Murdered by Numbers

I'm closing out "Anthoholic," my week of horror anthologies with a double feature of sequels (sort of) to movies discussed previously in the week.  I really never expected to watch this many anthologies, but the two that I most enjoyed, 4BIA and Three... Extremes both had sequels (again; sort of) so that encouraged me to extend the feature-within-a-feature.  But honestly, let's get this thing over with already.  I'm ready to get sick of werewolves.


Phobia 2 - 2009
see link for complete writing & directing credits

Now me, I like the ghost stories, and evidently Thailand does too because their horror movies tend to skew heavily toward creepy tales of haunting.  As such, we have gotten along just fine so far.  Granted, I largely have the directing team of Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom to thank for this.  Their films Shutter and Alone are top-notch spookers, and they seem to be the heart of the group responsible for the previously discussed 4BIA (Phobia) and its sequel Phobia 2 (which I still call 5BIA for my own enjoyment and no one else's).  Phobia 2 has five stories to the four from 4BIA, thus enhancing the impression that it should be called 5BIA.  Many of the other segment directors in 4BIA and 5BIA were producers on Shutter and/or Alone as well, so it would appear to be a tight-knit group.  Now, on with the show...

This second installment seems to have more uniquely Thai flavors in it, which I appreciate, and that impression is most strongly encouraged by this first segment, Novice, directed by Paween Purkitpanya.  It concerns a troubled teenage boy who is already haunted by his history of bad choices and tragedy.  In order to lay low while the heat dies down back home, his mother has taken him to a secluded monastery in the forest.  This is sort of the Thai version of boot camp for poorly raised American kids.  They're meant to learn discipline, but in Thailand they get a crash course in Buddhist fundamentals rather than force as a problem-solving method.  As is my understanding, it's not at all uncommon in Thai life for someone to check out of society and check into a monastery or nunnery for a while to get their heads on straight.

So our young man, Pe, is dropped off with the monks, shorn of his hair, and not altogether happy about the situation, but even less happy about what he's done.  The monk's diet is a light one, and Pe gets the pangs at night, when the monks are specifically forbidden from eating.  He remembers a place in the forest where offerings have been left for some restless neighborhood ghosts and eats some of the food despite the admonitions and interference of a senior monk.  Sure enough, this theft stirs the ire of the spirits, and Pe finds himself caught between the vengeful nature of the haunting spirits, and the haunting guilt upon his conscience.

Novice bled into Ward in such a way that I hadn't even realized a new segment had begun for the first minute or two.  Novice had a key plot point that involved a motorcycle and a crash, and Ward begins with the sounds of a motorcycle and a crash, so it was a curious choice for juxtaposition.  That being said, once I got my bearings, Ward, directed by Visute Poolvoralaks (a producer on Alone & Shutter) unfolded a seemingly straight-forward haunting with an outstanding twist.

Like Novice, Ward is about a young man who has a strange spiritual encounter with monks and Buddhist cosmology.  Arthit, our young man, was in a motorcycle accident (thus the opening sounds) and is in the hospital recovering.  The room he's placed in is already occupied by a comatose old monk who is expected to die soon.  A group of other monks come to visit and make final arrangements, suggesting that the old monk is highly revered.  Then, he starts haunting Arthit, before he's even dead.

I so want to tell you the twist and discuss all its implications, but I'd feel terrible about myself if I spoiled it for you.  Suffice to say that it makes Ward a pretty unique story of haunting that really highlights what is special about being exposed to other cultures' spiritual perspectives in international horror.

The next segment, Backpackers by director Songyos Sugmakanan is unique among all the tales in 4BIA and 5BIA in that it isn't a ghost story.  Two young Japanese backpackers (evidently Japanese backpackers say "bro" a lot too) hitch a ride with the drivers of a passing box truck.  From the start, something clearly isn't right with the situation.  The young man who seems a little bit stylish for a truck driver admonishes the older one behind the wheel for picking them up.  They're hustled for more gas money than they'd hoped.  Cell phone calls quickly push the driver toward irate behavior, and then there are the noises; lound banging from the back of the truck, then silence...

The drivers stop to check the back of the truck, ordering their passengers to stay put.  They find that the back of the truck is full of dead bodies, which is at least one thing that neither of them expected.  After dragging them out of the truck, the younger man cuts into the stomach of one body (a lovely scene involving strawberry jam) to retrieve what is now a burst condom of drugs.  This is about the time where the backpackers have had enough of this shit, sneak out of the cab and manage to get their hands on the one gun available.  They get the drop on the drivers, but rather unexpectedly, one of the bodies behind him gets up and takes a bite out of the Japanese boy's neck.  For you see, this is not a ghost story, but a zombie story.

It's not a particularly original zombie story, but hey, for Thailand, it's just not as well covered ground.  it ends as (apparently) zombie stories must; with the hopeless promise of worse to come.

Getting back to ghosts, Parkpoom Wongpoom brings us Salvage, about a woman working for a used car dealership that isn't particularly forthcoming about the complete histories of all the cars she sells.  Evidently, most of them have been in pretty bad wrecks in the past, but cleaned up and resold to unsuspecting customers.  Our dealer, Nuch, is fairly ambitious and puts in long hours, allowing her young son to run around the lot with his remote control car until she's done for the day.  On the night in question, her son, Toey, is suddenly nowhere to be found.  Nuch reviews the security footage to find where he's hiding, coming to find that the last place he's been seen is somewhere she's already looked... so where could he be, and why does it look like there's a woman in that locked car?

Salvage is a pretty straight ghost tale with some disturbing imagery.  I had a pretty good idea how it would end and I wasn't wrong, but that didn't make it any easier to take when it came.  Gyah.

The final segment is the money shot here.  Clearly I wasn't the only one who really enjoyed the character interplay between the four boys in 4BIA's In The Middle, because director Banjong Pisanthanakun brought them back for In The End.  This time around, they're a film production crew shooting "Alone 2" with Marsha Wattanapanich from Wongpoom & Pisanthanakun's Alone.  If you're getting the impression that they're not taking this entirely seriously, you're right.  In The End is an hilarious combination of character comedy, inside baseball on film making, and meta humor about horror tropes.

When the actress playing the ghost girl comes down ill during shooting, they guys argue about coming up with a new "twist" ending, thus riffing on horror conventions including the twist in their own segment in 4BIA and setting up the series of twists that will close out their story here.  I just loved the crap out of this one.  It definitely won't be AS funny if you're not familiar with at least 4BIA, but it doesn't hurt to have seen Alone and Shutter too (which is just good advice in general).  It's only a tiny bit scary, but that's so not the point, and I'm grateful to Pisanthanakun for making that choice.  The cast have incredible chemistry, and I would gladly watch anything this team decided to do together.  [As a matter of fact, it looks like they DO reunite in a film called Pee Mak directed by Pisanthanakun, which is classified as a horror/comedy/romance and already sits in my film queue. Can't wait!]

I enjoyed the Thai-specific approach to Novice, but it didn't particularly knock me out.  Not to be the dumb guy, but I would have preferred a little more exposition to place things in a context that made the ending clearer.  Ward was very simple, but with a brilliant and thought-provoking twist.  Backpackers really didn't do that much for me, but then I'm pretty over zombies.  There was some good tension, but since I generally assume that everyone is going to die in a zombie story, some of the tension is deflated when you have no hope for the characters.  Salvage was a simple but effective haunting by angry spirits and In The End was laugh-out-loud and love-these-guys funny and fun..  Don't be afraid of the subtitles.  See 4BIA and Phobia 2.

And now for a somewhat less enthusiastic endorsement (but stick with it 'cause we're going somewhere)...

Three (AKA 3 Extremes II) - 2002
see link for complete writing & directing credits

Yesterday, I wrote about the brilliant Three... Extremes, which was actually the sequel to this, known originally as Three.  However when Extremes turned out to something of a minor sensation stateside, the company then released the original Three as a sort-of sequel, calling it Three Extremes II, which is really pretty easy to do given the anthological nature of the films.  Extremes employed some big-name directors, where Three's talents are somewhat less big, as are the results.  Again, we have three directors from three different Asian nations.  This time it's Kim Jee-Woon (Tale of Two Sisters, The Good The Bad and The Weird and the brutal & amazing I Saw the Devil) from Korea with Memories, Nonzee Nimibutr from Thailand with The Wheel, and Peter Chan (producer of The Eye) with Going Home.  Strap in.  It's going to be a bumpy ride.

In Memories, a man has apparently blocked out the trauma of his wife leaving him.  He seeks a psychiatrist's help in hopes of unlocking his memories of why she left and where she may have gone.  Meanwhile, his wife wakes up laying in the road, evidently unsure of who she is and where she belongs.  The man is nagged by images and objects that seem related to the mystery.  The woman is drawn to places and unable to connect with the people she encounters.  This goes on and on, and between you and me, the mystery ain't all that much of a mystery.  As such, "on and on" becomes ON AND ON AND ON AND OH MY GOD WILL THIS EVER END?  Even though the end was clear very early on in the story, not only are we dragged at a glacial pace to the obvious conclusion, but then the ending is still obscured by moody presentation and vagary.  VERY frustrating.  Very disappointing, coming from the director of the relentless I Saw The Devil.

As if to punish the viewer for daring to think that Memories was slow and obvious, along comes The Wheel to salt the wound.  When a Thai puppet master (and actual master performer of puppetry, not a grand manipulator) is dying, he orders that his puppets be drowned in the lake, for anyone else who should use the puppets he's imbued with his spirit (the metaphorical being taken literally here) shall be cursed to a miserable death.  The second in command in the troupe, apparently comes from a rival discipline, that of masked dancing, which harbors extreme resentment at the money and respect afforded to the puppeteers.  He thinks it foolish to waste the puppets.  The troupe is really full of petty rivalries and power struggles, all of which explode under the influence of the curse and a foul ending is assured for most if not all.  Unfortunately, it just takes way too long getting to that end, and it's way too vague on why things happen exactly the way that they do, other than the obvious curse.  Like I said above about 5BIA, I do enjoy the cultural specificity, and The Wheel certainly delivers that, and yet it does nothing to prevent it from being absolutely agonizing to watch.  Like 5BIA's Novice, this is a case where a little more exposition might have helped, but instead we just get a lot of meaningful glances that aren't all that meaningful.  I wouldn't mind it being so slow if it actually did something with that time, but it just doesn't.

Redemption comes in the end.  The third segment is absolutely brilliant, and would have been better off developed as a standalone movie.  Going Home begins with a recently widowed police officer and his young son moving into a run-down and nearly empty apartment building in Hong Kong.  The building, like the officer, have clearly seen better days.  His son is constantly vigilant for ghosts, becoming nearly petrified at the sight of doors that might possibly harbor spirits.  When he comes home from school, he continually finds that the doors to vacant apartments on his floor are wide open again and he slams them one by one with admonitions for any spirits lurking within.  The only other person he seems to see around is the little girl who lives across the way.  At first he's afraid of her too, but in time he comes to accept an offer from her to come and play.

That night, his father awakens from an after-work nap to realize that his son still isn't home.  He searches all over the apartment building, finding not a sign.  The next morning, he concludes that the strange and nervous man across the way knows more than he's letting on.  After all, didn't he lie about not having a daughter?  Hadn't his son said that there was a girl that lived there?  Waiting until the neighbors drags out another pungent, soggy bag of garbage, he lets himself into the apartment to find out just what the hell is going on over there.  He winds up unconscious and wakes to find himself bound to a chair.  It wasn't what he thought...

What it is is something altogether unexpected, and the tale that unfolds is both creepy and deeply moving.  This easily could have been a feature on its own, with an expanded interplay between the two men, and a lot more attention to what happened to the children in the meantime.  "Heartbreaking" isn't a term we often have reason to use in relation to horror movies.  Going Home makes the case that it really should be.

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