanations as to why Zee Qui targeted children as his victims. Roughly a good 98% of serial murders are sexual in nature. The remaining percentage being a different kind of dementia, usually the kind where a person cannot fit into society or hide their mania like many serial murders can manage to do (for a time). Lets assume that Zee Qui wasn't a sexual predator but was in fact just a crazy guy who targeted kids. The reasoning wouldn't be that they teased him or he saw them as a ‟cure‟ for his illness. Pure and simple, he targeted them because they were easy prey, because he was an afflicted wisp of a man, who was insane, and the only victim he could domineer would be someone weaker. Thats the truth. It may not make for an interesting dramatic device, but its best to stick to reality in this kind of true crime case.
The film also features a side plot that is just has mishandled as the main plot. The side plot concerns the procedural aspects of hunting for Zee Qui, mainly a female reporter named Dara (Premsinee Ratanasopha), who doesn't get the respect of her peers because of chauvinism. Again, the film makers wasted an opportunity to comment on the times and the culture and also offer a nice bit of crime procedural because Dura, more or less stumbles upon tagging Zee Qui as the killer not through dogged intelligence but pure circumstance.
A final tag-on bit, wedged into the end credits no less, suggests a government cover up and Zee Qui taking the blame for murders he didn't commit. It comes out of nowhere and then is left hanging, unformed, confusing, an afterthought never explored.
The DVD: Media Blasters.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Mostly the transfer looks great. There are some slight technical problems with edge enhancement and minor shimmering. The print is nice, very clean and detailed. Color lean towards the drab and dreary, clearly a cinematography choice for this dark film. Like wise there is a heady grain level. Contrast is spot-on, with excellent black levels that run very deep.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Thai language with optional English subtitles. Basic sound. A good, but unremarkable track. Subtitles appeared to be well-translated and timed.
Extras: Original Trailer (plus more Media Blaster release trailers). -- Image Gallery.
Conclusion: Man-Eater was selling, but I wasn't buying, the notion of a man who turned to cold-blooded murder of defenseless children because he had a hard time adjusting to a different culture, one that was fleetingly kind and mainly unrelentingly inhumane to him. On the technical side it is a well-made film and might offer a bit of entertainment for those inclined. I'd suggest spending a night with Henry: POASK or Citizen X instead, but Man-Eater is a passable rental.