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I loved every minute of this controversial Thai horror film
on 19 April 2008
When you think Asian horror, Thailand is not one of the countries that immediately comes to mind - but that may change if Thai filmmakers put out a few more films as tense and creepy as Sarawut Wichiensarn's Laa-thaa-phii (or Ghost Game). I've read some reviews that dismiss this film as boring and a bit too spectre-happy, and I have to wonder what is wrong with these people's minds. Honestly, this really is one of the most atmospheric and darkly titillating films I've seen in some time. There's no way of easing your away into this story - it freaking jumps out and latches on to you from the very start with all of the gory details of a brutal war camp that played host to a massacre of unimaginable proportions. Back in 1986, Comrade Jium, a separatist leader, seized control of Camp Case 17 on his home island of Krujaba, had all of the government soldiers there killed, took 10,000 island inhabitants hostage, then massacred the whole lot of them when the government refused to negotiate with him. We then see amateur footage of several men coming to the island and dying mysteriously about the time the camp was set to open as a Cambodian war memorial. With the juicy stories floating around of Jium killing anyone who sets foot in Camp Case 17, the long-abandoned site seems to be the ideal venue for the extreme reality show Ghost Game.
Eleven young men and women are transported to the island and locked inside the camp, each of them vying for the prize of 5 million Baht (about $US 130,000) that will go the person who lasts the longest without quitting or losing their marbles. The production crew has already set up a series of dares for the contestants, but they needn't have bothered because Camp Case 17 is extremely haunted, and the ghosts aren't shy about making their presence known. Forcing contestants to reenact the scenarios under which so many people died - aggressively taunting the dark spirits of the dead - definitely makes for great television, though. The place is scary enough without being strapped in to a chair, blindfolded, and left alone; forced to endure a lonely water torture vigil; or compelled to bed down on a mattress of human skulls. Personally, I would have quit as soon as the dude giving the contest-opening prayer for protection wigged out. Of course, the contestants come in with different mindsets. A few of them don't believe in ghosts and think all of the horrors to come will be faked by the television crew, and more than one of them are suspicious of last year's winners being included in the cast. That doesn't keep them from being wheeled out of the camp strapped down on gurneys, screaming and crying in abject terror, though - and those are actually the lucky ones. And do you want to know the best part? Just because they've left the game doesn't mean the game has left them.
But wait - the appeal of this dark film doesn't stop with the plot itself. Laa-thaa-phii also brings quite a controversial history to the table. Despite the whole "this is fiction" preamble to the film, the story of the Camp Case 17 massacre of 10,000 innocent civilians has obvious parallels to the very real and truly horrific crimes of mass murder committed by the Khymer Rouge at Toul Sieng prison, so it's no surprise that the film was banned in Cambodia. In today's ridiculously PC world, some people actually condemn Laa-thaa-phii as "historically insensitive," but don't even get me started on that. If nothing else, the controversy allows the film to bill itself as "one of the most controversial horror movies ever made," which should do nothing but help DVD sales. It's also interesting to note that the cast is made up of actual contestants from Academy Fantasia, which is sort of the Thai equivalent of American Idol. Don't worry about the acting skills of these guys and gals, though - they are quite good (and their screaming skills are right up there with the best). Slap yourself if thoughts of From Justin to Kelly just popped into your mind, for there can be no comparison of any kind between these two films.
Finally, just let me say that - unlike what you'll find in certain other Thai films -- the special effects in Laa-thaa-phii are quite good. While the spirits of the dead may pop up a little too often for some professional reviewers' tastes, those appearances (ranging from the subtle to the reach-out-and-grab-you kind) are always impressive - especially the spectres of Lin, a female prisoner whose story serves as a sort of focal point for all of the early ghostly activity, and the infamous Comrade Jium. The subtitles also seem to be more than acceptable, although Mr. Subtitle Guy did seem to take a short break during one fairly important scene, much to my frustration. That's the only criticism I have for the film, though. For the life of me, I really can't see how any horror fan wouldn't enjoy every dark and suspenseful moment of the Laa-thaa-phii experience.