ZEE-OUI (Thailand, 2004, aka THE MAN EATER)
Region 3 PAL Thai DVD
A famous serial-murder case gets a bloody re-telling
Li Hui, a Chinese farmer, arrives in Thailand in 1946 and gets renamed 'Zee-Oui' by a short-tempered immigration official. His uncle finds him a job, but the new name has to stick because it matches his work visa. Zee-Oui soon discovers that being a foreigner means getting bullied by everyone, even children. He works hard, but suffers poor health - a constant cough that he thinks is asthma. After much bad luck with his jobs, and as we learn more of his harrowing life in China, he takes to murder.
The subject matter here is problematic to say the least - a serial child-murderer who eats the hearts of his victims! It's especially tricky for western audiences to enter the fray with this particular version of an infamous true-life murder case. It's apparently been portrayed many times before in Thailand, but this time we're getting a revisionist version of the events, showing the murderer in a more sympathetic light.
Zee Oui, you see, is apparently a boogey man in Thailand - his trademark cough and cannibalistic traits make him a monstrous figure to threaten naughty kids with. It's also a justification for xenophobes to fear foreigners. Presumably, the two directors were trying to redress the balance.
As a viewer completely unfamiliar with the case, the film's opening scene gives away the conclusion to the story, before telling the whole tale in flashback. Without a good grasp of local history (the war between China and Thailand) and Thai geography, I was at a disadvantage in following the fractured timeline of the plot - not always realising when the story had shifted backwards in time. But this is something that other films manage successfully, despite cultural differences (I'm thinking of the backwards-and-forwards structure of the Japanese JU-ON films, for example).
Crucially, a brilliant scene where bullies cause Zee-Oui to visibly 'crack' is positioned after we've already seen murder victims. Whether I misunderstood the order of events, or whether the directors were saying that he was being blamed for murders he did not commit, I'm still not certain.
Another handicap to the structure of the story is the inclusion of several scenes interspersed among the end credits, that crucially fill us in with more details of Li Hui's upbringing. To introduce this information, after the film has finished, further hampers our understanding of the film's message.
Lead actor, Long Duan, almost succeeds in an impossible role, to make us sympathise for this man, but we're obviously constantly distanced from him by the brutality of his onscreen crimes. The directors intend for us to better understand his motivations - but besides listing the possible causes of his serial killings, many other political points are clumsily made about racism, sexism and government cover-ups. Overall, the naive script and convoluted timeline undermine most points they wanted to make.
While this may be award-winning material in Thailand, it's a difficult film to recommend to an international audience. The tone veers between over-the-top depictions of child murder and simplistic drama. The performances are sincere enough, but are undermined by sloppy plotting. Shortcuts taken by the script keep the story moving by using unbelievable coincidences. Moving the detective story along a little slower could have made for more intrigue and suspense, which are lacking.
So, without a strong story, and with glimpses of gore at the murder scenes, this can only be placed in horror film section. Presumably on a shelf with the other real-life murder cases that were turned into crass horror films.
Even so, despite the sensationalist subject, I didn't find the film nearly as shocking as it should have been. The crimes in The Untold Story (Hong Kong, 1993) also managed to produce sympathy for a cannibalistic child-murderer, but were far more effectively portrayed, and with a much lower budget. I guess, though, that Thai audiences may be more horrified by the desecration of holy sites and even a Buddhist shrine.
Technically, the film looks very good, with a large scale that convinces us of the many locations and periods depicted. If anything, the film looks too good - for instance Li Hui's early job slaughtering chickens takes place in a beautifully lit, colourful backyard, sending out mixed messages about what's occurring - is he in a good or a bad place? If it's such a nasty job, why does the place look so picturesque?
The Thai DVD (pictured above) has a sharp anamorphic transfer that shows off the film's crisp and colourful cinematography. There's a solid 5.1 audio track in the original Thai language, with optional English subtitles (that are well-translated and only occasionally misspelled).
There are some brief extras, a trailer, a teaser and two short 'Scoop' items (presumably prepared for TV publicity) - these include extra shots that aren't in the film, and some grainy, but grisly real-life photos of the original case. However this material is all untranslated.
Zee-Oui is an interesting film, entertaining even, it's certainly not dull. Technically it's one of the best movies I've seen from Thailand, and certainly isn't aiming for an obvious 'horror film' formula like many other Thai films. But it doesn't succeed as a drama or a reliable version of what really happened. I'd hesitate to recommend it to fans of Asian cinema or Asian horror - it's too gory to be taken seriously, but not horrific enough to be frightening.