Thailand (2020) Dir. Lee Thongkham
The relationship between servant and master is an unpredictable one. In some cases, there is a separation that remains throughout where everyone knows their place, in others, tenure and quality of work will have some staff feel like part of the family. Then, there is that line that should never be crossed…
Wealthy family Uma (Savika Chaiyadej), Nirach (Theerapat Sajakul), and daughter Nid (Keetapat Pongrue) are in need of a new maid after the last one quits, complaining she was being tormented by a vicious monkey. Accepting the job as replacement is Joy (Ploy Sornarin) who is told on arrival by head housemaid Mrs. Wan (Natanee Sitthisaman) not to pry into the family’s business.
Joy is mostly tasked with looking after Nid, who is confined to the house with an illness and a mental issue making her see imaginary friends. Like her predecessor, Joy also feels a malevolent presence around her but it is not a monkey but someone in a maid’s uniform like hers. Joy then finds a photo of the spectre, former maid Ploy (Kannaporn Puangtong) but nobody will tell her the full story behind her leaving.
I suspect writer-director Lee Thongkham enjoyed Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden a lot as there are traces of its influence in The Maid beyond the title, though this isn’t a straight rip-off or a loving homage despite a couple of close calls. There is a lot more to this film than meets the eye and this is part of the problem – the first two acts suggest a standard horror then final act takes us into a completely different direction.
Essentially, this film requires patience from the audience to get the best of what it has to offer. Some may find the build up to the payoff misleading or even too much, but it is never short of busy. Credibility is stretched as this (sort of) is a horror film that isn’t as predictable as it might seem – indeed, the monkey angle from the opening is oddly made redundant as soon the opening credits are over with no further bearing on what is to follow.
For the duration of the first act, the focus is on Joy finding her way around the opulent but sterile surroundings of her new employers and the ominous presence of Ploy in every dark corner. Whilst she bonds with Nid easily enough, her parents are less affable – Nirach is a typical busy businessman whilst Uma is caricature of a 1930’s rich woman: impeccably groomed on every occasion, and rarely without her long cigarette holder or a dour but sultry look on her face, a visual reference to The Handmaiden.
Mrs. Wan is very strict about Joy knowing her place, and when she finally learns about Ploy, cook Bhorn (Ounruan Rachote) is also tight lipped. The only person who will oblige Joy is driver and handyman Chai (Sorabodee Changsiri), revealing how Ploy would keep Uma happy in Nirach’s frequent absences, complimenting her where her husband ignores her and ending up in a Sapphic relationship.
Not that Nirach is bothered by this as he and Ploy get in on too. Ploy falls pregnant and Nirach insists they keep the baby, implying Uma is possibly infertile, and Ploy suddenly leaves shortly after the birth without a trace. Except this isn’t the whole story, just the version the family want everyone to hear, hence Mrs. Wan’s initial warning to Joy. The truth isn’t that shocking, but it is the implications of it that is important to the events of the third act.
Providing Joy with the truth is Ploy’s ghost in a surreal section of reality bending confusion Christopher Nolan would be proud of, placing Joy into every sordid scene as it unfolds as if she were there at the time. It is neatly strung together by the characters seemingly acknowledging her presence, prompting the pulling of curtains of shutting of a door to end this moment and lead Joy to the next scene.
Unfortunately, what occurs next is a huge plot twist which I am not going to spoil and of course, the tonally dissonant final act, except to say vengeance never looked this cute. It might feel like a different film with the same cast but it is unquestionably the highlight of this offering. But as opined earlier, there is a chance some might feel cheated if they were expecting a straight horror based on the opening half, or worse still, might have given up completely because of the generic jump scares featured in this build up.
Biased I may be but I dare to say it is worth the wait, and if the earlier chills didn’t do it for you, the bloodletting and gore here should compensate. Exquisitely shot and staged, the setting is Uma’s birthday party in which all the guests are dressed in white whilst Nirach is in black and Uma in her trademark red. It might be a cheap tactic to make the most of the violence but it works, and Thongkham makes the most of this to create a rather stylish massacre scene.
Thongkham can’t take all of the credit though, the performance of teenage sensation and the film’s centrifugal force Ploy Sornarin is a joyous (excuse the pun) amalgam of cherubic innocence, tragic drama and unfettered insanity. She may be small but her presence is towering, helped by how she is given the most to work with in contrast with her co-stars, who are burdened with flimsily sketched clichés for their characters, but do their best to flesh them out. Only Kannaporn Puangtong brings an ethereal mystique to her reading of Ploy.
It might be The Maid was trying too hard to be clever with its surprises and in wanting to subvert the tired conventions of Thai horror; forgive them for this and you’ll find a top quality production (courtesy of Netflix) and a darkly entertaining slasher thriller to enjoy beyond the standard formula first half.