The film comes from Mark Duffield, the British filmmaker who has spent the past few years working as a cinematographer in Thailand; "Mae Nak" marks Duffield's debut as writer and director. (Sticking to familiar territory, he also serves as director of photography.) For his rookie effort, he tackles a Thai legend so popular locally that "Mae Nak" marks the twenty-second time it's been brought to the screen. The legend comes in several different forms, but the common ingredient is a new bride who dies while her husband is away at war; unwilling to leave her beloved, she rises from the dead and greets him upon his return home, which he finds fairly creepy, so he splits, only to have her wreak vengeance on just about everybody. It is said that many Thai residents believe the ghost story to be true, so much so that there's even a shrine to her.
In Duffield's retelling, the bride's neighbors cut a giant hole in her forehead and turned part of her skull into a necklace, a bit of jewelry discovered a century later by Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong), a blushing young bride who coincidentally has the same name as the young bride of the ghost legend… and who coincidentally just moved into the house where Ghost Nak lived so long ago. This can't turn out good.
When Alive Nak's husband Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin) is - wait a sec, their names are Nak and Mak? Huh. Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes: When Mak is hit by a car and winds up in a coma, Ghost Nak tries to take his soul with her, while Alive Nak tries to solve the mystery of Ghost Nak and hopefully do whatever it takes to appease her and return Mak's soul.
Some of this stuff is pretty solid in terms of slow-boil creep-out mood. We get a freaky séance with an old blind lady who takes to screaming "Release me! Release me!" We get shots of Ghost Mak popping up here and there with a hole in her head (not to mention the obligatory long black hair and pale complexion borrowed from every Japanese horror flick made in the past seven years). We get slow terror and quiet mystery, and for a while, the mood of the piece truly works; even if we're not that interested in the characters (who are underwritten and considerably dull), we'll be taken in by the underlying creepiness of it all.
But then Duffield becomes convinced that this story's "supernatural love story" angle isn't scary enough, and so we're tossed in a series of brutal deaths that are so out of place in this picture that they ruin any chance for the sinister mood to win out over the flimsy story and bland characters. The death scenes are obviously inspired by the "Final Destination" films, with their gross-out violent ends (one unfortunate chap is sliced in two - vertically! - by a sheet of glass), but Duffield can't quite get the hang of that series' Rube Goldbergian set-ups. Here, people die not because of an insane chain reaction of events that are laughably impossible yet deliciously, darkly entertaining, but just because the victims just up and become clumsy idiots whenever they see Ghost Nak. Consider: one guy sees Ghost Nak, freaks out, stumbles into a pot of boiling water, then, while screaming, stumbles in front of a motor cart, only to then falls onto a grill, thus setting himself on fire. It's cartoonish in all the wrong ways. (That's Ghost Nak's M.O.? Pratfalling you to death?) For a movie intent on setting a tone, you'd think its makers would know what tone it wanted.
And so we jump back and forth between quietly haunting and ridiculously violent, and the movie just doesn't hold. Work in a story that crumbles under a clichéd mystery and a few plot curveballs that fail to be scary or exciting, and you've got a ghost yarn that just keeps unraveling. "Ghost of Mae Nak" wins points for its ability to set up a pretty freaky mood, but then loses those points when it's unable to keep that mood going.
Tartan's anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation is decent enough, with a heavy amount of grain that's attributable to the quality of the source print than to the transfer itself. (Much of the graininess and washed-out imagery seems intentional on Duffield's part.) There's a bit of artifacting, but it's kept to a workable minimum.
The Thai soundtrack comes in three flavors: Dolby 2.0, Dolby 5.1, and DTS. The stereo mix is serviceable, but the real goods come in the two surround tracks, both of which make heavy use of the rear speakers and the subwoofer. Top notch stuff here. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Duffield's provides a reasonably chatty commentary track. He sometimes falls into "describing what we're seeing" mode, which is obnoxious, but otherwise, it's a decent listen.
His hour-long video diary, on the other hand, is a snooze. We get ample shots taken behind-the-scenes, but with much of the footage being little more than that of cast and crew standing around waiting for things to happen, it becomes little more than watching somebody's vacation videos. Duffield tries to liven things up by adding in some on-screen text explaining points of interest, but even that fails to captivate for the full hour.
A collection of trailers for other Tartan releases rounds out the disc.
Those not yet tired of the Asian horror boom at its most hackneyed might find a few things of interest here; after all, when it works, it does work well. But it's certainly not worth more than a one-time look. Rent It.