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Where EAST meets the Northwest

GENRE-DEFYING FILM. Dorm is alternately frightening and touching and does a delightful job of sidestepping the traditional plot pitfalls of so many ghost stories. (Photo courtesy of Tartan Asia Extreme)

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #29 (July 22, 2008), page 15.

The dormitory where nothing is as it appears

Dorm

Directed by Songyos Sugmakanan

Produced by Yodphet Sadsawd

Distributed by Tartan Asia Extreme, 2007

DVD, 107 minutes, $22.95

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Even Asian horror films can sometimes fall into predictable genres, especially ghost stories: a troubled spirit seeks rest (or vengeance) because of its untimely, unjust, or unresolved death. And the results are just as predictable: spooky-faced girls with long black hair, flickering fluorescent lights, trails of blood, mysterious noises, and so on. But Thai films have always been genre-busters, and Songyos Sugmakananís surprising ghost story Dorm is no exception.

Winner of many jury and audience awards at international film festivals (and Thailandís highest-grossing film of 2006), Dorm is alternately frightening and touching and does a delightful job of sidestepping the traditional plot pitfalls of so many ghost stories. The result is a grand achievement, a film that takes its audience from fear to sympathy, from nostalgia to mystery, from tears of laughter to tears of joy and sorrow.

The beginning of Dorm is but the first moment where Sugmakanan seems to be leading us down a familiar path. Midway through his seventh-grade year, Ton (Charlee Trairat) learns his father (Suttipong Tudpitakkul) is sending him to boarding school, away from his close circle of friends and into a strict academic environment. Ton is predictably dismayed, and glumly pouts through the long car ride to the new school, even as his brother bounces in excitement, innocently hoping one day to follow in his big brotherís footsteps.

Tonís first moments at his new school seem to follow this predictable trajectory, as he meets the dour and severe headmistress Ms. Pranee (Jintara Sukaphtana, whom audiences might recognize as Robin Williamsí love interest in Good Morning, Vietnam). Her merest glance sends Tonís new schoolmates scurrying like cockroaches as she brings him to the poorly lit communal dorm room, painted in institutional gray and evidently designed to induce instant depression.

As Ton settles into his new school, enduring the typical teasing, loneliness, and new-boy jitters, he hears some of the schoolís juiciest stories: the ghosts that stalk the halls and the abandoned swimming pool, or Ms. Praneeís strange habit of crying while listening to a broken record and gazing longingly into a mysterious desk drawer. Alternately frightened and intrigued, Ton soon meets Vichien (Siranath Jianthavorn), a boy who offers to answer his many questions. Vichien, whose nickname is "Know-It-All," is a wealth of information about these stories and the schoolís long history ó about practically everything, it seems, but himself.

It isnít long before the two boys become good friends, even as Ton finds the first hints of the secrets Vichien is hiding from him. By this time, it becomes apparent this isnít your usual ghost story, in spite of the obligatory late-night frights that keep Ton from the boyís bathroom. We learn more about why Ton was sent off to school, and the unravelling of his story parallels his growing understanding of Vichien, as well as the first blushes of puppy love with the daughter of one of the cooks. Ms. Praneeís character, too, becomes more nuanced, and we see the softer side lurking under her strict headmistress exterior.

All of these plotlines are artfully woven together, with fear, comedy, and nostalgia alternating in symphonic patterns that never allow the viewer to settle into a comfortable pattern of expectations. Itís easy to see why the film had such broad appeal in its native country, as well as many film festivals. Its wide reach scoops up adults and children, along with fans of horror, comedy, and even romance. Sugmakananís skill at blending these genres is as evident as his ability to bring the best out of his cadre of child actors and to make the boysí school seem sometimes baleful, welcoming, lonely, or mysterious. Scarcely a shot or scene seems wasted, and the manifold emotions evoked throughout the film rarely feel forced or artificial.

Ultimately, Ton and Vichienís friendship is tested, and Ton learns all the secrets behind the mysterious dormitory and its odd inhabitants, as well as the truth about himself and his family. It is a coming of age unlike any we have ever experienced ó and yet, like all good films of this kind, itís curiously evocative of our own ascents into adulthood.

Hardcore horror film fans many not feel this fits into Tartan Asian Extremeís tradition of bloody, terrifying films, but these gorehounds have plenty of other more standard material to choose from. The scenes and situations of Dorm will stick in your mind for much different reasons, and make the movie yet another example why the genre-defying skills of Thai directors offer lessons that the hidebound producers of Hollywood would do well to follow. Just because you canít cubbyhole a movie into an easy category doesnít make it a bad film, or even an unpopular one ó it makes for unexpected pleasures for any viewer, and makes Dorm well worth checking out.

Dorm is available on DVD. To learn more about Tartanís Asian film offerings, visit <www.tartanfilmsusa.com>.