It's rare that a horror film that will simultaneously explore demonic possession and the sordid lives of Bangkok go go dancers, but P does, and pretty well. The first Thai language film to be filmed by a westerner, Brit Paul Spurrier, P glides along at its own pace, taking its time and foregoing over the top splatter, and delivering a much more nuanced horror experience.
Dau (Suangporn Jaturaphut) is a rural Thai girl, trained in magic from her youth by her grandmother. She is lured to Bangkok when grandmother takes ill and they don't have enough money for medicine. Unknown to Dau, whose real name is Aaw, which is considered too difficult for foreigners to pronounce thus the name change, her job is in a go go bar. At first, she is shy and awkward, comforted by her friend Pookie (Opal) after her first sexual experience with a bar patron, learning to dance seductively for the men and the tricks of the trade. The P Bar, where she works, like most other go go bars in Bangkok, is essentially a place where foreign men can pick up prostitutes.
Dau quickly takes to life at the bar, and just as quickly begins to use magic to help herself along. She casts a spell to make herself more attractive, and begins to steal clients away from other girls. This causes considerable animosity among her co-workers, particularly in May (Narisara Sairatanee), the main dancer and star of the club. In order to kibosh Dau's chances at taking the top spot, May sabotages her audition with some Vaseline on the go go pole. When Dau learns of the treachery, she casts another kind of spell, a more dangerous kind, to teach May a little lesson. Unfortunately, the little lesson turns into something more, and May's face is horribly disfigured, ending her career. Though Dau is regretful, she now begins her slow descent into something evil.
Spurrier pulls a neat trick, in that Dau is easily the most sympathetic character in the film, one which the audience truly likes and wishes well for, and at the same time she is the villain, a hideous creature that goes out at night killing people and devouring them. She unwittingly violates several magical rules: passing under a clothes line, eating raw meat and accepting payment for a spell, though the payment is only a kiss on the forehead from Pookie. This seems innocent enough behavior, but it opens Dau up to infernal forces, and the evil enters into her body and controls her actions whenever she goes to sleep.
When May's friends go to a local sorcerer to try and exact revenge for their friend's injury, the viewer both wants to see Dau's villainy stopped and to see her survive and be happy. She is simultaneously sympathetic and repellant. Her quiet friendship with Pookie, which may be blossoming into love, makes the viewer hope desperately that they can find peace together. But Dau also kills and eats a child, along with a lot of unsavory western men. This divided sympathy comprises much of the dramatic force of the film.
P is not a film of high energy thrills and whiz bang action. It has a few effective jump scares, but these are merely bonuses thrown into the mix. The film succeeds best at developing and maintaining a discomfiting feeling. The effort is in the atmosphere, not the big payoff. The viewer is most disturbed because they feel real affection for the person committing the hideous deeds they see on the screen.
P is not a film for all tastes. Its deliberate pace and focus on character development and atmosphere will turn away those looking for quick scares and exploitation. For those ready to spend a couple of quiet hours feeling disturbed and conflicted, this subtle film will fit the bill.
The video is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and does have some issues. There is significant aliasing and a lot of posterization in the backgrounds, both effects being more pronounced in night scenes. For the most part, however, the action is clearly visible and the hideous form of Dau during her possession is hidden just enough in the shadows to let imaginations run.
Audio is available in Thai only, both in Dolby 2 channel and 5.1 channel. There is no hiss and the dialogue is clearly audible throughout. There is some separation and occasional use of the LFE channel, particularly during the more dramatic possession scenes, but otherwise the sound is un-extraordinary. Subtitles are available in English only.
There are a number of extras included on the disc, aside from the general trailer for Palisades Tartan releases. They are:
At just over a minute and a half, this trailer is effective and interesting.
The teaser trailer is about a minute long, and also effective.
P Behind the Scenes
This montage of behind the scenes footage, clocking it at only ninety seconds and without any explanatory voiceover, is mildly interesting but inconsequential.
Soi Cowboy Gogo Bars
This is a five minute interview with author Dean Barrett, a resident of Thailand and expert on the area, who also has a small role in the film. It is shot in Soi Cowboy, an area of Bangkok that is home to many of the town's go go bars. Mr. Barrett describes the culture of the bars, and Bangkok nightlife more generally, and the controversy surrounding them. Interesting, but could have been longer.
This is the most substantial, and the most interesting, of the extras included with P. Director Paul Spurrier is an engaging fellow, and treats us to a number of humorous anecdotes about the production, and the go go culture in Bangkok more broadly. A number of the actors in the film are go go dancers, and Spurrier did extensive research into the go go scene as well as actual magical practices of the rural people of Thailand. The production used a live cobra in one harrowing scene, which resulted in Spurrier taking on a role in front of the camera when the original actor refused to work with the deadly snake. (The snake wrangler that helped with the scene was bitten by a cobra and died a few weeks after the shoot.) Filming in Thailand is clearly a dodgier proposition than in safety conscious Hollywood. Spurrier makes the commentary highly entertaining in its own right.
P is a deliberately paced and subtle horror film, and surprising non-exploitive considering the subject matter. Viewers looking for titillation are advised to seek elsewhere. While it has a few solid scares, cheap frights are not the point. Complex relationships and conflicting sympathies provide the dramatic tension, as we watch a beloved character descend further and further into evil with little hope of resurfacing. For viewers who want something more in a horror film than blood spattered breasts, P is a film to watch.