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Plot: young girl dabbles in black magic and summons an evil spirit

P was no doubt helmed in response to Ringu (1998), and Danny and Oxide Pang’s underappreciated The Eye (2002). P picks up where the Pang brothers left off in 2002 and is historic for being the first Thai-language film to be helmed by a Westener. The Westener in question is British expatriate Paul Spurrier and P has the good fortune of having Suangporn Jaturaphut (who would never act again) as the leading lady. The horror in P is peripheral and subordinate to the human interest, but that doesn’t make P any less effective when it fires on all of its cylinders. As a modest little genre piece P assuredly maintains Thailand’s place in the horror pantheon. More often a gritty and bleak drama about sex tourism and the criminal underworld surrounding it P is atmospheric and frightening when and where it matters. Thailand might not be able to compete with Hong Kong, China and Japan in terms of sheer numbers but P might just be strong enough to help turn the tide. No new promise has risen to take the Pang brothers’ place in domestic fright cinema but Spurrier might just be the guy.

Paul Spurrier had his start in cinema like many a young filmmaker: by taking to the streets and shooting his own feature with a bunch of enthusiastic friends. The result of that was Underground (1998), a gritty crime drama about drugdealers in London. Spurrier had acted as a child in the British-Swiss war epic The Wild Geese (1978) and at some point at the dawn of the millennium relocated to Thailand. Naturally a filmmaker is going to dabble in horror early on his or her career and what better place to mine for local folklore and superstition than Asia? Since P was only Spurrier’s second feature the most cost-efficient would be to do a ghost movie. Hong Kong, Japan, and China have set many a precedent of ghost stories within in an everyday, metropolitan setting. Instead of Hong Kong or Beijing P is set in the neon-drenched sidewalks of Bangkok. Perhaps not as much of an indictment of sex tourism as we would like it is a lot stronger than much coming out of China. Not only because P actually manages to be frightening every once in a whlie, mostly because the sobering reality surrounding the supernatural tale at its center is as horrific, if not moreso, than its titular ghost.

Just like in China ghosts are part of everyday life in Thailand. Most of them come from a combination of Thai Buddhism and local folklore legends. Some of these came from the neighboring Cambodian, Lao, and Malay cultures. Others were adopted later through the Chinese community in Thailand. Interestingly, a large portion of ghosts from Thai folklore tend to be nocturnal, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Most ghosts in Thai culture are benevolent and many have built shrines in specific places exactly for that reason. Offerings (usually incense, small food items, drinks, or fruit) are made to appease the spirits and ghosts for good fortune and it’s considered an ill omen to neglect a ghost shrine. In Dan Sai, Loei Province a three-day event called Phi Ta Khon (ผีตาโขน or Bun Luang) is held annually, usually between March and July, to honor the spirits. The most recognizable to Western eyes is the Phi Song Nang (ผีสองนาง), a Thai version of the Chinese Nü gui or the ghost of a beautiful woman that lures, seduces and then kills hapless men. The titular P refers to Pee or Pii (ผี), the Thai word for ghost. The Pii here is the Phi pop (ผีปอบ), a cannibalistic witch spirit popular in Thai folklore that tends leaves the witch’s body when she’s in a dormant state to feed on the intestines of whoever she victimizes. To Western eyes the Phi pop comes across as a combination of the vengeful ghost (onryō) from Japan and the shape-shifting fox spirit (húli jīng) with its carnivorous proclivities popular in Chinese folklore and superstition.

In Lower Isan in the northeastern region of Thailand in Si Saket province lives a young orphan Khmer girl named Aaw (Suangporn Jaturaphut) with her ailing, superstitious grandmother (Pisamai Pakdeevijit). To protect herself grandmother has initiated Aaw in the ways of Khmer black magic. All she has to do is obey the three sacred rules. No longer able to treat grandmother’s deterioriating health with the medicine she’s able to procure in her peasant village in the valley of the Mun River on the border with Cambodia Aaw is forced to seek employment in Bangkok. In Bangkok Aaw is picked up by Pookie (Opal) and before long harsh reality sets in. She’ll be working as a go-go dancer in the Pbar where she’ll be servicing foreign clients. Before that Mamasang (Manthana Wannarod) changes her name to Dau and she will broken into her new employment by bar owner Martin (Paul Spurrier). A bitter rivalry develops between Dau and club favorite May (Narisara Sairatanee) with the latter’s accomplices Mee (Amy Siriya) and New (Supatra Roongsawang) trying to sabotage her at every turn. In her darkest hour Dau turns to her grandmother’s black magic to help turn her fortune. As she sinks deeper into destitution and prostitution Dau breaks the three sacred rules one by one. Will anybody be able to stop the evil that Dau has summoned?

It would be something of a misnomer to call P an exploitation movie as it never is very exploitative to begin with. Even though it concerns itself with sex tourism, prostitution, and go-go dancers everything in P stays within the realms of the respectable. The most risqué, if it can be called that, is the sapphic tryst between Aaw/Dau and Pookie – but P goes well out of its way not to make a thing out of it. The go-go dancing sequences are usually sexier than the implied prostitution scenes that precede a kill. Where P really shines is in the ways it finds to creatively kill Johns on a limited budget. First and foremost P is a human interest drama and the supernatural – and horror elements are tangential and secondary to that. When P does focus on the horror it follows the conventions of the ghost horror subgenre without ever rocking the boat. Where it really gets interesting is how it treats the exorcism scene. Instead of a typical exorcism the purging of Dau’s demon bears more of a resemblance to a drugs withdrawal scene. Far more troubling is that P isn’t really all that interested in offering social commentary on the political machinations behind the circumstances in which it forces its lead character. Spurrier acknowledges that sex tourism and coerced prostitution do exist, but seems to be in no apparent hurry to make or take a stance either way. P is a horror where the unflinchingly bleak picture of modern day Bangkok is often more frightening, especially when the neon signs come on, than the ghost at its center.

Greatly adding to the mystique of P is a tour de force performance of Suangporn Jaturaphut. That Aaw/Dau mirrors Jaturaphut’s own life experiences so closely greatly adds to the authenticity of P. Suangporn also grew up under-privileged and disenfranchised in the slums of Bangkok and only took to acting as a means to pay for her ill mother’s mounting medical expenses. Her mother saw to it that she went to school and got herself an education as to not fall into the ever-looming threat of prostitution. In the decade-plus since P Suangporn has enrolled in Assumption University and eventually received her B.A. in Chinese for Business. Little is known what became of Jaturaphut post-B.A. but it’s safe to assume that she simply disappeared in the anonomity of everyday civilian life. She appears to not have disavowed her involvement in P in the years since but it’s unlikely that we will ever see Suangporn on the big screen again. Director Paul Spurrier has since worked as a cinematographer on the television series Edge of the Empire (2010), helmed his third feature The Forest (2016) and the television series Eullenia (2018-present). In other words, Spurrier has naturally become part of the Thai cinematic landscape.

Thailand has long been the mecca of cheap action and in the last couple of years has been making a comeback in terms of horror. While not as visible as China, Hong Kong, and Japan since the 2000s the country is steady on the rise again. P was unlike, say, the preceding year’s The Sisters (2004) not nearly as blatantly imitative of Ringu (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), and South Korea’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003). While ghost movies like Shutter (2004) and the Art Of the Devil (2004-2008) franchise are staples in Thai, it’s movies like Meat Grinder (2009) that prove that Thailand has come a long way since Universal monster romps The Wolf Girl (1977) and Werewolf (1987). Like the best Asian horror P draws from rich local folklore and superstition and coupled with Spurrier’s almost documentary-like gaze it makes P an atmospheric little ditty. Anybody remotely familiar with Asian ghost horror will find nothing novel here, and just like Verónica (2017) and We Are Not Alone (2016) it was quietly released on Netflix. P was not going to revitalize the ghost subgenre, but it deserved better than that.

Plot: radio broadcaster falls in love with a strangely aloof woman

There’s no shortage of romance in Bollywood. It’s an integral part of Indian cinematic experience, and they sometimes turn up in the least expected places. One such is at the heart, erm, center of Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (or, From the Heart) which not only has the good fortune of featuring a young Shah Rukh Khan in the lead, but also two of Bollywood’s most beloved actresses: Manisha Koirala, and a very young Preity Zinta. Dil Se is a prime example of parallel cinema, or a more realist equivalent to Bollywood’s deliciously over-the-top and melodramatic popcorn/event movies. It’s certainly melodramatic in places but Dil Se is a political thriller first and foremost. Dil Se was closing chapter of Mani Ratnam’s thematic trilogy of terror films and was preceded by Bombay (1995) and Roja (1992). Dil Se initially did poor at the box office, and found success overseas first. It was screened at the Era New Horizons Film Festival and the Helsinki International Film Festival. It went on to win the Netpac Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, two National Film Awards, and six Filmfare Awards. In more recent years it has been reappraised and is now considered an unsung classic.

Amarkant Varma (Shah Rukh Khan) is an idealist program executive for All India Radio traveling to New Delhi to cover the festivities in Assam. On a rainy night he makes a stop at Haflong train station to catch the Barak Valley Express (he wouldn’t take the Chennai Express until some 15 years later) and makes his acquaintance with a mysterious, aloof woman. Mesmerized he tries to strike up conversation, but she has boarded her train before Amar can think up something useful to say. In Assam, while reporting on the North-East insurgence, he interviews citizens of Assam as well as the Liberationists in Kashmir valley and their motivations behind the resistance in Utthar Purv. Then he spots the mystery woman again in Lumding, but she claims not to recall their earlier meeting. A few weeks go by, and Amar describes their meeting on the radio, which she hears. When he meets her again at the post office she tells him to leave her alone since she’s married. Amar profusely apologizes but is beaten up by her brothers all the same. He figures that everything so far was a mere ruse and travels to Leh where the woman was last seen in the union territory of Ladakh.

At the Sindhu Darshan Festival a suicide bomber is chased by the military, and once again the mysterious woman is nearby. They both board the same bus, but when the vehicle experiences technical difficulties they are forced to walk to the nearest village. There the woman tells Amar to call her Meghna (Manisha Koirala) and confides in him that they never can be together. He’s an idealist, she’s a pragmatist. He’s a dreamer, she’s an activist. Unfazed Amar confesses his feelings for her, and is heartbroken to find that she has disappeared the following morning. He returns home to Delhi where his family has arranged a first date with wide-eyed young student Preeti Nair (Preity Zinta) from Kerala. Figuring that he will never see or hear from Meghna again Amar kindly agrees to marry Preeti.

Out on a date during his courtship with Preeti one day Amar spots one of Meghna’s associates on Connaught Place. Naturally, when the man commits suicide Amar becomes a prime suspect in the CBI investigation. Then one day he finds Meghna knocking on his door asking for an administrative job in the offices of All India Radio. Amar is puzzled to learn that her real name is Moina, and that she's part of a Liberationist cell planning multiple suicide attacks in New Delhi during the upcoming Republic Day celebrations. In fact Moina herself is one of the suicide bombers and she intends to blow herself up along with the President of India. His association with Moina and his trek to Sunder Nagar make Amar look suspect in the eyes of the CBI investigation officer (Piyush Mishra) and he’s arrested. On the day of the planned suicide attack Amar escapes CBI custody and pleads Moina not to go through with her terrorist act. Does love truly conquer all?

Not bad for somebody like Shah Rukh Khan. Before he became the “king of romance” and “Tom Cruise of India” he was an actor from humble beginnings. He has a penchant for chosing projects with an autobiographical slant. His father was a freedom fighter, so the screenplay of Dil Se must have resonated with him on a personal level. Khan had debuted in Deewana (1992) but would soon make a name for himself playing anti-heroes and villains. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) proved particularly successful. It was the highest grossing Bollywood film that year, and is widely considered one of the most successful Indian films in history. The Maratha Mandir cinema hall in Mumbai has, as of 2017, been showing it 20-plus years. And who wouldn’t want to be involved with a prestigious project as Dil Se? Mani Ratnam writing and directing, sharing the screen with India’s most gifted dramatic actress (Manisha Koirala), a lovely debutante (Preity Zinta), a director of photography (Santosh Sivan) and a choreographer (Farah Khan) who would direct the “king of romance” in the historical epic Aśoka (2001), and the Bollywood box office smashes Om Shanti Om (2007) and Happy New Year (2014), respectively? You’d imagine that Dil Se would resonate with people, but the opposite is in fact true. In its original run it did poorly, and Dil Se was only reappraised much later.

It’s nigh on unbelievable that Shah Rukh Khan is barely known in the English-speaking world. He’s one of the biggest actors, producers, and directors in Bollywood, and often works with filmmaker Yash Chopra. On-screen he’s frequently romantically paired with the Kapoor sisters (Karisma and Kareena), Madhuri Dixit, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Juhi Chawla, and introduced Preity Zinta, Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra to the world. Khan famously declined the lead role in Danny Boyle’s multiple Golden Globes, Academy, BAFTA, and Critics' Choice Award-winning sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a part subsequently given to Anil Kapoor. Khan is known for playing idealists, anti-heroes, villains, and romantic heroes. He’s a man of the people, and loved across age brackets and demographics. He has his own wax statue in Madame Tussauds in New Delhi and London, lectured at Yale (in 2012) and TED (in 2017), and he was interviewed by David Letterman on his My Next Guest (in 2019). Dil Se is probably one of the most important movies in Khan’s extensive filmography, and a lot more cerebral than than the romantic comedies and dramas wherein he made a name for himself. Besides Manisha Koirala the biggest other star is Preity Zinta.

Zinta was a 23-year old former student of criminal psychology who had established a foothold in television as the adorable Cadbury Perk chocolate bar – and Liril soap girl. If those commercials weren’t enough to shoot her to domestic superstardom, her now world-famous dimpled smile certainly would. It takes well over an hour before Zinta makes her appearance in Dil Se but what a debut it is! Just a short 20 minutes is all that it took for pretty Preity to become a Bollywood darling and superstar. Obviously Preity impressed the Bollywood bigwigs and she won the Filmfare Award (1999) for Best Female Debut. Five years, and 15 films later, Zinta appeared in two career-defining productions. The first was Rajesh Roshan’s nearly three-hour-long Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) (or I Found Someone), a family adventure epic of Spielbergian proportions modeled after the likes of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Independence Day (1996). It ensured Hritik Roshan’s continued relevance, and birthed India’s most lucrative superhero franchise Krrish in the process. The same year she reunited with Khan for Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) where she played geeky, black-rim glasses wearing, and barely-smiling Naina Mathur. Her hearty laughter warmed millions. Preity has shared the screen with legends, old and new, and probably is one of the most recognizable Hindi stars along with Priyanka Chopra and Mallika Sherawat. Also making a cameo appearance is former MTV VJ Malaika Arora in the song ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’.

Dil Se is the ideal title for Westerners to dive into the wonderful world of Bollywood, as Dil Chahta Hai (2001), and Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) for that matter. It might not exactly be representative of Shah Rukh Khan’s massive body of work (that generally dwells in far lighter comedic – and romantic territory) but if there’s one Bollywood movie that everybody should have seen at least once Dil Se is a pretty good choice. It offers a chance to see a number of Bollywood superstars early in their career before they became the household names and red carpet fixtures they are today. Shah Rukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, and Preity Zinta all are philantropists who have found charitable foundations, and have championed women's and children's rights in India, as well raised awareness around various (mental) health issues. For that all three have often won awards and are leading figures in their philanthropic endeavours. If that doesn’t make Dil Se more appealing to a wider audience, nothing probably will…