Abhijati ‘Meuk’ Jusakul
First there was J-horror, then K-horror – but does Shutter herald the arrival of T-horror?
At the end of the 1990s, after Scream (1996) had revitalised Hollywood horror but also turned it in on itself, a cycle of Japanese films would put a much-needed new spin on a tired old genre. Ringu (1998), Pulse (2001), Dark Water (2002) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) all combined Asia’s traditional long-haired female ghouls with the trappings of modern technology to engender a ghost-in-the-machine subgenre that eschewed postmodern irony for a purer, more immediate brand of terror.
Tinseltown, desperate to get back to the roots of fear, was quick to take notice of what was happening in the East, and when it was not remaking its own horror back catalogue from the seventies, it began producing English-language ‘reimaginings’ of the J-horror phenomenon The Ring (2002), Dark Water (2005), The Grudge (2004) and Pulse (2006). But America was not the only country to rip off the tropes of J-horror.
Korea also remade Ringu as The Ring Virus (1999), and was soon producing its own variants on a theme like Phone (2002), Into the Mirror (2003), and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) – all of which are now themselves being remade in Hollywood.
Thailand, too, has increasingly been demanding its place on the world’s fright map, but to date Thailand’s greatest international successes in horror have in fact been made by non-Thais. The Pang Brothers, born in Hong Kong but resident in Bangkok, have won acclaim (and a pending Hollywood remake) for The Eye (2002), and recently crossed over to the US with their first American-produced, English-language film The Messengers (2007), while Paul Spurrier’s P (2005) and Mark Duffield’s The Ghost of Mae Nak (2005) – both modern Thai ghost stories written and directed by itinerant Brits – have done well on the festival circuit.
So far Thailand’s more indigenous horror films like Yuthlert Sippapak’s Buppha Rahtree (2003), Jaturong Mokjok’s See How They Run (2006) and Poj Arnon’s Haunting Me (2007), with their unashamed use of pastiche and broad comedy, have largely failed to capture the imagination of horror fans abroad. Shutter (2004), however, directed by Thai first-timers Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, seems to represent something else altogether – a genuinely homegrown, genuinely frightening Thai take on J-horror.
After spending a night drinking with his old university school friends, freelance photographer Tun (Ananda Everingham) is driven home by his girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) but on the way, their car collides with a young woman standing in the middle of the road. Tun convinces his distraught lover that they should flee the scene and try to forget what has happened; but as phantom apparitions start showing up on Tun’s photographs and in the developing room of his apartment, and as all his friends begin to kill themselves in unusual circumstances, Tun is forced to realise that his past is not so easily eluded – and can be a right pain in the neck.
With its grudge-bearing dead, its possessed equipment, its frantic cross-country investigation, its dripping water, and its black-haired spectre who just will not rest, there is no mistaking Shutter for anything other than an unmitigated J-horror clone and even its use of distorted photographs can be traced all the way back to Hideo Nakata’s groundbreaking Ringu.
Still, in a sub-genre that has been characterised right from its inception as heavily derivative, what counts with films like Shutter is not their originality (or lack thereof), but rather whether they can get under your skin and unnerve you to the very bone and that Shutter does with aplomb, especially in its final, vividly uncanny image of a man doomed to carry the burden of past guilt on his shoulders until his dying breath.
It would be criminal to reveal the details of this closing shot any further, but suffice to say that its near hysterical oddness will etch itself onto your brain like light on polaroid, proving very hard to erase thereafter.
Like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2005) and the Pang Brothers’ Ab-normal Beauty (2004) both of which it slyly references – Shutter is a tale of guilt, revenge and twisted love, set in a world that, for all its sanitised modernity, still remains haunted by fears that are primal and timeless fear of death, fear of the dark, and most importantly fear of oneself and one’s ugliest capabilities.
It is well worth making the effort to catch Shutter in its ‘original’ Thai version before next year’s Hollywood remake returns the film to its J-horror source by transferring events to Tokyo and putting Japanese filmmaker Masayuki Ochiai in the director’s seat.