Setting the Scene: How Did The Asian Financial Crisis Shape Contemporary Thai Horror?
‘Setting The Scene’ is a column where we examine how a country’s culture, economy, history and politics all come together to shape its hit films, and what they may reveal about the subconsciousness of its people.
Examining how WW1 shaped the cinema of Weimar Germany, film professor and author Anton Kaes argued that horror films work through trauma by restaging it, where shocks and near-death encounters allow viewers to re-experience them vicariously from a safe distance.
This has been a possible explanation that has extended beyond German cinema. Ishirō Honda materialised the Japanese’s fear of the atomic age with 1954’s Godzilla, while, more recently, Jordan Peele translated the anxieties of Black America with 2017’s Get Out.
For most of Asia, there is perhaps no event in recent history more cataclysmic than the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC). It would then seem no surprise that those most severely affected by the crisis have produced horror films that have been massively popular domestically for their relatability while being celebrated overseas for being strikingly unique.
We take a look at hit horror films from two countries synonymous for their scares – Thailand and Korea – and how their domestic box office success may be indicative of their ability to speak to the subconsciousness of its people, allowing them to work through the trauma of the AFC. While these horror films rarely directly engage with it as a theme, the legacy of the crisis has infiltrated into their subtexts and manifested themselves into key reasons why they are so popular and terrifying.
The first of this two-part series will look at Thai horror. With the country’s exotic locales and its people’s close relationship with the mystic, it seems only natural that the horror films made by Thai filmmakers are uniquely terrifying and entertaining. However, these films’ domestic success and how they are able to so effectively form their scares aren’t only because of cultural reasons. We take a look at the smash horror hits of the last two decades and examine how they have been informed by the AFC.
But first, the real horror.
A very, very abridged account of the Asian Financial Crisis
Rapid industrialisation post-WW2 led to most of Southeast Asia seeing incredulous economic progress. This economic growth reached its apex in the 1980s with the superpowers embracing and enforcing neoliberalism as the global economic order. Neoliberal policies look to promote free trade, deregulation, and globalisation, significantly increasing the role of the private sector in the economy.
At first, neoliberalism sounded like a great deal (although it wasn’t like Asia really had a choice). Most notably is with how deregulation meant more foreign capital flows in their economies. Backed by credit and low-interest rates, these fuelled economic growth through massive infrastructural developments. This, however, would be the key reason for why the crest of the “Asian Miracle” would come crashing down.
The AFC of 1997 was triggered by a sudden loss of investor confidence, leading to large withdrawals of credit. Deregulation, the increased role of the (foreign) private sector, and weak governmental institutions susceptible to corruption meant that Southeast Asian governments were ill-equipped to stem the bleeding caused by the cessation of foreign capital. The deep interlink forged by globalisation meant that what started out as a crisis in Thailand became a region-wide disease.
In an attempt to resolve the crisis, the West-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) offered large bailout packages, with the caveat that affected countries take on deep austerity measures. These measures, mainly in the form of cuts on government spending and higher taxes, led to disastrous political, economic and social consequences in Asia. The damage has cut so deep that the pain and trauma can still be felt today twenty years on.
The Condemnation of Modernity Post-Crisis
Thailand was ground zero of the AFC. Short-term, low-interest loans in US Dollars were a large part of the country’s GDP in the years preceding 1997. These loans were used to finance massive construction projects that eventually led to a real-estate bubble fuelled by speculation. The country’s relaxed attitude towards loans was present amongst its people as well, with easy-to-attain credit cards leading to large debts.
Everything would come crashing down when the US raised interest rates in the 1990s – with relatively weak Asian currencies pegged to the strong USD, this meant that their value started to fall. With private firms and the government largely running on loans (in USD), debt default became a terrifying reality. The Thai government was forced to float the Thai Baht in an attempt to save the currency. The converse happened, causing the rapid devaluation of the Baht.
Unemployment soared, savings disappeared overnight, large-scale construction projects were (and still are) left unfinished. The sluggish and painful recovery was further bogged down by an ageing population and stiff competition in the region – all of which lay the groundwork for political unrest in the country.
As with almost every economic catastrophe, a strong sense of nationalism arose in Thailand following the AFC. Already doubtful of governmental institutions with the Black May protest of 1992 still fresh on their minds, the AFC led Thais to shirk away from modernity – which has been associated with the government and its failures.
With this came a national inclination towards nostalgia and everything that comes with it: a need for structure and for a time before the country’s momentous yet ultimately disastrous surge towards modernism.
Thai mainstream cinema played on this inclination. Despite an economic catastrophe, and competition from physical media and television, Nonzee Nimibuth’s 1999 horror film Nang Nak was a great hit, being the first locally-produced film to break the 100-million-baht mark at the box office.
The award-winning horror classic had the advantage of being an adaptation of a popular ghost tale, but it could also be argued that Nang Nak’s success can be attributed to the Thai’s need for nostalgia and pre-modern times.
This is directly seen through the film’s 19th-century context and rural setting, set during the waning years of King Mongkut’s reign, who has been credited as an important figure in the modernisation of Thailand. On a slightly deeper level, the need can be felt from the film’s narrative as well.
Before the crisis, Thai women made up a significant portion of the working population. However, they were also amongst the first to be retrenched by the crisis. Now retrenched, women, who were already seen as going against traditional gender roles, were now also seen as invalid – this is one reading of why Nang Nak’s trope of a manipulative demonic women spirit has resonated with and frightened so many.
With its villain set up, the film then reaffirms the power and stability of one of the country’s cornerstone institutions: religion. Horrified and at wits’ end, the film’s protagonist turns to Buddhism for salvation, first looking to become a monk to save the damned soul before engaging the kingdom’s most respected monk to finally exorcise the demon. Nak Nang’s success could be attributed to how it so clearly allows audiences to pin their anxieties on a scapegoat, and for them to work through their trauma with the reliance of tradition.
Even outside of horror, thrillers such as Ruang Talok 69, released in the same year as Nang Nak, saw women’s freedom of choice as a curse more so than a blessing – not just a curse for themselves, but, more importantly, a curse for those around her.
2004’s Shutter and the Evolution of Post-AFC Horror
The next significant success of Thai horror, 2004’s Shutter, could be seen as a response to the (sometimes literal) demonisation of women and of Thailand’s recovery from the AFC. A previous article looked at the cultural contexts of Shutter and how it contributes to the film’s scare factor. Here, we look at how Shutter’s characters, again, allowed domestic audiences to relate and dissipate their anxieties.
The highest-grossing Thai film of 2004 centres around three main characters: photographer, Tun, his girlfriend, Jane, and vengeful spirit and ex-girlfriend Natre. The film could be read as these characters each representing social classes. Tun and his frat-boy college friends represent the middle-class, with their base being modern, urban Bangkok. Hauntings prompt Tun and Jane to travel visit Natre’s widowed mother at their home in the rural countryside.
Jane represents somewhere in the middle between the middle-class and the poor, with the film positioning her as a bridge of communication between Tun and Natre. In between the scares, it is revealed that Tun is implicitly responsible for Natre’s suicide. Contextually, this suggests an acknowledgement of how both the poor and women have been demonised in the popular consciousness in the post-crisis years.
Tun – and the suggested middle-class – not standing in to defend against assault and abuse has led to both his and Natre’s souls being forever intertwined. With this view, the film’s commentary isn’t exactly subtle especially with a controversial populist prime minister in office: fighting between the poor and the middle-class will not lead anywhere and the only way forward (and to survive) is by bridging the two divides.
The Horror Hits Following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis
The 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) would prompt similar social responses as the AFC, albeit with a clear tinge of resignation that its people are doomed to repeat the same mistakes due to insurmountable societal challenges. These can be seen in two post-crisis horror hits Ladda Land and The Promise, both directed by Sophon Sakdaphisit (who also co-wrote Shutter).
There are definitely supernatural activities but the hubris of financial irresponsibility seems far more terrifying in Ladda Land. Set just two years after the GFC, a struggling middle-class family moves into a swanky gated community. Thee, the breadwinner, can barely afford the bills and luxuries but he is determined to impress and meet the high expectations of his traditional, hard-headed mother-in-law.
It soon becomes clear that financial instability permeates throughout the neighbourhood, with the estate soon becoming the site of grisly murders. Instead of the supernatural being seen as responsible for these, it is instead implied that it is manifested from human greed, hubris, and male ego.
The Promise directly acknowledges the AFC. The film even prominently features the Sathorn Unique Tower, an abandoned skyscraper situated in the middle of Bangkok left unfinished after the AFC. It is the site where the main characters of The Promise, Ib and Boum, made a suicide pact after their families’ financial ruin. Boum gets cold feet at the last moment leaving Ib to face her death alone. However, Boum’s visit to the building 20 years later with her daughter prompts an unexpected visit from her old friend.
Similar to Ladda Land, The Promise deftly balances between relatable social horrors with the supernatural. The Sathorn Unique Tower looms throughout the film like a monument. The Tower, being a joint venture between Ib and Boum’s fathers, represents the broken promises of everlasting prosperity and security promised by unfettered capitalism.
All of the film’s main characters struggle with the legacy of the crisis. Boum, now a businesswoman on the verge of another looming failure, sees developing the Tower she has inherited from her father as a last-ditch effort to say afloat. Yet, her determination to realise the project only brings her face-to-face with the grief faced by Ib’s mother and a betrayed spirit determined to make Boum’s teenage daughter’s life a living hell.
Again, the theme of not learning from the mistakes of the past crops up again – right down to the daughter’s age being the same as when the suicide pact was made. However, it is here where the repeated decisions aren’t seen as unfounded. After all, having lived through the AFC has made Boum determined to ensure that her daughter doesn’t have to suffer the way she did.
Both Ladda Land and The Promise continue the long-held trauma of the AFC with regards to modernisation. While they do not demonise modernisation as ferociously as Thai horror’s early responses, these films have continued the tradition nonetheless.
However, a noticeable deviation from the early responses in Thai horror is with the diminished role Buddhism plays in both Ladda Land and The Promise – no longer is religion seen to be relied upon.
As products of the post-GFC world, these films, with their bittersweet endings, have seemingly acknowledged that the same reasons for the two crises will always be repeated, and the only thing that can be done is through a prizing of the past, seeking the stability of the family unit found before the evils of modernity.
The films picked here are only but a small portion of the galaxy of Thai horror available. While these film’s hit status may be explained for how they appeal to the people’s subconscious, other factors such as the actors, depth of marketing, and overall quality of the film could easily be offered as explanations as well.
Still, the unique psychology of horror films allows them to be best positioned to understand how cataclysmic events are processed, translated, and worked through by a country and culture. All throughout the world, financial crises (perpetuated by neoliberalism) have been the prime reason for the rise of populist and nationalistic sentimentalities – Thailand was no exception.
Through their horror hits, we can see these materialised through the demonisation of modernisation, the scapegoating of women, and the acknowledged need for structure and familiarity in the form of cornerstone institutions such as religion. The horror hits of Sakdaphisit would continue to show the scars of the AFC, with the added weight of the GFC painfully acknowledging that the mistakes committed in both crises might be doomed to repeat.
Adding onto their sheer quality of scares, Thai horror is perhaps the best entryway to understand the country’s psyche through films. Not only do these films stand on their own as excellent entertainment, but the allegories they draw to the country’s zeitgeist also isn’t complicated or overwritten as well – far from it; which may be yet another reason for its domestic success.
The next edition of this two-part series will examine the films of yet another country widely-celebrated for its horror: South Korea. Ever wanted to find out why Korean horror films are often so macabre? Or why their horror films tend to focus on two female leads? Or why they seem to have a thing for zombie films? Stay tuned to find out why and how all these have to do with South Korea’s calamitous history.
– Film Review: ‘Videophobia’ Is a Mind-Bending Trip Through a Fractured Psyche
– Lurking in the Shadows of the Asian Psyche – What Makes Asian Horror So Terrifying?
– An Abridged Initiation to Modern Thai Cinema
– Setting The Scene: The Urgent Issues Of The Mekong River Region Today
Banner image credit: GDH 559