Djinn is a strong spirit
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Djinn is a strong spirit

The Cursed Land explores the supernatural through an Islamic lens

Neramitnung Film
Neramitnung Film

Horror and ghost stories have long been a staple of Thai cinema and the genre is deeply rooted in Buddhist beliefs and mythologies. Yet, it's surprising that these stories rarely venture beyond the confines of Buddhist folklore. However, that changes with The Cursed Land, an upcoming horror film that shifts the focus to the country's South, a predominantly Islamic region, and introduces audiences to the lesser-known demonic entity known as the djinn.

Set to hit cinemas tomorrow, The Cursed Land stars Ananda Everingham and Jennis Oprasert as Mit and May, a father and daughter who move to a suburban neighbourhood after the tragic death of Mit's wife. Their new home, however, is far from a fresh start. Strange events unfold when Mit unwittingly releases a raging djinn, imprisoned 200 years ago during the founding of Bangkok, while building a Buddhist shrine.

Desperate and nearly losing hope, they seek the help of a Muslim witch doctor in Narathiwat, a region fraught with military presence, but rich in culture.

Director Panu Aree and screenwriter Kong Rithdee, both known for their work in documentary filmmaking, have collaborated on several projects exploring Muslim identity in Thailand. Their transition to narrative cinema with The Cursed Land is a significant departure, both in subject matter and in the exploration of Thailand's religious and cultural diversity.

"Kong and I have been working together on documentaries since 2004," Panu explains. "Most of them explore Muslim identity in Thailand. The global media is saturated with stories of war and terrorism, or the conflict in southern Thailand. We use our films to tell different perspectives, ones that are not solely negative. After several documentaries, we thought, why not try making a fictional story?"

Screenwriter Kong Rithdee. Kong Rithdee

Kong adds: "Although making a documentary and a feature film require different skills, the central theme remains the same: questioning the coexistence of people from different races and religions in society. We are both fans of the horror genre and noticed a lack of films that explore different religious beliefs. The Cursed Land tells the story of a Buddhist family moving into a Muslim community."

The film's antagonist, a djinn, adds a fresh twist to the horror genre. "Djinn are intelligent spirits in Muslim mythology," Panu explains. "They rank below angels and can appear in human or animal form, and possess humans. The concept of a djinn is mysterious and entirely different from ghosts."

Setting the film in a Muslim community was a deliberate choice to enrich the narrative. Panu explains: "We shot in Nong Chok district, east of Bangkok, an area with a dense Muslim population and historical significance. Another key location is Narathiwat, which is crucial to solving the story's mystery."

The decision to depict a Buddhist family moving into a Muslim community adds depth to the film.

Director Panu Aree. Neramitnung Film

"Our main goal is to offer a different perspective," Kong points out. "Most Thai films are told from a Buddhist viewpoint. Our plot features a Buddhist family moving to a Muslim community, making them a minority. The cultural and religious differences lead to conflicts and misunderstandings, and the main character's ignorance causes the djinn to attack the family."

The Cursed Land deviates from traditional horror film formulas while maintaining the genre's core elements. The film's unique blend of horror and cultural commentary is underscored by its historical context.

"When we set out to make The Cursed Land, our intention was to create an original work based on the haunted-house story while grounding it in unique historical and cultural dimensions," Panu says. "The father and daughter in the film are unaware of the historical scar left from the founding of Bangkok, when Malay captives from the South were transported as labourers. This history of assimilation and struggle is central to the film."

The film also ventures into the lush, dense rainforests of Narathiwat, capturing the untamed beauty and rich cultural heritage of the region.

Jennis Oprasert and Ananda Everingham in The Cursed Land. Neramitnung Fil

"Shooting in the Deep South presented logistical challenges," Panu says. "The region is often inaccurately perceived as a zone of unrest. Narathiwat, largely unexplored by Thai cinema, has a distinct allure. The lush rainforests and vibrant cultural backdrop add a realistic texture and cultural authenticity to the film."

Panu and Kong's collaboration is rooted in their extensive experience in documentary filmmaking. Their joint efforts have resulted in notable works like In Between (2006), The Convert (2008), Baby Arabia (2010) and Gaddafi (2014). These documentaries explore Muslim identity in Thailand, offering profound insights and fostering understanding of this significant aspect of Thai society. Their transition to narrative cinema with The Cursed Land marks a new chapter in their careers, blending their documentary sensibilities with the creative freedom of fiction.

The filmmakers aim to break with the tradition of Thai horror films, but what is their biggest departure from those phi krasue and phi pob movies?

Neramitnung Film

"It's probably nothing groundbreaking in the filmmaking aspect, but we hope the audience will take away something different after seeing it," Kong says. "We wanted The Cursed Land to be more of a movie that focuses on dialogue, suspenseful storyline and also something that has a hidden message in the story, rather than focusing only on scary scenes like other horror movies."

Panu adds: "Thai spirits and ghost stories, in a variety of sensational manifestations, are popular everywhere. But nearly all Thai horror films share a common origin. So when we set out to write and make The Cursed Land, our intention was to create an original work based on a haunted-house story while firmly grounding it in unique historical and cultural dimensions."

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