- Nang Nak—Ghost Wife:Desire, Embodiment, and Buddhist Melancholia in a Contemporary Thai Ghost Film
A poster for the 1999 film Nang Nak introduces the problem of the story in two lines of poetry: "Mae sin lom sin jai / rue ja sin alai sineha" (Although she was dead / her desire persisted)1 (figure 1). The film poster summarizes the predicament of the ghost, who aims to prolong her love life beyond her death. Throughout the film, Nak faces a problem of temporal incongruity when she attempts to reclaim her lover, a situation that is productive of great agony for her.2
Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak reinterprets the story of a woman thought to have resided in the Phra Khanong district of Bangkok over one hundred years ago. According to the legend, Nak dies in childbirth while her lover, Mak, is away at war. When the unsuspecting Mak returns to Phra Khanong, Nak awaits him as a ghost, accompanied by her ghost infant. The temporal incongruities that result—she's dead, he's alive; she knows, he doesn't; and both lovers want something that they can no longer have—usually produce comical effects in the story.3 Nonzee's horror-ghost remake, however, brings an entirely novel perspective to the more than two dozen previous film versions of the story.4 Nonzee's translation of the legend into a Buddhist parable excises many of the fearsome and sexual, as well as comedic, aspects of Nak's haunting and instead turns on the grand emotions of love, loss, and Buddhist detachment.5 Nang Nak's period setting in the nineteenth [End Page 220] century, a feature that the director advertises as constituting the film's historical accuracy, further works to present the legend with the pathos of nationalist historiography.6
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This essay examines Nang Nak's rendering of the temporal incongruities of haunting in relation to struggles over Thai sexual contemporaneity in the late 1990s and 2000s. Specifically, it concentrates on anachronisms that cultural and social policy makers aimed to install at the core of new bourgeois conceptions of Thai sexualities. In Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak, the revenant's desirous gaze from the ghostly sphere onto the life that she could have had outlines a model of heterosexual femininity of the present. This essay argues that Nonzee's novel, Buddhist framing of the legend is especially instructive for understanding how, since the late 1990s, state agencies and bourgeois publics have imagined Thai sexualities as something that should and can be moored—however minimally—to historical elements. In this context, bodies have come to bear some of the burden of representing a baseline cultural good onto which national economic and cultural hopes could be mapped.
Buddhism's vital role in the production of national modernity in Thailand has been examined mainly in the arena of nation building and official politics.7 This essay, however, seeks to highlight the [End Page 221] centrality of Buddhist representation to conceptualizations of sexual subjectivity in contemporary Thai cinema. We can understand Nang Nak as a strong example of Buddhist-nationalist cultural recovery in the domain of sexuality. The film achieves this, as I will argue, by producing a historically inaccurate relation between the story's setting in the nineteenth century and an ideal of femininity in the present. However, the remarkable effect of Nonzee's translation of the legend into a Buddhist genre of stories—in which women have to embody the truths of impermanence and of the futility of desire—is not only that it legitimates a contemporary nationalist outlook. Rather, one of this essay's main concerns is to examine how the film's Buddhist framing elaborates the affective dimensions of desire in the story.
Most scholarly writing on Buddhism and sexuality focuses solely on the issue of toleration and its obverse, prohibition, and directs little attention to the relation of Buddhist stories, teachings, or images to sexuality as fantasy.8 With the argument that Buddhist elements directly inform notions of sexuality and...