Perng Mang: The Haunted Drum (2007): Thailand – directed by Nuttapeera Chomsri and Sranya Noithai
Not rated by the MPAA – contains violence and gore, some mild sexual content
There are a couple things that make Perng Mang: The Haunted Drum a little different than most horror films. The first is that it is Thai, and I have not seen a great number of Thai films. The second is that it mixes genres in a way that only certain Southeast Asian films do. Is it a horror movie? Sort of. Is it a tragic romance? Yeah, kind of. Is it a sports/music competition movie? Yes.
As you might imagine, this all gets a little confusing. The first twenty minutes in particular are poorly stitched together. The film starts in the 1800’s, and we are introduced to a couple of small children. The film then jumps ahead a few years, and one of the children receives a ring from his dying grandfather. This ring is present throughout much of the rest of the film, but has no real significance.
A few years later a young man is sent to join a traditional Thai band. He plays the drums in a percussive orchestra. The most important instrument is the perng mang, a set of seven drums that sounds quite unique and interesting. This particular band is rumored to have a haunted perng mang, with a spirit inside that protects the band. However, there is also a rival band, with more money and better status. The two bands don’t always get along, and loyalty to one’s band causes some fights. Eventually the film progresses to band-offs, where each band plays in order to win a wager with the political ruler of the area.
This rivalry between the two bands is but one aspect of the story. Another element involves our hero, Ping (Kett Thantup), as he joins the band. He discovers a forbidden house in the jungle nearby and soon spends much of his time there. There are two reasons: a beautiful woman and a perng mang on which he can practice. Immediately we suspect there is something amiss with this woman, though she is young and beautiful. Her name is Thip (Woranut Wongsawan) and the couple soon falls in love. She also gives him some tips on playing the perng mang. Their romance is often rather sincere, and up until the end is kind of sweet. Toward the end of the film, however, it becomes a bit sappy and schmaltzy.
Finally there’s the element that will appeal to the widest audience: the horror angle. From the outset it is clear that there are ghosts and supernatural happenings. These eventually give rise to some gory scenes, but these events do not dominate the storyline. As I mentioned above, each genre tries desperately to hold its own within the film and not let the other genres steal the spotlight. This is a shame, because the ghost story is the most interesting and deserves more screen time.
About fifteen minutes into the film it becomes clear why the drum is haunted. The person playing it is attacked by hands that fly out of the drum, grabbing his head and smashing it into the drum frame. There are other death scenes, and most of them are similarly graphic and bloody. Many of them involve the ripping/scratching of people’s skin, and all but one is effectively staged. One of the last death scenes involves special effects that are dated and make little sense. They would have been better suited to a ’50’s sci-fi/horror film.
Despite the ridiculous and overly complicated plot, the production values are impressive. The majority of the film is lush and atmospheric. The jungles look great, certain colors are bright, and the aforementioned special effects are usually very good. The directors, Nuttapeera Chomsri and Sranya Noithai, try a few fancy focusing shots, shifting focus from the background to the foreground, but these rarely work correctly. Certain establishing shots are missing, leading one to wonder what’s actually happening. I can understand leaving establishing shots out of experimental or art films, but leaving them out of a horror film?
Perng Mang: The Haunted Drum looks good and has some impressive horror sequences, but overall it’s a mess. It has the melancholic emotional scenes that John Woo included in many of his Hong Kong action films, but they don’t work as well here, under the auspices of a scary ghost film. Most of the jump scenes are of the J-Horror variety: a person’s face is suddenly disfigured or bloody, or something changes or disappears suddenly, or a creepy hand appears. In spite of how conventional many of the suspense sequences are, they don’t all fail, and some of the scary scenes are quite fun. In spite of this, and the fact that this is a horror film from Thailand, I would have trouble recommending it to anyone but those interested in Thai films or horror films from other countries.