Running Time: 107'
Chalee Trairat, Jintara Sugapat, Siranath Jianthavorn, Suttipong Tudpitakkul
GHOUL RATING: ***(*) 3+
Story: Twelve years old Chatree has been reluctantly transferred to an all boys school where life for him becomes days of misery and loneliness. His new "friends" try to scare him with tales of drowned boys and hanged girls. His teacher does little to make him feel welcome, and he has no friends to confide in. Despite being an outcast, he befriends another student, Vichien. They become friends and for a while things seem bright until one evening he finds that his new friend has a deep dark secret.
Review: At last! DORM - a Thai horror that's not unbearably juvenile (like ART OF THE DEVIL), formulaic (like GHOST OF MAE NAK), exploitative (like THE VICTIM), misguided (like ZEE-OUI: THE MAN-EATER) and/or passé (like NANG-NAK)! So far, Thailand has accomplished only a middling success in horror genre, mostly because of their over-reliance on established (and tired) formulas. Some of their horrors may seem original in local terms, but for an international viewer yet another long-haired ghost will NOT be scary just because it's from Thailand. We've seen too many of those already! SHUTTER came closest to actually delivering the goods (i.e. to being scary), but even that one played more like a decent catalogue of horror clichés than like a legitimate story worth telling. The most successful Thai horrors so far, at least for this reviewer, have been those which strayed away from the formula: either towards unmitigated silliness (like SARS WARS!) or towards a clever satire (13 BELOVED). It would seem that Thai horrors are better when served with a dose of humor, because they're hard to take seriously.
But now, there's DORM.
A title which does not forge a series of puerile gimmicks into a "movie": it does not rely on cheap jump scares nor does it feel the need to have a gruesome demise of some cardboard "character" every 15 minutes for fear the audience might be bored.
DORM takes its time, it does not rush. It is assured, because it knows it has a story to tell, and characters to rely on instead of gimmicks. Of course, if you come expecting a typical Thai horror, you may be surprised and even bored. There are no obnoxious teenagers nor urban women exploring ghost curses, no splatter scenes nor sex to speak of (other than 2 seconds' worth of boobs).
DORM is about a boy on the verge of adulthood who has to come to terms with himself and his environment - to see what he's really made of. More specifically, he has three main tasks to accomplish: 1) test his own ability to live independently, away from his family; 2) test his ability to socialize, through a selfless care for others; and 3) test his ability to come to terms with his father. For the first task he needs courage and integrity; for the second – willingness for self-sacrifice; for the third – forgiveness. In the course of his rites of passage he attains and exemplifies all of these qualities, and comes off as a more adult person in the end.
It's not easy growing up, and the director Songyos Sugmakanan wisely avoids sugarcoating his story. He presents Chartee as a moody, introverted boy who doesn't say a word in the first 20 minutes of the film. And yet, even in the silent moments young Chalee Trairat (also in Sugmakanan's hit MY GIRL) manages to convey a developed character. His silence, especially towards his father, whose calls he refuses to take, is mysterious in the beginning but is gradually revealed to be more serious than a childish grudge over a parental punishment. The key which connects all three tasks is Vichien, a boy who becomes his only real friend in the dorm. Vichien has a secret that's rather easy to guess, and it is revealed half-way through the movie in a fine, tricky scene at the open-air theater, during the showing of a hopping-vampire flick HUNGRY GHOST. After the revelation, Chartee does not abandon Vichien, but gives his best to help him, putting his own life at risk. You'll have to see how.
Rightly compared by many to Del Toro's DEVIL'S BACKBONE, this is a heartfelt, poignant childhood drama that happens to involve a ghost rather than a ghost-story spook-fest of cheap thrills. The spooky scenes arise naturally from the story and do not feel forced. In terms of horror, DORM is pretty light: its ghost is not malevolent and there's neither grudge nor revenge involved. Surprising as it may sound, there's not even the obligatory "let's find the remains and bury them properly to put the ghost to rest" trope. The method involved here is a bit more unorthodox. Some of the rules of the supernatural were quite new to me ("You have to be a ghost to be able to help a ghost!"), but at least the film uses them consistently and meaningfully.
Not all of the film is gloomy, however. The childish pranks and routines are conveyed very convincingly (the director allegedly based a lot of the film on his own childhood memories). DORM is equally alive and interesting in its cheerful, non-supernatural scenes (like the goose-egg stealing), a quality which very few horror films can boast with. Some cynic might suggest that a more appropriate title for this film might be LAVATORY instead of DORM, as it features more scenes of boys pissing than all the other films you'll see this year put together: you have the regular pissoir job, the natural greenery pissing, bed wetting and even a (fright induced) piss down the leg. The only thing missing is the group pissing competition to round up the varieties of childhood pissing experience, but worry not: there's no child nudity involved (do I hear a groan of disappointment from certain quarters?) and the Making of extra feature finally reveals how these scenes are actually filmed (water pumped through tiny plastic tubes). Anyway, since DORM is far from being a piss-poor movie, I'll stop joking here and keep my piss jokes for the next Thai horror that comes my way.
DORM introduces a much needed level of seriousness into the Thai genre filmmaking, and the honesty of its approach pays off magnificently: this is a rare ghost story that managed to get some serious awards, like the Glass Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Excellent direction, subtle and self-assured, uses the full potentials of the cast and crew. Acting is great all around, with kids played as natural and convincing little people. Art direction and photography (slightly desaturated and with greenish hues) provide memorable contribution to the film's moody atmosphere, while the CGI effects are put to a fine, unobtrusive use. Regardless of whether you care for horror films or not, DORM is simply a very fine film that transcends the generic limitations and deserves to be seen by all.
DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] : The film is in anamorphic widescreen and the visuals do justice to the elaborate color schemes, shades and nuances of excellent photography. Audio is available in Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 and Thai DTS 5.1, English subtitles are excellent (I guess Spanish are too, but I wouldn't know!). Special features are a real treasure, far richer than the usual Asian horror DVD offering. You get the following: audio commentary track with writer/director Songyos Sugmakanan joined by Thai film critics; The Making of Dorm (11 min.), a featurette with footage from the shooting of the film; Behind the Scenes (6 min.) also features interviews with the cast and crew; Below the Pool (5 min.) is a look at the special effects used for the film, with storyboards, rough footage and computer effects; Character Introductions (4 min.) mixes footage from the film with the director's comments; finally, a 20 minutes' worth of deleted scenes (with an optional commentary from the director; interesting as an extra, the scenes are rightly cut from the already lengthy film) and the film's original theatrical trailer. Now, this is what I call an excellent DVD presentation of an excellent film!