Shuddering to the bank: Interview with Thai director Poj Arnon

By Tay Yek KeakMovies - 24 June 2014 12:00 AM

Shuddering to the bank: Interview with Thai director Poj Arnon

Thai director Poj Arnon makes no bones about giving his audiences exactly what they like to see.  

“Thai people prefer horror comedies,” he states plainly.

“Bones” is kind of appropriate since his latest funny-scary flick, ‘Make Me Shudder 2: Shudder Me Mae Nak’, features an old-bones Thai horror legend – the famous female ghost named Mae Nak.  

Mae Nak, in Thai folklore, is a spook existing in human form in a remote village in the early 19th century. 

Before her death, she was pining for her loving husband, Pee Mak, who had been sent to war. She died giving birth before his return, and returns to wreak vengeance on the villagers as they try to convince the unsuspecting Pee Mak that he has returned to live with a ghost.     

In this new movie, Mae Nak (played by Wanida Termthanaporn) traps a group of 10 goofy, modern-day schoolboys in her ancient village and makes them help her get her hubby back.

The comedy – a sort of 10 Stooges-meets-Pretty Dead Woman – is filled with teenage hi-jinks, idiotic behaviour, ghostly gags and the kind of silly, wacky, high-spirited (no pun intended) humour which, while making viewers laugh, may make others wince.  

Still, audiences in Singapore should be familiar with this crazy group of lads, most of whom are students in Thailand. A number of them were in Arnon’s original ‘Make Me Shudder’, released earlier this year in Singapore.   

Set in an abandoned haunted school, that first horror comedy was a huge hit which became Thailand’s all-time number one 3D horror film for flicks both straightforward scary as well as spoofy funny.  

Director Arnon, though, isn’t as easy to categorise as his films. Starting first as an advertising sales manager and then a magazine editor, he got involved with the Thai film industry in 1992.

Since then, he has been quite prolific writing, directing and producing a string of diverse movies, of which 2007’s critically acclaimed ‘Bangkok Love Story’ – a gay action-drama about a man falling for a gunman hired to kill him – won the top prize at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival.

Arnon has made films about urban youth (‘Bullet Teen’, 1998), transvestite cheerleaders (‘Cheerleader Queens’), family comedy (‘Beautiful Wonderful Perfect’, 2005), and even Thailand’s version of ‘Charlie’s Angels’, 2006’s outrageous ‘Chai Lai’s Angels’.

The director is still on his road of evolution.

He tells inSing all about making his new movie and what it was like corralling 10 restless boys in a haunted village in the jungle.

For this sequel to ‘Make Me Shudder’, you made the schoolboy gang go back to ancient times to encounter the legendary ghost, Mae Nak. Why?

Mae Nak is a famous ghost, which all Thai people know well. I’ve always wanted to make a Mae Nak film. I imagined what would happen if we were to challenge her. Is Mae Nak really a ghost that existed? If she did exist, would she show herself again? It was a perfect time to make this film. 

A scene from 'Make Me Shudder 2'. Photo: Encore Films

‘Make Me Shudder’, about a group of schoolboys trapped in a haunted, abandoned school, was quite scary. The sequel seems to be funnier and lighter. Why this change in tone?

To me, Mae Nak isn’t a scary ghost. The tale is about the love between her and her beloved husband, Pee Mak. My film doesn’t aim to make us afraid of Mae Nak all over again. I mean, it’s a legend told from generation to generation.

Part one is scary because the ghost in the school is real and convincing. Part two, though, is a re-imagination of an existing legend. I focused more on comedy this time because audiences from the first movie preferred the comedy more than the scary horror content. I’ve directed many straight horror dramas such as ‘The Unborn Child’, ‘Still’ and ‘Still 2’, but the response wasn’t as good. Thai people prefer horror comedies. It’s just the way it is. I, myself, like to laugh too when I go see a movie. I’m very happy when I hear people laugh.

Why is the story of Mae Nak so popular and so lasting to Thai moviegoers and even to Singapore audiences? It has been remade many times. Do you think there are still movies to be squeezed out of the tale? 

I think it’s because the story of Mae Nak is a legend and nobody knows exactly what the real story is. Some might say it’s real, some say it’s a myth and that’s why each Mae Nak film is depicted differently. I’ve studied the Mae Nak tale too and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, because there’s too little tangible information about it. 

I know that Singaporeans have heard about it too. Fascinating. I don’t think anybody will remake Mae Nak soon because we’ve just released ours. But there’ll definitely be another one within the next 10 years. Mostly likely, it’ll be remade with a brand new angle and new style which nobody is even thinking of now. 

In Singapore, we were introduced to the legend of Mae Nak by Nonzee Nimibutr’s very frightening ‘Nang Nak’ in 1999. There are scenes in ‘Make Me Shudder 2’ which remind us of that film. How much were you influenced by ‘Nang Nak’?

I would say no influence because I didn’t make it 100-per-cent similar. My film is the story of students who got caught in the jungle of Mae Nak. As I said earlier, this is a legend about which anyone can imagine and create new scenes. If we followed a previous version, there’ll be no fun or surprise. So I made the relationship between Mae Nak and her husband fuller. Also, I put in a scene at the Mae Nak Shrine to show how different teens are in our time. Unlike previous generations, they’re not so scared or superstitious anymore. They just love challenges, even ghostly ones.

Talking about the Mae Nak Shrine, was that real?

Oh, the shrine in the film is real. The feeling at the place is so frightening. As Thai people, when we do anything improper or unusual, we need to beg for forgiveness and permission at the shrine. I took our entire cast and crew to the shrine to make the apology and let her know that we didn’t intend to insult her. 

What was it like directing such a big group of rowdy boys?

Well, I took care of them during filming and also scolded them sometimes. But overall, I wasn’t very strict. I wanted to bring out their real characters and let them be themselves as teenagers. I was open to accepting their own ideas, so I didn’t force anything upon them. But they had to listen to me when we were shooting. The first movie was really for teenagers. For the sequel, I had to tie in the boys’ personalities with the famous Mae Nak tale. I made them aware of that.      

Was it fun working with the boys? Were there any funny or scary encounters on set?

Sure. Working with the students was a lot of fun. Some of them appeared in the first movie, so we already knew each other well. It might have been annoying sometimes, especially at night because the boys would feel sleepy and careless. During shooting, the weather was cold and all of them had to take off their shirts for a boat scene. I knew it was cold and they had to jump into the river but we still had to film that scene. I kept telling them to be careful because jumping into the water was a dangerous thing as the river was deep and rapid. Some of them couldn’t swim. That was a very scary encounter for me. 

Next time, would you do a Thai horror comedy with a group of young girls instead?

Honestly, Thai people do not watch groups of girls in movies that much. Simply because young females make up most of our audience. However, never say never. I’ll stick to the boys but I may introduce some girls in the next part to make it more colourful. 

Okay, what’s ‘Make Me Shudder 3’ going to be like? What’s your dream project?

Yes, I’ll be making part three. I’m planning to shoot an ‘Iron Ladies’ (about a Thai transvestite volleyball team) movie too, because the teenagers of today didn’t see the original films (2000, 2003). My remake will be different. My dream project is to make a drama film about four different mothers, with laughing, crying, happiness, sadness and all sorts of emotions. I’ve already made several comedies and I wish to make a serious, moving drama. I want to manage a film production company too, planning all kinds of movies. This company must be open to all film genres.        

Have you heard of the ghost story of the female vampire, Pontianak, in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia?  Would you come to Singapore to make this film?

Yes, I’ve heard of it. If the story is interesting, sure, I’d want to make it. I made a vampire movie before – a comedy called ‘Oh My Ghosts!’. If Singapore is interested in having me, it will be my pleasure to shoot a film there, haha.

‘Make Me Shudder 2: Shudder Me Mae Nak’ is now showing in cinemas

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Make Me Shudder 2: Shudder Me Mae Nak