The Promise (Puen Tee Raluek)
Thailand (2017) Dir. Sophon Sakdaphisit
Breaking promises is a habit many people have, though not everyone does this with the same malicious or solipsistic intent as others. The fallout is always something that leaves an indelible mark on our consciences, especially if the aggrieved party holds a grudge…
1997 and Thailand is hit by a crippling financial crash, forcing millions into financial woe. Among them are two industrialists who entered the real estate market but are hit as they began building a luxury tower block which remains unfinished. Their daughters, Ib (Panisara Rikulsurakan) and Boum (Thunyaphat Pattarateerachaicharoen), are also best friends, but the crash results in Ib’s family moving away.
After Ib’s father gets abusive, and Boums father loses his mind, the girls make a suicide pact on Boum’s 15th birthday, but only Ib goes through with it. Twenty years later, Boum (Numthip Jongrachatawiboon) now a wealthy divorced industrialist with a teenage daughter Bell (Apichaya Thongkham), visits the tower block to finish its building when Bell wanders off and finds the spot where Ib died. Then, strange things seem to happen around Bell ahead of her 15th birthday…
From Sophon Sakdaphisit, one of the writers of 2004’s acclaimed Shutter, comes a Thai horror film where the vengeful female spirit doesn’t have long black hair – a first, surely. Joking aside, The Promise doesn’t stray too much from this winning formula but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in fraught emotional drama and the social realism of the background story.
The Asian financial crash of 1997 didn’t just affect Thailand but neighbouring countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and South Korea too, but Thailand bore the biggest brunt of it. This would have made for a stirring story in its own right but using for the basis a horror film is different, if a little underplayed here as it is only covered in the first 20 minutes. Maybe it would have been too depressing to focus on the fallout of the crash on the two families but again this would be an entirely different film.
It opens with old VCR footage of the two girls highlighting their closeness over the years up until 1997, which even in this context feels quite creepy, as if we are looking back on something through a tragic lens rather than an ominous one. When the crisis hits, Ib’s family is hit the worst and her father starts taking it out on her; no violence is shown, Ib shows up with a black eye or bruised face.
Unwilling to continue as a punching bag and being separated from Boum, Ib suggests killing herself with her father’s gun; Boum, following a fight with her mother (Suchada Poonpattanasuk) and discovering her father (Surachai Ningsanond) has lied about a new job, joins her. On the eve of Boum’s birthday, Ib makes Boum promise she won’t die alone, then wishes her Happy Birthday before pulling the trigger. But Boum is so freaked out by seeing Ib’s body that she runs away.
Jumping forward to 2017 and adult Boum is a hard headed, successful businesswoman, now back in a life of affluence. Bell is something of a mini-me of teenage Boum, with the same sense of entitlement Boum had as rich kid;however, like Boum and Ib paid for the actions of their father’s, Bell will pay for her mother’s actions. After visiting the derelict building Bell begins sleepwalking, but Boum is more distressed when CCTV footage shows Bell with a knife outside Boum’s bedroom.
Connecting this to Ib isn’t Boum’s first thought and it takes a while before the pieces fall into place, from a young boy (Teerapop Songwaja) who is able to see Ib on the building site, to a drawing Ib and Boum made of their overlapping hands appearing on the walls of her home. And for the record, Bell may have long hair but this doesn’t count as her being the vengeful spirit since she is just a vessel, but it works just the same.
Deciding if Boum really is guilty of betraying Ib is not easy as she ran away through fear and not from any deliberate or cruel ploy to leave Ib to die alone. I suppose the idea that Boum went on to enjoy a second wave of financial comfort that Ib didn’t is the crux of her anger, though that would make Ib a bit superficial wouldn’t it? Either way, her revenge is deliciously brutal in possessing Bell as she is about to turn 15, and Boum is dragged through an emotional wringer in trying to save her daughter.
Quite often in horror, the reliance on the jump scare has reached the point where the audience instinctively know when they are about to occur, and not just through the eerie rising musical sting but through the rhythm of the scene. Evidently, Sakdaphisit is aware of this and whilst his success rate isn’t 100%, quite often he’ll catch us out with fake scares, then slip something into the background to encourage a double take. Plus, the building, Bangkok’s unfinished Sathorn Unique Tower has its own scary urban myths which helps with the atmosphere.
With no gore or graphic violence, the horror instead comes from the psychological dread consuming Boum and the physical manifestation of Bell’s somnambulistic attempts on her mother’s life. Everyday objects become conduits of fear, and no building is safe from Ib’s influence, be it Boum’s home or the site of her suicide. The ending will divide opinion for being too melodramatic but without spoiling anything, is undeniably brave in being on the darker side of bittersweet.
Strong performances from the main cast, convincing scares, and a fresh foundation to build a spooky story on help lift The Promise above the usual formulaic Thai horror fare, but remains mostly serviceable and perfectly competent. A deeper exploration into the financial crisis to make Ib’s plight a tad more sympathetic would have edged this closer to being the film it aspires to be.