‘The Medium’ Review: Good Spirits, Bad Spirits, and a Shamanic Exorcist Auntie

·4-min read

In 2004, Banjong Pisanthanakun and then-collaborator Parkpoom Wongpoom kickstarted their directorial careers with “Shutter,” a supernatural thriller so effective it’s been remade (albeit to lesser effect) abroad three times to date. Less likely to translate that widely is Pisanthanakun’s latest solo effort, “The Medium.” Marking his return to straight horror after a couple romances and one more comedically slanted genre film (“Pee Mak”), this demonic possession saga is too thoroughly Thai in milieu and details to risk being just another derivative of “The Exorcist.”

Still, cultural specificity only brings so much freshness to an overlong tale that ultimately trades in too many familiar tropes, from the victim’s evil-grinning, black-gunk-spewing
hijinks to the deployment of a found-footage construct a la “Blair Witch.” There are perhaps too many ideas here, few of them novel, and none scary enough to keep these two-hours-plus taut. A watchable mixed bag that’s already been successful on home turf, the South Korean co-production will likely divide offshore viewers as it begins streaming on Shudder in various territories Oct. 14.

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Pisanthanakun’s screenplay starts out as a mock documentary about spiritual practices of the Isan people in Thailand’s northeast. A filmmaking team surveying shamanic practices has taken particular interest in middle-aged Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), a seamstress who’s also the chosen vessel for an ancestral spirit that has “protected the villagers for a long time.” That job has passed from one woman to another in her family, but purportedly by the spirit’s choice, not theirs. In fact, she says, elder sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) was originally selected by the goddess Ba Yan, but refused the role.

Since then, the two women have not particularly gotten along, their brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn) caught in the middle. Nonetheless, Nim travels to the funeral of Noi’s husband, who died suddenly. Noi and adult daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) share a house in another town with Marit, his wife Pang (Arunee Wattana) and their infant son. Office worker Mink has grown into a beauty. But her behavior during these days of public mourning is peculiar, sometimes uncharacteristically antagonistic. Nim soon decides her niece is possessed by a spirit, which is not what the skeptical young woman or her mother want to hear.

However, Mink’s conduct grows more and more alarming, convincing auntie that this is no “good” spirit, like her own guiding one. When Noi finally takes panicked action, it only makes things worse. “The Medium’s” second hour becomes a pileup of unnatural occurrences recorded by both the fictive documentary crew and surveillance cameras à la “Paranormal Activity.” Through them, Mink runs a gamut of demonic mischief, from evil cackling and rolled-back eyes to the wreaking of grievous bodily harm. Nor will the bad-spirit contagion stop with her.

The script has a certain go-for-broke expansiveness in the end, taking its plot further than you may have expected. At the same time, Pisanthanakun’s brisk pacing somehow doesn’t build much cumulative suspense, and tethering the film to a pseudo-documentary conceit robs it of badly needed atmosphere. There are some lovely shots of the surrounding forests, but too often “The Medium” has to stick with the jerky-cam visuals necessitated by using a video crew as characters (ones who never think to abandon their camera when fleeing in terror). That aesthetic and concept have been so tired for so long, it’s hard not to imagine how much better “The Medium” might’ve been if it had ejected them as superfluous, adopting instead a more polished, traditional presentation.

Chatchai Pongprapaphan’s original score does provide some of that atmospheric refinement, as does production designer Akadech Kaewkot’s occasional interiors. The performances are generally strong — though the ersatz “realism” does no favors for newcomer Gulmongkolpech, who’s stuck doing much of what Linda Blair once did in a “documentary” framework that tends to make such exertions look silly. There are fairly shocking and bloody incidents here, even if they too suffer from the same perversely credulity-reducing effect.

As in the first “[rec]” movie — another found-footage franchise inevitably recalled — the door is left open for this film’s Pandora’s Box of malevolent spirits to keep spreading in sequels. That’s not an unappealing prospect, as “The Medium” just begins to explore the superstitious and mythological ideas that are its most intriguing elements. But also because this ambitious, somewhat unwieldy enterprise deploys them with such variable success, it would be nice to see if a followup might actually improve on the original.

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