Running Time: 90'
Producer: Panot Udom
Directors: Buranee Rachjaibun, Nida Sudasna
Cast: Long Duan, Premsinee Rattanasopar, Chatchai Plengpanich
GHOUL RATING: **(*) 2+
Story: Bangkok, 1946. A young Chinese, Li Hui, comes to Thailand in the hope of finding a job and a better fortune. The immigration officers change his name into Zee Oui, shave his head and throw him into a cell. His uncle provides a job: slaughtering chicken. His employer's wife and kids abuse and humiliate him. Other Thais are equally unfriendly. They stomp his asthma medicine into the mud. They destroy his crops. They remind him of his terrible war experiences... So, inevitably, he becomes a child-killing heart-eating monster. THEY made him do it!
Review: This film is, apparently, based on a true story. Zee Oui is a name that instills fear into little Thai kiddies: he became a boogeyman by killing and eating parts of several children there, more than half a century ago. Now comes a movie that tries to tell HIS side of the story: not so much exploiting the shock value (though there's that, too!) nor condemning the 'monster', this is rather a revisionist look, an attempt to stress the background of this man and a history of violence (against him) that turned him into a ghoul. So, if it weren't for copyright infringement, this could be rightfully called CANNIBAL RISING.
The progressiveness of horror film is often measured by its ability to instill sympathy for its monster; if not sympathy, then at least – understanding. This genre's best representatives undermine the black-and-white divisions and often question the morality of 'the good guys' together with 'the bad guys'. But ZEE OUI is ridiculous: it bends over backwards in its attempt to exonerate its protagonist from even the slightest shade of responsibility for becoming a kiddie-gutting, innards-chomping miserable wreck! Oh, he's so doomed! His army officers (during a WWII flashback) make him strangle a wounded soldier and then eat his heart, raw, 'to become a real man'.
His mother cooks an executed criminal's heart and feeds him the soup to cure his cough. She even provides a handy knife as a parting gift, 'to protect himself'. His uncle teaches him how to slit chicken throat, and departs from the picture. Everybody in Thailand (but especially children) derides him for being an alien. The entire world seems to conspire against this frail, flower-sniffing, Buddha-worshipping creature. That, at least, is this film's agenda: it was society made him do it! Who, in his place, WOULDN'T eat raw, still-pulsing children's hearts?
Like all movies with an agenda, this one sidesteps credibility and convincingness by forcing the moral, willy-nilly, down our throats. It's utterly simplistic in its refusal to deal with its protagonist as a character: Zee Oui is presented as no more than a tiny marble in the pin-ball machine, hit this way and that way with no will of his own. He doesn't act, he reacts: somehow, he sidesteps Buddha's teachings, and to violence responds with even more gruesome violence. This MAN EATER never eats a man: only the succulent kiddie flesh, but the movie never bothers with his transformation. In one scene, you see him run away from his abusive employers. In the next, we're already at a crime scene, with two kids lying near railway tracks, guts protruding from their stomachs. How's that for a transition?! You do the math! Never in the film do you see him contemplate his actions, or feel regret. Even in the very end, he confesses his crimes only because of the officials' false promise that they'll send him back home. The parents' grief is not dwelt on. No, only our poor Zee Oui suffered.
If you're able to accept the film's strongly biased attitude towards its subject, you're still left with a lazily plotted affair: the killer is caught because of Dara, a female journalist who just happened to notice Zee Oui in the background of one crime scene; she followed him to his room, and it just so happened that his murder weapon was lying in the open. It also just so happens that Dara was almost killed by some sicko 20 years ago: she still has a scar on her chest and sweaty nightmares to prove it. However, she is not a character, but merely a plot device. The subplot about her affair with her editor is not even that, as it leads nowhere.
Technical credits are fine, even slightly above the average professionalism in the recent Thai cinema: nicely composed images, good sense for atmosphere, solid score (laurelled by the Thai National Film Association Award), decent pacing, good acting and special effects… Yet, who is this made for? As a horror film, it's not scary, nor gory enough (and considering the subject matter, it's better that way). As a drama it falls flat as there are no real characters, and the plot is forced to fit the preconceived 'moral'. As an art film, it's just too shallow and generic. As a thriller, it rambles too much with its episodic, non-linear structure, and is virtually devoid of suspense, other than two scenes of stalk'n'slash. For the general public the subject matter is too grim, and even among the true-crime flicks this one stands out as one of the bleakest. So, THE MAN EATER is a well-made film with a highly questionable attitude, and may be marginally interesting only for the lovers of shock cinema.