April 19, 2006

DORM (2006) - a coming-of-age story from Thailand, with ghosts

(Updated September 2013)

My coverage of charming Thai ghost story Dorm (Dek Hor) is rather fragmented in Black Hole Reviews, because I used to publish news as it came in. Also, my most thorough review wasn't even in this site, but written for Twitch news. Because that's now mostly disappeared (except for one paragraph!), I'm republishing the original text below, together with my other notes on the main DVD releases of Dorm so far...

(2006, Thailand, Dek Hor)

Dorm is likely to get caught up among many other horror films from Thailand. But it's not so much horror, as a ghost story. Despite the young cast, it's certainly not childish - it has an uncomfortably dark side, reminiscent of Stand By Me, that makes it unsuitable for a younger audience. Anyhow, while I can't quite categorise it, I can say that it's a great Thai film, though not nearly as creepy as The Eye or Shutter.

While on holiday in Thailand, I was delighted to find that Dorm had just opened, a film I'd been looking forward to (having seen the trailer on Twitch) and better yet, half of the performances had English subtitles! Before the film started, in a large cinema (in Bangkok's MBK Shopping Centre), I was caught out by the whole audience suddenly standing up for the National Anthem accompanied by a photographic montage of their beloved King. We don't even do that in England! 

The film opens with Chatree (Chalee Trairat), being sent to boarding school in his seventh grade. His father justifies the decision by saying it will enable him to study harder. Chatree is very angry, but we don't know why he's unable to complain. His life is made even more miserable because he's a 'new kid', joining the school halfway through term. The teacher who doubles as the school matron, Ms. Pranee (Chintara Sukapatana), does little to make him feel welcome.

All the boys in the school sleep in one huge dormitory. On the first night, a gang of four misfits decide to pick on the new kid by telling him ghost stories. Lying under the covers, they tell Chatree that the school, the dorm, Ms. Pranee, even the very bed he's sleeping in, all have a dark history. They tell him about the school worker who committed suicide, the deserted swimming pool, and a ghostly caretaker. The stories are shown like 'flashbacks', but just how much of it are they making up to scare him? Their ruse works better than expected - Chatree has to get up in the night and visit a deserted toilet. Outside, dozens of dogs are looking up at his window and howling. He's too scared to find out what's scaring them and he rushes back to the dorm. Next morning, everyone sees that he's wet the bed.

Humiliated, and now on the wrong side of Ms. Pranee, Chatree's not interested in schoolwork, or even talking to his Dad on the phone. But at least he makes a friend. Vichien (Sirachat Jiantaworn) shows him the ropes, but also tells him that some of the ghost stories he heard actually have an element of truth. But Chatree about to find out for himself...

Besides ghost stories, Dorm is about coming-of-age, with an atmosphere that changes with the central character's moods. As Chatree discovers more about the history of the school, he becomes less scared of it, and the film's horror tactics relax. The mood remains quite morbid, however, and the carefully coloured cinematography keeps us cautious.

As the lead, Chalee (or Charlie) Trairat ably carries the film, but I'd liked to have found out more about what he's thinking - he's kept too busy with moving the story forward. The gang of boys who scared him have far better, quirkier characters and provide much-needed comedy. It's Chintara Sukapatana, as the matron, who impresses the most, though I failed to recognise her from a major role in Good Morning, Vietnam.

The young director, Songyos Sugmakanan (above left) previously co-directed another Thai hit, My Girl (Fan Chan) also starring Chalee Trairat, but Dorm is his first solo directorial effort. The story is partly based on his own bittersweet experiences of boarding school, and he's taken great pains to capture the atmosphere of the time (around 1985). In interviews, Sugmakanan also voiced his concerns about how the film has been advertised. I think the posters make it look no different from gory Thai horrors out there, such as Hell or Scared.

Though the story may be too much for an audience as young as Chatree. Maybe I'm being over-protective, but I'll warn you that there's a lot of urinating in the film! Close-ups of kids wetting themselves, boys peeing in bushes, lots of scenes in toilets - you don't get this in Harry Potter. (With a Thai audience, all the pee didn't seem to be a problem, but the schoolboys swearing seemed to be unusual.)

Throw in a brief sex scene (not involving the boys) and you've got yourself a censor's headache. There's also a vivid depiction of hanging that would certainly be a problem in the UK. Incidentally, I swear that the long shot of the hanging (glimpsed in the trailer) wasn't in the print I saw in Thailand. A clue to this could be in the two different versions of the film on release in Singapore, each with a different rating.

While it's not my problem to sell the film or decide whether kids should see it, I can recommend it as a beautifully-shot film, with finely-judged performances, and an unusual story set in quite a different culture. It's scary, but also funny, dramatic, suspenseful, sad... but all-round satisfying.

Dorm opened in Thailand in February 2006 and coincidentally had a Special Presentation at the Bangkok International Film Festival the same week. It's been a box office hit domestically and I hope it finds an international audience.

Dorm was then released in the US in 2007, but with a completely misleading cover - this scene doesn't appear in the film, and it's not an 'extreme' movie either. This region 1 DVD has audio commentary, deleted scenes, and a featurette. 

A reasonably-priced deluxe 2-disc DVD boxset (pictured) was released in Thailand, but region 3, and without any English subtitles. Best of the deluxe DVD extras is the uncut six-minute of 'clips' from Mr Vampire. A specially-filmed recreation that plays during the school's 'movie night' scene. It uses lookalike actors and recreates footage of the best gags from Ricky Lau's superb 1985 Hong Kong comedy horror. There is also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, a Chalee Trairat pop video, and most of the original soundtrack.

1 comment:

  1. I watched this film expecting a horror story.
    It was a great disappointment, because, although it was not what I expected, it's a beautiful movie (both the script and the visual).