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June 29, 2009

The Haunted Drum

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Perng Mang: Glawng phee nang manut
Nuttapeera Chomsri & Sranya Noithai - 2007
Tai Seng Region 1 DVD

Had I stayed in Thailand for another couple of weeks, I would have seen The Haunted Drum theatrically, mostly because it would have been the major release at the moment. The film recently was made available on DVD in the U.S., and turns out to be one of the more credible Thai ghost stories I have seen. This is one of the few films that plays it straight. If The Haunted Drum doesn't reach the artistic heights of Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak or Wisit Sasanatieng's The Unseeable, it still proves to be a satisfying film for what it does achieve.

Being a period film, taking place in the 19th Century, The Haunted Drum does require some appreciation for Thai culture. The film delivers on graphic horror without dwelling on it, and at least on of the plot twists is not only not unexpected, but may seem like a requirement for Thai ghost stories. The visual gorgeousness of The Haunted Drum begins from the opening credit sequence of shots of a shrine decked with golden masks and incense, a series of pans and dissolves. The narrative introduces Ping, a young boy with the ambition to become a musician. It is later revealed that he is from a prominent family, yet chooses to be part of a musical group that is as prestigious as it is impoverished. While some of the musicians and dancers publicly agree to the vow, there is discontent regarding their financial and social standing, partially determined by the local government chief who sponsors a musical group of his own.

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At the time that Ping steps into the courtyard where the musicians and dancers live, the group master, Duong, has everyone gathered while he makes a special vow. Those of the group who do not leave by the time a stick of incense has burned would be expected to remain as loyal members of Duang's group. Anyone who leaves the group after completion of the vow, or who causes discord in the group, would be subject to a horrible fate. Ping stays with Duang, in part because of the opportunity to move up from supporting drums, playing the taphon, to playing the featured perng mang, The perng mang is actually a group of tonally keyed drums that play different notes. The title instrument is said to host spirits who serve to protect Master Duang's group as long as it is revered. Strictly going by the synopsis, one might easily dismiss The Haunted Drum.

I could only imagine what it might have been like to see The Haunted Drum in a theater like the Major Cineplex in Chiang Mai. I would recommend this film based on the soundtrack alone. There is a scene in which Ping and another musician, Pai, compete on the perng mang. To put it in a way that westerners might understand better, it's like watching a face off between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. I don't know how close to classical Thai music this is, but it is no surprise that the musical group Giant Wave had been nominated for their score. Maybe the biggest twists to The Haunted Drum is that it actually was a box office failure in Thailand, only to score several nominations in the Thailand National Film Association awards, also for the costumes, and actress Woranut Wongsawan, who plays the mysterious Tip.

Because the film was a critical, but not financial success, it will be of interest to see what opportunities are given for the filmmakers. Nuttapeera is also credited for cowriting the screenplay for the critically lambasted White Monkey Warrior. I would hope that Sranya will be heard from again, being one of the few Thai female film directors.

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Posted by peter at June 29, 2009 12:30 AM


I am ready to see this just for the sake of the top screen grab, which reminds me a bit of Powell/Pressburger.

Posted by: Campaspe at June 29, 2009 10:14 AM