Plot: sleepy farming hamlet is terrorized by fierce spectral predator.
As far as we’re aware Thailand never had much of a horror scene in spite their rich history in being a reliable provider of the most wickedly insane action exploitation. Whereas Indonesia had Suzzanna and Malaysia had Maria Menado Thailand never had a horror queen as such – or at least none that we’re aware of. The Krasue has been part of Thai horror at least since 1973. Nang Nak (1999) was at the forefront of the "Thai New Wave" and since that time the country has spawned the very successful Art of the Devil (2004-2008) franchise as well as Ghost Lab (2021) and the Thai-South Korean co-production The Medium (2021). In between those there was Sang Krasue (แสงกระสือ domestically or Inhuman Kiss, internationally) or a ghost horror that used its monster as a metaphor for coming of age and sexual awakening. That the best Thai horror since P (2005) was selected (but not nominated) for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards is enough of a grave injustice by itself. What Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) was to Indonesia and what Revenge Of the Pontianak (2019) was to Malaysia, Inhuman Kiss could and should have been to Thailand. This is probably the most enrapturing romance since A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) almost thirty years before.
There’s a world of interesting mythical creatures that speak to the imagination to be found in the folklore of Asia. While the white-robed long black-haired ghosts is the one that has penetrated the Western world through cultural osmosis there are so many others. In Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines, and Vietnam) the most visually interesting of those (at least to undiscerning and unaware Western eyes) ghosts or phi (ผี) is the Krasue (กระสือ) (Kui'yang in Indonesia, Penanggal in Malaysia, or Manananggal in the Philippines) or the floating disembodied head of an attractive woman with the entrails hanging down from the neck. The male counterpart to the Krasue is the Krahang (กระหัง). In the classic Indonesian horror romp Lake Eerie (1974) Suzzanna briefly transforms into a Krasue next to her iconic and beloved sundelbolong as does Amy Weber’s The Evil Queen in Dangerous Seductress (1992). In the Western hemisphere the Far East folkloric and mythological bestiary remains practically unknown, sadly.
Inhuman Kiss is an interesting combination of young talent and dyed-in-the-wool veterans. Sitisiri Mongkolsiri is a relative newcomer in Thai cinema. He directed one of the story vignettes for the Last Summer (2013) anthology as well as two episodes of the series Girl From Nowhere (2018-2021) that had Phantira Pipityakorn as a guest star for an episode on 2021. Chookiat Sakveerakul (who’s also active as a director and occasional editor) wrote Body (2007) and the JeeJa Yanin martial arts classic Chocolate (2008). In all likelihood he’s responsible for the very human story and the romance at the heart of Inhuman Kiss. Sangar Chatchairungruang executive produced the Danny and Oxide Chun Pang crime caper Bangkok Dangerous (2000) (remade for the American market with Nicolas Cage in the headlining role, quite unnecessarily and with little in the way of fanfare, in 2008). What director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri brings to Inhuman Kiss can perhaps best be described as a very humanist approach. The horror (and the Krasue) are obviously the main draw but Mongkolsiri recognizes that the human story is even more important.
Thailand, 1940. At the dawn of World War II, under the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the country is engaged in the Japanese invasion of French Indochina and the Franco-Thai War. In a farming muban (hamlet) somewhere in the Phutthamonthon District, west of Bangkok, Sai (Phantira Pipityakorn) is living with her constable father Phaen (Sahatchai Chumrum), her mother (Duangjai Hiransri), and superstitious grandmother (Namngen Boonnark). As a girl on the verge of womanhood she has grown up on old folkloric stories and with her two loyal childhood friends Noi (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang) and Jerd (Sapol Assawamunkong). Noi is a student of medicine who dreams of becoming a doctor and Sai herself wants nothing more than to be a nurse. The two volunteer at the local hospital. Jerd, coming from a less affluent family, does menial work in the fields as a laborer. For a while now Sai has been waking up with inexplicable scratches on her chest and blood on her sheets. For about as long her sleepy village has seen the equally inexplicable slaughter of chickens, cattle and livestock. This has struck fear into the hearts of the superstitious townsfolk. Unexpectedly brigand Tad (Surasak Wongthai) and his bandits ride into town from Salaya, a nearby tambon (sub-district) of Salaya. Tad claims that the hamlet is hiding a Krasue and that they refuse to leave until they have its head.
Walking through the forest they played in as kids Noi follows the disembodied head of the Krasue only to learn that it’s in fact his beloved Sai. As an ardent student of science and the empirical method Noi undertakes a pilgrimage to the local monastery to learn about Krasue from the monk (Makara Supinacharoen, as Makorn Supinacharoen). He learns of a certain herb that stalls the transformation. This will fix the problem temporarily until the two can come up with a more permanent solution. Jerd meanwhile joins Tard and his bandits to hunt the Krasue. As both Noi and Jerd show romantic interest in Sai she’s left in a terrible predicament with her current condition. As Tard’s grip on Jerd tightens and he sinks into the blackest despair Noi and Sai grow closer as a couple. Meanwhile the bandits resort to increasingly draconic measures to locate the Krasue necessitating Sai’s constable father to stand up to them. Things come to violent head as Tard’s men raid the village during a nocturnal Krasue attack and Tard reveals his true ogrish Krahang form. At wit’s end Noi and Sai try to flee to Bangkok. A terrible revelation kept secret for generations forces Sai’s father into a choice that will change the blossoming romance between the two youngsters forever.
The beauty of Inhuman Kiss lies not so much in what it does but how it goes about doing it. It’s both unassuming and effortlessly multilayered. It’s exactly what you want it to be. First and foremost, Inhuman Kiss is a beautiful coming of age story and a deeply tragic romance. However, look beyond that and there’s an equally solid folkloric horror story here, although that obviously serves more as window-dressing for the larger story being told. It’s absolutely no hyperbole when the most apt comparison is Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Like that piece of classic Hong Kong horror romance Inhuman Kiss too elegantly fuses horror with romance and terror-inducing denizens of the dark. There’s argument to be made that this might not be as rich in subtext as P (2005) but by the same token P (2005) never was this atmospheric and intense. It is however no question that Inhuman Kiss benefits from all the technological advances of the near decade and a half since. The effects work is a combination of practical in-camera trickery with a helping of digital wizardry for the grander, more ambitious scenes. While the special effects are vitally important for a production like this the lead actress is even moreso. On that front Phantira Pipityakorn is a godsend. Not only is she cute as a dish, she can actually act with the best of them. That she’s able to carry a production of this magnitude by her lonesome speaks volumes to her innate talent. For now she remains just a television actress, the question is how long it will be until she ascends her regional borders and becomes an international force.
It’s a tall order for any director to tell a human story within the confines of a horror framework where the goal is, first and foremost, to scare and repulse. At heart Inhuman Kiss is a coming of age story and a doomed romance that uses the horror as a metaphor for the loss of the innocence of youth and the pains of adolescence. What really speaks to the strength of Inhuman Kiss as a feature is that you glean from it what you want. Ghost horror, coming of age within the context of World War II, the experience of first romances and heartbreaks – it’s all here. That Sitisiri Mongkolsiri makes that delicate balancing act look so effortless makes it all the more impressive. It’s unbelievable that Inhuman Kiss remains so overlooked and underestimated. That Hollywood is slow in recognizing international talent is nothing but a truism at this point. That Inhuman Kiss didn’t even manage to score a nomination says enough about the endemic ignorance and disinterest of the Academy in anything that isn’t American. Those who do enjoy foreign cinema (and who aren’t turned off by the ideas of subtitles) can consider this another Asian horror classic, minor or major.