‘Zee Oui’ Review

2004. Zee Oui - Image courtesy of MangpongThailand. 85 minutes.
Mangpong DVD. Region 3. PAL.
Directed by Nida Sudasna, Buranee Ratchaiboon
With Duan Long, Premsinee Rattanasopar, Chatchai Plengpanich

[Reviewer’s disclaimer: I am basically ignorant about Thai films and Thai culture. Please regard as a simple film review. Thanks.]

Is it possible to go wrong with a true story about a cannibalistic child killer?

Penniless farmer Li Hui (Duan Long, the lead in the excellent Chinese film DRIFTERS) emigrates from China to Thailand in 1948. His abuse and humiliation by his would-be countrymen begins from the moment his name is misunderstood by immigration officials to be Zee Oui — which he vigorously protests.

Lacking the funds for the necessary entry fee, he is locked up until his Uncle Dong finally shows up, days later. Dong gets him a job with a butcher and promptly disappears.

Li Hui’s first task is to kill chickens by slitting their necks. This proves to be ill-fated employment because the throat slitting brings back fatal, unpleasant memories.

It doesn’t help that the butcher’s wife restricts his diet to white rice, while the family enjoys a full repast of meats and vegetables, nor that the two bratty children are only too happy to ridicule him. When Li Hui can’t take it anymore, he steals money from the family and heads off to another part of the country.

The bodies of dead children soon start appearing, and Dara, a hot young reporter (Premsinee Rattanasopar, the love interest in BANGKOK DANGEROUS) has personal reasons for pursuing the story, despite the cautions of her editor, Santi (Chatchai Plengpanich).

Dara uncovers Li Hui at his new location, wracked with coughing fits from what the English subtitles call “asthma” (actually, tuberculosis). Eventually, the tortured histories of both Li Hui and Dara are revealed, but not before more children are ripped open so that their hearts and kidneys may be used as part of an (ahem) alternative heath therapy.

Though the plot description may sound like a diabolical tale of horror, the filmmakers had something else in mind. Li Hui doesn’t make wisecracks or laugh maniacally as he kills — he coughs.

And that’s part of the overplayed melodrama that ultimately sank the picture for me. I have no fear of melodrama, but it needs to be fine tuned in order to be effective in anything beyond a soap opera.

After a suitably creepy prologue, filled with foreboding and bloody guts, the plot begins, and so does Li Hui’s mistreatment by others. But we never see Li Hui as anything but a future child killer.

He’s a victim himself, as demonstrated over and over again in scenes that are cruel to watch and punctuated by bombastic minor-key music that booms like organ music in old radio dramas (dum dum DUM!!).

It feels like the filmmakers are struggling to apply a modern sensibility to his crimes, to explain that he was a victim himself, as though that were some kind of justification for his evil acts. Of course it’s not, though it’s interesting to consider how much of the killer’s background is accurately portrayed. Here, he’s a veteran of the Sino-Japanese War as well as the survivor of childhood illness thanks to the ministrations of his mother, who cooked up an unusual broth to help him get better.

To be fair, it may be that the filmmakers were just trying to understand what might have driven someone to commit such horrific crimes. But that raises other questions. To accept this reading of the film is to ignore the sometimes graphic footage on display, which feels a bit exploitative for a sensitive drama.

And one is also left wondering why the possibly racist tone of Li Hui’s mistreatment is never addressed. Or was he only ridiculed because of his weak physical condition, brought on by TB? Is it possible that the Thai people of the time are being held up for examination? These very interesting points are given only glancing attention as the film gallops to its foregone conclusion.

The directors are two women who are sisters. They have considerable experience directing television commercials, and the film looks very stylish, with several nifty camera moves, sweeping panoramic views, and editing choices that catch the viewer’s eye.

In this regard, Tanissapong Sasinmanop served as both the director of photography and the editor, and did a superb job in each assignment.

* DVD Notes *

The picture quality is fine. It gets a bit muddy at times, but that may be more a reflection of the production than of the transfer.

The Thai audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds suitably expansive.

The English subtitles have a few misspellings but are generally easy to read. At about the 50 minute mark, several lines of dialogue are spoken before the subtitles start showing up.

Extras include the film’s terrific trailer and teaser, plus two other features narrated in Thai but without English subtitles. The DVD’s packaging refers to a “scoop” feature, which I suppose is either one or both of the features. In any event, these features include brief interviews amidst clips from the film, and likely focus on different aspects of the production and/or historical background. One is three minutes and the other is 8 minutes.

The DVD itself is packaged in a cardboard slipcase and comes in an ultra-thin case.

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