Premika (Thailand, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Siwakorn Charupongsa’s directorial debut Premika is a jaunty slapstick slasher, with its combination of gory moments of killing, thanks to a teenage ghost in a school uniform, and over-the-top absurdist humour that would be corny if the film were not so aware of itself. A group of sub-par (aspiring) media celebrities and ordinary folks converge on a newly opened/renovated countryside resort for a weekend and subsequently witness and/or experience a series of strange, bloody goings-on in and around the site. Wreaking havoc on their minds and bodies is the axe-wielding ghost named Premika, so dubbed because it is the label of the schoolgirl uniform that she had on when (pieces of) her body was found in the woods nearby the resort and because her identity is in fact unknown. But beneath all of the colourful plays with genre fusion and tropes and parading of various characters, especially the recurring karaoke singing sequences that accompany the killings, Charupongsa injects a somber, sorrowful observation on migrant labour while also introducing to the international film world the young Thai-Portuguese pop singer and actress Natthacha De Souza (aka Gena D) as Premika.

At an opening of a countryside resort, a most eclectic group of figures gathers: a young couple looking to get away from their routine but ending up reverting back to their problems; a group of paparazzi-like photogs to capture events at the resort and enjoy themselves; a boy band that is actually on the verge of dissolving; and a pair of C-list singers known more for flaunting their bodies than their voices. Along with several of the resort’s staff, this cast of characters is accidentally responsible for the release, as it were, of the spirit of Premika from a karaoke jukebox machine found in the resort lobby and thus becomes victim to her karaoke game of sing-or-die.

Admittedly, the farcical rapid-fire exchanges of setups and punchlines amongst the characters as they traipse through the resort run the risk of becoming tiresome early on, presented with quick cuts and canned sound effects. Somewhat helping to alleviate this comic fatigue are several elements. One, about one-third of the slapstick silliness and comedy is genuinely funny in their absurdity. Two, the film’s loose narrative is spread across so many characters, constantly switching from one set of characters to another rather quickly, as if anticipating such fatigue. Three, the cast presents a more or less consistent level of performance, barring a couple of scenes, with De Souza understandably being the most memorable. Lastly, Charupongsa does not delay the arrival and antics of Premika amongst the resort guests. In fact, the killings begin surprisingly promptly, which hints that Charupongsa’s intentions with genre-bending are beyond simply contributing his own take on it.

Moreover, the film does not take place entirely at the resort and nearby woods. The happenings at the resort are framed by the murder investigation of the unidentified Premika (whose body parts are found at the beginning of the film), as Lieutenant Poom and his older, reluctant sergeant pursue the case. The two making the rounds of karaoke bars in the city coincides with the series of karaoke killings that transpire at the resort, and these two plot strands are thus primed to collide.

Still another element that staves off the fatigue are the film’s eye-popping colours, an element that contrasts so starkly with the killings and, eventually, the story behind Premika’s murder. But an interesting related point is that as the film progresses, the bright colours gradually give way to more subdued hues, as if matching the gravitas of Premika’s death as the characters and spectator learn more about the circumstances of her murder. For in her death the film is ultimately very damning with regards to the institutionalised discrimination against foreign workers and power trip machismo. As the sergeant brushes off his colleague’s desire to follow the case in favour of catching a football match, he states, ‘What’s the point? […] It’s a dead alien worker, kid. Nobody cares.’ The real horror, then, is the indifference, neglect, and dehumanisation of Premika, down to the fact that the sergeant names her thus in the beginning because they are unable to identify her. As such, though bloody the killings may be, they are laced with cartoonish hilarity. In contrast, the killing of Premika is rendered abhorrent and implicates patriarchal pride.

This last point is deeply connected to the film’s clever variation of the slasher film’s ‘final girl,’ for it is ultimately Premika herself. Lieutenant Poom and Tun, a member of the boy band staying at the resort, become significant on this point because they humanise Premika. The former refuses indifference and insists on investigating the case, and the latter refuses to be afraid and empathically hands the mic back to Premika herself so that she can give voice to her experiences and tragic demise.

Premika is showing on July 13 at the New York Asian Film Festival.