From celebrated South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-Jin, The Medium is an occult shocker set in an isolated village in northern Thailand. A tropical (and therefore suitably febrile) take on the demonic possession and mockumentary/found-footage sub-genres, its creepy theatrics build to a freaky climax.
Written and produced by the acclaimed director of The Chaser, The Yellow Sea and The Wailing, Na Hong-Jin might not be on bullhorn duties this time around, but his imprint is all over this production. Helmed by Bangjong Pisanthanakun, best-known in the West for Shutter, The Medium is a richly atmospheric family tragedy delivered in the guise of a horror movie.
The premise, its framing device, involves a documentary crew travelling around rural Thailand, capturing scenes and interviews for a programme about the lives of psychics. They chance upon Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), a local shaman possessed by a benevolent deity known as Ba Yan. Nim explains to the team, the spirits of the dead exist all around us. Not just ghosts of people, but all living things. Unlike in the West, there is an almost magical realist relationship at work here, one of blurred boundaries and everyday acceptance of magic. It is ordinarily nothing to fear, but one must always be careful not to rile malevolent entities.
Nim was possessed by Ba Yan, as her sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan), originally selected by the goddess for possession, rejected the spirit and converted to Christianity. When Noi’s daughter Mink (the brilliant Narilya Gulmongkolpech) begins to act a little kooky, Nim initially believes her niece is being prepared to become the next host for Ba Yan, However, Mink’s behaviour turns increasingly violent, and it is revealed she is possessed by an untold number of bad spirits.
For all its demonic possession bells-and-whistles and its intertextual found-footage nods to classics such as Cannibal Holocaust, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, The Medium is another of Na Hong-Jin’s superbly staged slow-build genre pieces about the struggles and lives of the underclass. It is well directed by Bangjong Pisanthanakun, for sure, but Na Hong-Jin’s imprint is unmistakable and will of course be the main drawer for horror fans, especially after his masterwork, The Wailing.
Another noteworthy element is the cinematography by Naruphol Chokanapitak, at its best when drenching a surprisingly sordid story in sweaty atmospherics, the jungle’s primordial and unknowable history and natural power transmitted through visually arresting landscape shots – steam rising from faraway trees and fog drifting with ghostlike stealth across deserted rice fields. Found footage and exorcism flicks have rarely looked so uniquely sinister, so enthralled to the utter mystery of the natural world.
Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio