An introduction

 

'Phii' / 'Phi' / 'P' - Thai expression for 'ghost'. 

 

The Mor Phi or 'ghost doctor' in rural areas of Thailand is as important a figure as the medical doctor. Through a variety of spells and charms, they can bring good luck, good health, and even wealth.

A long-distance coach or lorry driver will ask for a special charm to bring him safety on the roads.

A girl looking for a husband, might ask for a 'golden tongue' spell to make her words charm a man.

And a girl working in a Bangkok go-go bar might ask for her face and body to appear more attractive to the customers so she can earn more money.

 

Most magic is used for relatively benign purposes. But there is a darker side to magic - from spells used against business rivals, to hexes put on ex-lovers, to voodoo-style curses bringing violent harm to enemies.

 

But this magic must be used by the Mor Phi with caution, moderation, and a deep respect for its power. An inexperienced practitioner who forgets or ignores the rules might suffer one of the worst fates known to the Thai people. He may become 'bawb'.

 

Perhaps the best study of how a person becomes 'bawb' and nightly becomes possessed by an evil spirit with a taste for human innards was written in 1986 by Sangun Suwalert ,M.D., D. Psych.

Upon encountering a patient with strange physical and mental symptoms that conventional treatments failed both to diagnose or cure, he embarked upon a study of the 'bawb' phenomenon, and concludes, "Phii Bawb is not merely a legend ,but it is an actual occurrence in the area where I worked."

 

When Paul Spurrier first travelled to Thailand in 1999 on a documentary assignment for the BBC, he was surprised when the driver of the crew vehicle stopped at a particular corner and requested that everyone step out. At this corner, there had been many car accidents, and in order to pass safely, one must request permission from the spirits to pass by.

From the spirit houses outside all buildings, to the superstitions and daily rituals that are familiar to all Thai people, Paul discovered a land where the supernatural is accepted as just another aspect of daily life.

 

Paul felt that this was surely a rich environment for a filmmaker.

But his journey was a long one. It took four years of research and study to begin to understand the Thai supernatural world, and also to learn the Thai language to a level of fluency that would enable him to direct a Thai language film.

Whilst the Thai people are on the surface very open and friendly, to truly penetrate the culture from the outside is very hard. This is perhaps one of the reasons why throughout its history, Thailand was never colonised.

It is perhaps also the reason why he is the first ever Western director to attempt to make a Thai language feature film.

 

His research involved visits to witch-doctors in the jungle and seances in the Bangkok slums. He studied the wide variety of Thai ghosts - the bawb, braird, am, lork, graseu, gahaan, each with their own particular way of terrifying the Thai population.

 

 

There is nothing new about a Thai ghost film. It is the oldest and still the most popular genre in Thailand, with over ten films produced a year.

What Paul felt he had to offer was a new perspective - a blend of Thai mythology with Western-style realism and storytelling.

 

He wanted to try to make a film that contains the scares and thrills that the audience would expect, but also include some strong messages both to Thai audiences: the concept of demonic possession as a metaphor for drug addiction, and for international audiences: showing the reality behind the fun glitzy surface of gogo bars and wild women.

 

Nor was the production process any easier. Paul and his production company faced enormous challenges making a film outside the studio system, where virtually all film stars are groomed first as pop stars and on exclusive contract, and crews are on staff. They were forced to seek actors entirely from the streets, to use Thai crew members mostly moonlighting from their dayjobs. And from the real go-go bars came death threats.

 

The result is a unique film, a film that might be presented in the West as fantasy, and yet a film in which every single character and aspect of the story has been taken from reality.

 

This is the first Thai film for over twenty years shot in Cinemascope.

It has created history as the first ever Thai language film directed by a Westerner.

It could be termed an 'avant garde' ghost film, for much of the time taken from the point of view of the ghost.

It includes some remarkable performances from its cast of first-timers, which included bargirls, slumkids, and porn stars.

 

The film was produced for Thai audiences, but a new problem has emerged. A new social order campaign has strengthened film censorship.

 

The Thai government refuses to acknowledge that prostitution exists in Thailand, and are particularly keen to downplay Bangkok as a 'sex city'.

 

This is a landmark in Thai film history, and the producers and director are determined to fight to bring this film to the Thai public.

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