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Mass Funerals for the Living: Yet Another Attempt at Cheating Death

Movie Review: The Coffin (2008 / DVD 2011)
Summary: Two lovers partake of a Thai ritual that rids them of bad karma, but find that they have transported their bad karma to those they love.
Spoilers: none

Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham who brought us Beautiful Boxer (2004) and Pleasure Factory (2007), the straightforwardly titled The Coffin is a movie based off of a real Thai ritual where people bury themselves before death in hopes of shedding bad karma. The coffins close, some very old and sagely monks chant sacred words, and when the participant rises to walk in newness of life, all bad karma has been vanquished and remains in the grave—or so it is hoped by a man and his love.

“Zoe” (Karen Mok) was given the bad news that she has lung cancer. In a determined move to grasp at whatever chance of survival is out there to beat her fate, she undergoes the ritual. “Chris” (Ananda Everingham) is in love with Zoe and can’t stand by and watch as his love slips away from him. For this reason, he undergoes the ritual. Zoe’s fiancĂ©, “Jack” (Andrew Lim) has been waiting and hoping that Zoe will return to Hong Kong in time for their wedding.

After the rituals, Zoe learns that her cancer has vanished, but both Zoe and Chris begin to experience tragedies and paranormal visions, terrifying specters that seem to be pointing them in a direction toward investigation.

With the unexplained death of Jack and the mysterious death of Chris’ ex-girlfriend, “May” (Napakpapha Nakprasitte) and her infant child, Zoe begins to discover, with the help of “Professor Thanachai” (Michael Pupart), a correlation between those who have undergone the ritual and tragedies suffered by those they love. Chris gets help from an undertaker (Suchao Pongwilai) who gets him one step closer to uncovering the meaning of it all.

Director Uekrongtham’s storytelling skills may need some work, but it certainly isn’t for lack of a clear vision. His vision for the film is above all things rich and carefully constructed. We want to like it from the outset. The performances of its stars can be described as respectably dedicated. Barring the horror direction of the film, the work feels like an emotionally rich Asian soap opera, created with special care taken to safeguard the given leanings of the characters.

But while Uekrongtham may know exactly what he wants to accomplish, one of the issues seems to be how much of his story should be revealed in dialog verses how much should be shown to the audience. The film’s 86-minute runtime is absorbed in shifting, back-to-back scenes of talking and bonding that drag on excessively.

The lengthy dialog and poor use of screen-time, coupled with come-and-go phantom experiences to terrify the audience, serve to weaken the potential-rich plot, despite deeply unnerving music that is well coordinated with the ins-and-outs of the changing scenes.

The work leaves little doubt of its ability to scare audiences. Indeed, the film possesses all the right tools, ceasing not to be surprisingly brutal and disturbing in its imagery.

Everything from the claustrophobic, nightmarish visions to the squeaky beds hit their marks—right up until we receive a sufficient helping of the reemerging rendezvous with supernatural fright, which is what really tires us out. This leads us to an anti-climactic ending that has all but fizzled out by the time we reach it.

At that, the film leaves us with a questionable ending: Can it said that the phantoms we witnessed were the actual reemergence of the tortured souls cheated out of their would-have-been, fortune-filled destinies by the transference of bad karma? How can we accept this?

Is it really Jack and May, who, with infant in arms, return to haunt their former lovers? Why would Jack or May want anything other than the best for their living loved ones? Unless they were intentionally killed (which they weren’t), the plot seems not to have enough momentum to carry itself.

In the end, we have a not-so-good movie with a very good idea behind it, an independent film that doesn’t at all feel like one, but shines with the brightness of a much higher budget picture. The message is an old one – one that has been the theme of literally hundreds of other movies (like Final Destination) – and one that admirers of philosophically mindful horror movies will appreciate: You can’t dodge fate!

My favorite quote: "Working with the dead...makes me want to stay alive!" - Undertaker

(JH)

Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: No MPAA rating
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Starring: “Chris” (Ananda Everingham), “Mariko” (Aki Shibuya), “Zoe” (Karen Mok), “Jack,” Zoe’s fiancĂ© (Andrew Lim), “Zoe’s friend” (Florence Faivre), “May” (Napakpapha Nakprasitte), “The Undertaker” (Suchao Pongwilai), “Professor Thanachai” (Micheal Pupart), “Joe’s Mother” (Tassawan Seneewongse)
Genre: Horror / Thriller
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