Thais' deep affection for ghost stories and laughter has brought a new phenomenon to movie theaters — comic touches added to an oft-told tragedy of true love, which have made the latest adaptation of the Mae Nak legend into the all-time highest-grossing Thai film.
"Pee Mak Phra Khanong" is based on folklore about the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and the unsuspecting husband who returns from war to live with his family. Past movie adaptations focused more on the lovelorn ghost Mae Nak and her tragic tale, but the new film tells its story through Pee Mak, the simple-hearted husband, and the friends who try in vain to tell him his wife's secrets.
With a budget of 35 million baht ($1.1 million), the summer blockbuster has collected 560 million baht ($18.8 million) in Bangkok and major cities, beating the previous nationwide tally of 550 million baht ($18.47 million US) set by the 2001 historical epic "Suriyothai."
It also brought a buzz to the movie scene in Thailand, a location haven for recent foreign productions like "Hangover II," the low-budget hit "Lost in Thailand" that unexpectedly became China's highest-grossing film, and "Only God Forgives" starring Ryan Gosling, which will open in cinemas this year.
"Pee Mak" pitches a Thai legend of a spooky ghost against modern-day comedy and pop culture references, using its jokes and thrills to transcend the usual young, urban middle class audience of the film studio GTH and entertain everyone.
Instead of seeing a vengeful ghost chase after anyone who attempted to tell her husband she was no longer alive, the audience of "Pee Mak" gets to enjoy a story of star-crossed lovers played by Thai-German heartthrob Mario Maurer (pronounced Mao-RUHR') and 21-year-old rising star Davika Hoorne (pronounced DA-vi-GAA' Ho-NAY').
The horror comedy opened on March 28 with 21.2 million baht ($714,000), the second best first-day performance ever by a Thai movie.
"I had a feeling during filming that it was going to be good, but I never thought it would get as much as 500 million or 600 million baht. This is way beyond expectation," said 33-year-old director Banjong Pisanthanakun who built up his fame from co-directing "Shutter," a 2004 horror blockbuster that was remade by Hollywood in 2008. "We knew we got the ingredients right and that it was going to work because even when we filmed it, it was very hilarious."
Critics say the presentation of the movie was crucial in its overwhelming success.
"The way the director and the studio packaged the film is interesting because they have young, good-looking cast to play the two leads and they choose to tell the story from the point of view of Pee Mak, which is the opposite, because usually we saw the story from the point of view of other people," said Kong Rithdee, the Bangkok Post's film critic.
To make the latest adaptation unique from the many Mae Nak films, including the 1999 version that also broke contemporary box-office records, Banjong and his screenwriting team had spent more than half of the entire filmmaking on the plot.
"The hardest part is to write the script because we picked the well-known legend and wanted it to have its own character while setting it apart from other versions," Banjong said. "We changed the end of the legend, which didn't happen in any versions, and I think it's one of the major factors that made the movie successful."
While the filmmaker hopes the hard work on subtitles will keep the jokes intact for international audience, critics say the eerie sentiment in the movie will translate well among Asian viewers.
"Thai filmmakers and Asian filmmakers are very adept with the horror genre. They've done this for so many years, ... and Thai horror films have a particular flavor," Kong said. "The mix of folk beliefs and urban settings, the mix of old superstitious beliefs and modern filmmaking ... I think we have found a good combination."
Beliefs about Mae Nak have stood against time in the Thai society even though she is believed to have died more than 200 years ago. Throngs of believers visit a temple in Bangkok's Phra Khanong district to pay respects to her shrine every day to beg favors. Worshippers usually bring costumes, portraits and toys as gifts for the spirits of Mae Nak and her son.
Apart from word-of-mouth and spot-on marketing aiding the remake's success, Thais could not help but wonder if the spirit of Mae Nak was helping, too.
Lead actress Davika is among the believers. She visited the shrine in early April to perform a Thai traditional dance as a reward to the spirit after the movie earned 300 million baht ($10 million).
Asked in a recent interview if she believed Mae Nak's spirit had helped in the movie's conquest, Davika said, "I think she does. She must have helped us, because this story is about her."
"Pee Mak Phra Khanong" is playing in Indonesia and opened in Hong Kong on Thursday. It will come to Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan in coming months.