Thursday, 20 December 2012

Treat Seven: Phobia

An article I wrote for Gorezone on the Thai portmanteau Phobia.


Asian horror gained prominence in the late nineties beginning in Japan with Ringu. This 1997 hit spawned a sequel, a prequel, a Korean remake, an American remake and a sequel to the American remake. It also spawned the rise of Asian horror on a global scale, with journalists coining the term J horror. This expanded to Asian horror when the Korean market kicked off, as it did in Hong Kong, and now Thailand. The most famous Thai horror, Shutter, has already suffered from a less impressive American remake, the American film industry pig headedly forgetting what makes these films so original and scary in the first place; using the countries deep rooted local folklore, traditions and history to tell their stories.

Since the current boom of Asian horror began the film-makers behind these films have been extremely clever to weave these traditional folkloric tales into something modern, from Ringu’s use of the evil spirit using the television and a cursed video to attack, to Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (another victim of an appalling American remake) using mobile phones as the method of attack. Takashi Miike’s prolific work has jumped around the Asian countries, but has also encouraged innovation from directors in these countries as he was one of the first directors whose name broke out of the scene, followed by The Pang Brothers, Park Chan Wook and Bong Joon Ho.

Add to this list, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom the co directors of Shutter, who are now part of new Thai horror sensation Phobia, or 4bia. The Thai horror portmanteau features four stories concentrating on phobias. See what they did with the title? Clever, eh? Well, no not really, it didn’t work with Se7en, and it doesn’t work now. Luckily the film does.

The idea came from Parkpoom Wongpoom who had a story that he knew wouldn’t stretch to feature length. This forms the last story of the portmanteau, and was the first idea to originate; aptly considering the story takes place onboard a plane, the idea was conceived on a flight, “On the plane, I got the idea of doing a scary movie about an air stewardess flying solo with a dead body.” says Parkpoom.

The director approached his Shutter co director first and then Thai production company GMM Tai Hub, the fully integrated Thai film company who brought the world Shutter and which has led to successful and daring projects like Phobia. They were a huge part in organising two more adventurous and innovative directors to complete the picture. These were Yongyoot Thongkongtoon and Paween Purijitpanya.

Everyone involved knew the risk of creating a horror portmanteau, made famous by the British horror studios Hammer and Amicus but very infrequently seen since. Stephen King and George Romero made the portmanteau’s Creep show 1 & 2 in the eighties and recently we’ve seen another Asian horror portmanteau with Three Extremes but it is never a style of horror film that has caught on in a major way. Like most countries Horror portmanteau’s had not done good box office business in Thailand in the past, but the other co director of shutter, Banjong Pisanthanakun, explained the reasoning behind doing this particular portmanteau.

"The horror craze is starting to see a decline, especially when there are so many horror movies now, some of which are good and some are not, (but) there will always be horror movie fans. As long as we have a good script and a good concept, the movie will definitely be successful." says Banjong. Discussing working on Phobia Banjong goes on to explain. “Such movies did not do well because the directors were all trying to outdo one another in terms of whose short film was scarier and the final product had no unifying theme. However, there is no competition among us. We ensured that the four short films were linked to one another in subtle ways, making the movie complete."

This was the great challenge of the film for Banjong and the other directors, he explains, “to make the four short films stand out from one another yet ensure that they are still linked. That's the hard part.”

It’s hard enough getting the tone right for one feature film, so imagine having to set the tone for four complete different stories and for that tone not to be too jarring so that the four films can be viewed as a whole as well as separate. It’s something Phobia struggles to manage in all honesty, but only because the ideas on offer here are so potent, fresh and different in style and tone, but it remains entertaining and is intriguing in its elements that link the story, the mysteriousness of which adds to the re-watch value.

After a stylish blood soaked credit sequence, the first film, Loneliness begins. It’s directed by Youngyut Tongkontund, who previously helmed the two Iron Ladies films, the first being one of the milestone Thai films in the late 1990s based on the actual story of a gay volleyball team, and the 2006 comedy with the same broad sensibilities, Metrosexual. Discussing his move from comedy into horror Youngyut jokes that ““I have multiple personalities, so I feel like doing different things.

“I believe that everything changes,” he adds. “As time changes, I change, my movies change, and the viewers change. If we understand this, we’ll understand how to make movies that respond to the present. And the viewers will understand us too.”

The plot focuses on a young girl who is confined to her high rise apartment. With exquisite and innovative camera shots we see her life, isolated and secluded from the busy world below, her only connection her mobile phone and internet. From the off we’re introduced to a different setting, and maybe that’s what has become so tired with American horror, we’ve seen every setting possible explored; be it suburbia, high school, spoilt upper class teens or the Deep South again and again. It’s all been done, and horror works best when it focuses on the unknown, unfortunately through cinema every aspect of America has become known, whilst everything about Loneliness feels new. The way open spaces are revealed from the girls balcony outlining her loneliness feels fresh, the way the camera glides out of her room over a closed door is innovative, but it really shouldn’t feel all that new. It begins as close companion to the Rear Window premise; someone stranded in a plaster cast watching the world she can’t interact with, then it’s given a modern spin by using the net and her phone as a portal to the outside world. A modern American counterpoint would be DJ Caruso’s Disturbia, itself a modern rehash of Rear Window, but Loneliness handles this modernisation with ease, using the ‘new’ elements of this story in a way which blends in with everything around it to create a coherent film world, and effortlessly upping the suspense of the plot through a text conversation on a mobile phone. This is the opposite of mainstream Hollywood horror whose first goal is to discard the mobile phone. How many times have characters not been able to get signal? Or had their battery run out on them at crucial times in the plot? The film ratchets the tension up so expertly I didn’t even notice it is completely without dialogue, to open a horror anthology with a twenty five minute silent horror film is a brave move, but one that pays off.

It works because of the way Loneliness makes you really feel and identify with the lead character, through long and slow tracking shots, measured close ups, and great use of music the audience can fully identify with the lead character’s position. When was the last time you identified with some spoilt American brat? Or were you like me and counted the seconds until their death, which you greeted with an almighty cheer?

Unlike its US counterparts Thai horror, in general, relies on fear and suspense rather than in your face gore, making it essential for you to care for the characters. An unnerving atmosphere offset against the release of a terrifying jolt, is something which Loneliness does to great effect. First with the line “Look again, I’m by your side” offering something as scary, weird and downright creepy as the white faced man from David Lynch’s Lost Highway claiming he’s at your house right now when he stands in front of you on the phone, in both cases when you see it you’ll understand. To give away the second jolt would be to spoil the surprise. It’s a must see, and a stunning move into horror from the multi personality of Youngyut Tongkontund.

As I mentioned before the film doesn’t flow with and the stylistic difference between these two films is the most jarring. Paween Purikitpanya, director of Body, jolts us into the second film, Deadly Charm, which relies heavily on his music video past. In stating his intentions for this film he said “I prefer my films to be like rides in an amusement park, instead of being objects in a museum, I always want my audience to enjoy themselves, to feel as if they’re part of the movie, and to be continually excited by what’s happening on the screen. Surprise is important to me, too. When I make a movie, I see myself knocking on the front door preparing to give flowers to the person who opens it. I want to see the look on his face. I want to see how my flowers surprise or startle or move or shock them.”

It begins with warm oranges and browns reminiscent of South American Cinema like City of God before descending into an editing and lighting frenzy, resulting in direction overkill, causing horrendous migraines. It feels so out of place and unnecessary and by the time you begin to get used to the style, it confounds you again by pulling another stylistic rabbit out of the hat. The style resembles Zack Snyder’s ADHD visuals, especially with the start/stop slo-mo. Someone needs to tell film makers that no one likes this computer game imagery and technique overkill, it ruins the story. In its defence the film does have some stunning imagery and ends on a cracking image for the gore hound in everyone. To be honest the director probably did fulfil his intentions, I just wish it didn’t cause me such a headache.

This highlights the strengths and weaknesses with portmanteaus. The weaknesses being the way in which each short film can be affected and the tone ruined by what has gone before, the strengths being the fact that you know that each film only lasts around twenty five minutes, so even if it’s not for you, another story packed full of different ideas will be along soon to pin you against the wall with an axe pick.

The next film to come along is the first by one of the two directors of Shutter. The Middle Man is a light hearted offering. Even Banjong Pisanthanakun, the director says that “though The Middle Man is fundamentally a ghost story, it has the wry humour and self-mocking elements that defy the genre codes. It’s something I would love to invite all my friends to see since I know they’ll have a good time.” The first half of this film is a bumbling buddy comedy with self referential dialogue, mocking ghosts in films and Banjong also mocks his own film Shutter, one character claiming that the Thai film copied the James Cameron blockbuster Titanic. The script is littered with references and in jokes and ambles along amiably, the main riffs being the fact that the characters keep divulging spoilers of other horror film endings such as The Sixth Sense and The Others. Why it does this is anyone’s guess, as is how anyone thought the lame debatable ‘twist’ ending was a good idea.

Luckily the fourth section Last Fright does not disappoint at all. Directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom who conceived the project in the first place, the final film delivers on its claustrophobic premise. It’s practically a two hander between a female flight attendant and a princess. Gothic horror conventions are introduced early on, especially the ‘all in black’ princess, with her mysterious ring.

A dark and tense atmosphere is created from the claustrophobic surroundings and tense dialogue. The final five minutes being one of the creepiest finales in horror this year with a final shot that perfectly concludes the story referring back to an earlier conversation between the characters to provide a satisfying denouement.

Thai critics seemed to love the idea, one of them stating the obvious on the appeal of the portmanteau “When you watch "4bia", you not only pay for the price for one horror movie but four put together! What a bargain! It's rather refreshing to see this kind of anthology played on the big screen.

However, "4bia" was definitely a unique blend of horror and comedy; and it does give a good scare-you-out-of-your-pants reaction that makes it worth the watch.” Wise Kwai a respected Thai film critic had this to say of the film, “four 25-minute horror segments work together to create a package that proves the gathered talent from GMM Tai Hub can actually make movie that doesn't have a nice, neat, tied-up-with-a-bow happy ending like all the GTH movies do. That was what I was hoping for with Phobia, and they gave it to me -- four times.”

Both these reviews outline why portmanteau’s are a great idea, the fact that they can appeal to a wide audience, which is something American mainstream horror seems intent to achieve, commissioning plenty of remakes to appeal to the older fans of the original and create a new teen fan base. It also converts itself into good box office as Thai horror seemed to be on the decline, until the release of Phobia which took just 24 days to shoot, was the top-grossing film in Thailand when it was released in April, beating Hollywood flicks such as Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Its final box office was 85 million Baht, which is around one and a half million pounds, making it the 2nd highest box office earner released in 2008 in Thailand. It was such a huge success in Thailand that a sequel was instantly given the green light and is about to be released, which shows trust and ambition from GMM Tai Hub, the production company behind these films. They seem to have a very innovative, and in todays market a very different, franchise on their hands. We all know how American studios love a good franchise, will they be able to resist?

Although Hollywood has seen an increase in box office for its recent horror releases, Saw being a modern successful franchise akin to the eighties franchises of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, but like with those franchises it’s also seen a dearth of ideas. As most of American horror cinema has, relying on Asian horror for new ideas. Hopefully Phobia could be an indicator for how any horror industry could expand and thrive.

In these times of instant downloads and TV on demand where everyone wants everything right now, instead of having to provide jump scares every ten minutes, a anthology makes it so horror jumps can happen more frequently, and more organically to the plot, rather than feeling forced. It also allows for more ideas and more techniques to be explored within the genre, a virile breeding ground for new directors to perfect their style and even try new things.

After the remake of Shutter Hollywood discarded Thailand’s horror credentials believing it had taken all it could from them, and it seemed the Thai horror movement was slowing down, hopefully 4bia will have pricked the US industry’s ears, but hopefully they won’t bleed every sliver of innovation out of a film that was a brave decision to make in an era when horror portmanteaus weren’t being made. This and Three Extremes could be at the forefront of the beginning of a comeback. A modern spin on the Amicus and Hammer portmanteaus would be something I know I’d be interested in, and I’m sure many others would to. Even if the big studios are too dumb to do this, we’ve still got the brilliant Thai franchise which will hopefully grow and grow with its innovation and downright intense creepiness. Roll on 4bia 4.

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