The promise of a collaboration between Shutter-famous Banjong Pisanthanakun, directing a new horror title produced by The Wailing Na Hong-jin, is enough to make any pundit in the genre sit up and take notice.
The two veterans are strong in their compelling narratives – both enjoy layering their characters with the burden of a strained human psyche, and winding up tension for the payoff in the last act. This shows up too with the mockumentary The Medium.
The film follows a production crew who is documenting the topic of Isan animism through a local shaman. Taking place in the northerly region of Thailand, the featured priestess is Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), who acts as the resident medium known for calling upon guidance and remedies from Ba Yan – a local ancient goddess.
The Medium indulges us with lush scenes of her practice. The humble woman has a day-job as a seamstress, but when not bent over the machine, Nim is sitting in front of her expansive altar, filled with trinkets and items to empower her work. Some of the best moments are of her performing annual rites at a small grotto, where a huge stone effigy of Ba Yan presides over her devotees.
The plot thickens when Nim’s niece, Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech), starts to act oddly after her father’s passing. It starts with jitters but escalates into bouts of uncharacteristic anger, which concerns the shaman. You see, Nim inherited her capabilities through her mother, and only became the chosen one after her elder sister, who was first picked, rejected the goddess and turned to Christianity. The catch is that, when one doesn’t perform the initiation, these symptoms may become uncontrollable in nature and destroy the person in the process.
The scenes that follow are not for those easily triggered. From raw scenes of gore to story arcs touching on animal cruelty, incest and self-harm, The Medium is tough to stomach, especially at the speed in which it whips through these without pause. And coming from a Southeast Asian country, the imagery here is particularly disturbing, given the strings, rituals and trances.
But what The Medium does best, is in unwrapping the story of spiritual inheritance. It manifests this through the different characters with opposing views (Nim’s sister, Noi for example, deludes herself to the symptoms until it becomes to late), and also entangles a complex circumstance of family guilt into the mix. And as the story unravels, Na’s script pushes us further with dark back stories that threaten to turn the situation on its head.
The development here is superb, given how it realistically unpacks the full story. The combination of beautifully-rendered visuals (as dreary as they are) and admirable performances from the cast also sets The Medium in a calibre on its own. The only drawback is the last act, where both logic and acting goes a little overboard as the family performs an elaborate ritual. But the ending is quite a gut punch as in true fashion of both director and producer, throws up a compelling question that haunts you as the credits roll.
A dark and disturbing trip into the world of spiritual work, but an even more upsetting exploration of beliefs and the human psyche.