Ghost Game

Ghost Game


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Sarawut Wichiensarn's Ghost Game (Laa-thaa-phii) may begin with a lengthy and emphatic disclaimer about any resemblance to real persons, places or events, and most of its action may unfold on a fictitious island in the invented country of Jedah (that just happens to border Thailand) – but the Cambodian government, at least, was not fooled, banning the film outright amid objections concerning its insensitivity towards their nation's troubled history. After all, as a one-time centre of detention, torture and execution where tens of thousands were murdrered and virtually nobody got out alive, the film's 'Camp Case 17' is only a thinly disguised surrogate for Pol Pot's notorious Tuol Sleng secret prison in Phnom Penh, where more than 15,000 prisoners were tortured and killed in the 1970s.

Like its real-life inspiration Tuol Sleng, Camp Case 17 has been converted into a genocide museum – but unlike Tuol Sleng, it has never been visited by the general public, thanks to the mysterious death (from extreme shock) of three workers there just days before the doors were due to open. Ever since, rumours have abounded that the site is haunted, and so, about a year later, a reality television show challenges eleven contestants to stay at the compound, with a prize of five million baht for whichever one of them is the last to remain on the premises.

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Not only that, but the show's producers require the players to dress in the uniforms of the former prisoners, to dare their ghosts to rise up from their graves, and to perform outrageous acts of disrespect upon the graves through which they are trampling in the name of mass entertainment. Such acts of sacrilege quickly provoke a response from the phantom victims of the slaughter there – but in the labyrinthine dungeons below, something far more terrible stirs, something that once perpetrated a horrific massacre and is now just waiting to celebrate its anniversary with renewed atrocities. Soon the panicky contestants are starting to wonder whether they, too, might be doomed to stay there forever.

A selection of attractive young flesh. A cutthroat competition within a claustrophobic space. The constant, paranoid sense of being watched. A relentless, irrational and cruel process of elimination. Yup, the principles that underlie reality television have a lot in common with the genre rules of much horror (especially the slasher), making it inevitable that the two would come together, pitting unwitting contestants against all-too-real murder-by-numbers mayhem. As an addition to the ever-expanding body of Asian horror, Ghost Game is a merely competent, decidedly middle-ranking entry, more or less making up for cardboard characterisation and below-par performances with its creepily atmospheric sets, its abundance of ghostly visitations from the get-go, and its gore galore – but it is as a grim commentary on the whole reality television phenomenon that Ghost Game really grabs the attention and stands out from the horror crowd.

Of course, there have been other horror films set in the world of reality television, like Marc Evans' My Little Eye (2002), Rick Rosenthal's Halloween: Resurrection (2002) and Joe Lynch's Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007) - but unlike all of these, Ghost Game actually has something to say about the medium it exploits. Constantly flirting with the shadowy borderlands between fiction and reality, Ghost Game features a cast of real-life contestants from Academy Fantasia (Thailand's equivalent to Pop Idol), and has their characters both engaging in all the double-dealing (gamesmanship, suspicion-sowing, manipulation, bitching, sabotage and guile) that are true to the TV form, and struggling to disentangle what is really going on from "the script", "bluffing", "pranks...just staged by the crew", "scare tactics" and a "dream".

The truth, however, is that no matter how genre-bound the packaging in which it has been wrapped, we all know that what underlies Ghost Game – the incomprehensible terrors of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and the horrific toll it took on ordinary lives – is one well-attested historical reality that no one at all, and certainly not the vapid contestants on a television game show, can trivialise, commodify or insult with impunity.

It might be argued (and indeed was argued, by the Cambodian state) that Wichiensarn's film is itself not entirely immune from accusations of cashing in on people's real sufferings – after all, the film is a visceral entertainment that made a killing at the Thai box office – but it is important to distinguish Ghost Game the film from the show of the same name that the film invents, stages and critiques. Unlike the show, the film was not shot on a site of 'real' mass torture and murder, and does not involve the desecration of 'actual' skeletons. Where the show depicts players so hell-bent on winning fame or money that they are cynically prepared to hold the reality of their circumstances in contempt, the film is just dramatising the desperate folly of such conduct. Here the inconsequentially shallow and the deeply grave are brought into direct collision, cutting to the very heart of both reality television and what is wrong with such soulless diversion, in a world where so many people must endure a different kind of reality that is no game.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2008
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Controversial Thai horror, pushing reality TV to its limit.
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Director: Sarawut Wichiensarn

Writer: Damkerng Thitapiyasak, from story by Ekacahai Uekrongtham, Supachai Sittiamponpan, Damkerng Thitapiyasak, Pantham Thongsang, Karun Kumanuwong, Sarawut Wichiensarn

Starring: Pachornpol Jantieng, Supatsiri Patomnupong, Pongsk Rattanapong, Thanayam Mahapirun, Zeenam Sunthorn, Thaweesak Phmornpon, Kittyluck Jullustian, Parnwet Saiklay, Natchakamon Korsuwan

Year: 2006

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Thailand


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