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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: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be a ghost

A sadly little-seen and underappreciated gem in the ghost romance pantheon is Ghost Of the Mirror from director Sung Tsun-Shou. Significant for being the first major role for Brigitte Lin it is overlooked in favor of Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both of which tell the same story. Headed by Shih Chun from A Touch Of Zen (1961) and helmed by a director that specialized in drama and romance Ghost Of the Mirror is a historical curiosity that shouldn’t be the obscurity that it tends to be. Lin and Sung Tsun-Shou joined forces once again for the romance The Story Of Green House (1980). Ghost Of the Mirror is in dire need of a proper restoration. Hopefully some company will rise to the task of properly restoring, remastering and subtitling this forgotten piece of ghost romance history for rediscovery for the English-speaking world.

Brigitte Lin (right) and co-star Chiang Wei-Min (left)

Brigitte Lin is one of the great leading ladies of Hong Kong cinema, a veritable queen of the period costume and fantasy wuxia genre, and a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee. She was a veteran from over 100 movies. Of the four movies that Lin acted in in 1973-74 Ghost Of the Mirror was the most significant for being her first major role. Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance and Ghost Of the Mirror was her earliest period costume wuxia of note. Lin is often remembered for her cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and her celebrated reinvention under Tsui Hark in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). Brigitte Lin is an actress from the non-verbal school of acting who conveys more with just her eyes and face than most other actors do with the combination dialog and gestures.

Ghost Of the Mirror, for all intents and purposes, is a loose adaptation of Pu-Sing Ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio which had been adapted earlier with Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) with Chao Lei and Betty Loh Tih and a decade later with Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong. Chang Yung-Hsiang was a Taiwanese screenwriter that specialized in romance. While all the characters and locations have different names it’s rather evident that Ghost Of the Mirror is a direct imitation of Pu-Sing Ling’s most famous work without infringing upon the copyright. It too follows a righteous scholar in a remote location who falls for the charms of a doomed maiden, ensnared by a malignant force he can’t possibly begin to comprehend. It was probably down to a lack of resources that Ghost Of the Mirror wasn’t able to secure the licensing rights for their adaptation of the work. The score too seems randomly put together from stock library music as well as cues from Akira Ikufube's theme from Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) and the various darker, slightly spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ from 1971’s “Meddle”.

An unnamed Buddhist scholar who everybody refers to as Young Noble (Shih Chun) is instructed by his ailing mother (Chang Ping-Yu) to copy a number of sacred Sutra a hundred times to appease the gods to improve her failing health. To that end Young Noble agrees to relocate to remote, quiet surroundings, abstaining from consuming meat and liquor, bathing regularly, and avoiding the company of women. He sends his young servant Ching (Chiang Wei-Min) to scout a possible location and soon the moving is underway. Ching believes the well on the property is haunted but Young Noble discounts it as mere childish superstition. As he prepares himself to start copying the Sutras he soon feels a presence inexplicable. He soon discovers that the house is haunted by Su-Su (Brigitte Lin, as Pai Yin), the ghost of a girl drowned in the well who can only come out at night and is forced to kill people in servitude to the Dragon. Ching eventually finds a mirror in the well and when Young Noble sends him away after his find the mirror turns out to contain the essence of a second ghost, Yuenyi (or Yao Ying) who looks exactly like Su-Su but has a completely different personality. Under the influence of her malefic enslaver Yuenyi attempts to strangle Young Noble with her sari but she resists the Dragon’s ectoplasmatic force as she deems him too righteous to kill.

As a lifedebt of sorts for resisting the Dragon’s power Yuenyi suggests to be his servant for the duration of his assigned transcription task. Enamored of both the reserved Su-Su and the more enterprising Yuenyi, Young Noble explores the caves beneath the well and finds a bronze mirror in a box. Now that the mirror is out in the open it allows Su-Su and Yuenyi to keep him company in daytime as well. As time elapses Su-Su and Yuenyi start to merge into one. At this point Young Noble’s mother pays her dutiful son an unexpected visit at the isolated mansion and is initially disappointed to find him in the presence of a woman, something which he agreed to abstain from. Su-Su/Yuenyi explains that her intentions are nothing but honorable, and the old matriarch allows the two of them to be together, knowing full well that Su-Su/Yuenyi is a ghost. On the way back to the abandoned mansion the two run into a devilish old lady who turns out to be a manifestation of the Dragon. Young Noble continues with the completion of his transcriptions and the two decide to shield the house with Sutras he has already finished as a measure against attacks from the Dragon. In the night the Dragon attacks the mansion to reclaim his prized possession, Su-Su/Yuenyi. While he’s unable to save Su-Su/Yuenyi from certain death, Young Noble’s righteousness is powerful enough to exile the Dragon from the realm of the living, at least for the time being.

The on-screen romance between Shih Chun and Brigitte Lin remains quite chaste at all times. The contrasting personalities of Su-Su and Yuenyi allow Lin to showcase her versatility as an actress – and even this early on it’s clear that she was destined for superstardom given the proper means and vehicle. Su-Su is very reserved, aloof and content in her subservience while Yuenyi possesses a greater joie de vivre. She loves to dance, wears colorful veils and has an overall more positive frame of mind. Obviously the victim of a great tragedy the heart of Su-Su/Yuenyi is restored when she makes her acquaintance with Young Noble. Lin’s breakthrough would come with Tsui Hark’s mythological spectacle Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). In some two decades hence from Ghost Of the Mirror – and after some considerable career peaks in between – Lin would find herself on the lower end of the spectrum once again with the disastrous and widely derided Louis Cha adaptation Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994).

Ghost Of the Mirror has been largely eclipsed by the two adaptations before and after it. Shaw Bros’ The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both told of a doomed and tragic romance between a Buddhist scholar and a ghostly maiden, and did so with far higher production values and to much greater effect. In its defense it isn’t as if Brigitte Lin wasn’t a suitable alternative to Betty Loh Tih and Joey Wong. Screenwriter Chang Yung-Hsiang certainly hits all the right notes in the story and the doomed romance between the two lovers is well-developed enough to make the ending fittingly tragic. The production is hampered by its obvious lack of resources but thankfully director Sung Tsun-Shou is able to do a lot with very little. The special effects-heavy finale is where Ghost Of the Mirror betrays its low-budget nature as much of it is puppetry and miniatures with sometimes very visible strings. Budgetary limitations notwithstanding Ghost Of the Mirror is a charming little movie that has been relegated to obscurity despite Brigitte Lin’s later international stardom.

    It might not have the rustic charm of The Enchanting Shadow (1960) or the mad frenetic energy, the slapstick comedy and the oh so bittersweet romance of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) yet Ghost Of the Mirror is perfectly capable of holding its own. There are obviously superior, and better realized, examples of the form but Ghost Of the Mirror has much of the same creaky, rickety charm as those poorly funded Mediterranean gothic horror genre pieces that arrived in the wake of American Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Ghost Of the Mirror draws from a different literary source and – mythology, but its objectives are largely the same. That Ghost Of the Mirror is overlooked in favor of its better known brethren is understandable. As serviceable and occassionally atmospheric as it it, it isn’t some lost classic or overlooked gem. As a historic curiosity it is interesting purely for being Brigitte Lin’s first major role. Other than that it’s a by-the-book Chinese ghost story that abstains from the overt craziness that came to define the post-A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) exercises in the genre. A little goes a long way and a little of Brigitte Lin in her earliest role of note is so much more than just that.