The Medium, 2021.
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun.
Starring Narilya Gulmongkolpech, Sawanee Utoomma, Sirani Yankittikan, Yasaka Chaisorn, Boonsong Nakphoo, Arunee Wattana, Thanutphon Boonsang, and Pakapol Srirongmuang.
A horrifying story of a shaman’s inheritance in the Isan region of Thailand. What could be possessing a family member might not be the Goddess they make it out to be.
This joint Korean/Thai production is summoned to cinema screens with some real heavyweight horror credentials. It’s directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun, who made 2004’s Shutter, which has been remade countless times, and used as the negative blueprint for many genre copy and paste efforts since. On production duties is Na Hong-jin, the writer-director behind 2016’s splendid slow-burn supernatural mystery The Wailing. Together they’re hoping that their combined powers for making your geese bump will result in another another classic chiller.
The format they’ve chosen to tell their story of Shamanistic shenanigans is that of the mock documentary, which isn’t exactly a novel approach in the horror genre – think Troll Hunter, Rec, The Blair Witch Project – but you hold out hope that Pisanthanakun can add a unique spin to this potentially tired narrative device.
The set-up is intriguing, as we’re introduced to Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), a local shaman possessed by a spirit called Ba Yan, a peaceful Goddess who has inhabited the bodies of generations of women in her family. However, Nim wasn’t next in line to inherit the spirit, for that was a responsibility meant for her sister, who spurned the opportunity, and this has seemingly led to some rather strange occurrences in this quiet mountainside village. So when dead dogs start appearing in the middle of the road, and Nim’s niece Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) begins going a little bit Linda Blair, it’s a case of “Who You Gonna Call?” for this close-knit Thai community.
The Medium does a great job of establishing mood, with locations that can’t help but feel enlightening, spiritual, and shrouded in that other-worldly mist which hangs in the mountain air. It immediately commands a respect for the culture and beliefs of the people who’re the subject of the film, and thus hand holds you into believing that what you’re watching could very well be a straight-up documentary. And then we’re introduced to Mink.
Initially her character hits all the right notes in terms of the creeping the audience out; her distant stares, the late night confrontation with a blind woman stood in an open doorway, or the unsettling manner in which she carries herself. So far, so spooky. The problems occur when the subtlety of the scares give way to histrionics, which are occasionally effective, but they’re so relentless and condensed to a short space of time that they ultimately lose their effect, becoming an annoyance rather than the intended moment of terror. Small outbursts would have worked better than the incessant onslaught we’re subjected to.
Thankfully The Medium manages to redress this and just about strikes a balance between the more measured horror elements, such as some genuinely unsettling imagery, and all-out unhinged scare-tactics by the time the finale heads to the hills, which is a chaotic night-vision blend of the similar but superior Rec and The Descent.
Anchoring the film when it threatens to capsize is a wonderful performance by Sawanee Utoomma, who in the midst of this maelstrom of wailing and horror adds a much needed calming presence as the person whose faith is being tested. As a juxtaposition to the madness engulfing her family, she’s able to ground the film, adding a surprisingly emotional footnote during the film’s sombre final scene. It simply wouldn’t have worked at all without her resolute turn.
Fascinating, flawed, and occasionally frightening, The Medium remains an accomplished greatest hits of found-footage documentary-horror, which never quite elevates above being seen-it-all-before.
The Medium is showing at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and will debut on Shudder from Thursday October 14th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt