Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stillborn


I watched a new Thai film, The Unborn Child (Sop Dek 2002)(1) last weekend, knowing nothing more about it than that it was a horror film. Asian cinema abounds in these kinds of films, ever since the surprising worldwide success of the Japanese film The Ring in 1998. Since Asians are mostly non-Christian, their concepts of death, good and evil are refreshingly different. For a Western audience, an audience whose own ideas about those subjects have been shaken up in the last few generations, it seems that the old phrase "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know" has been turned on its head.

The films are all ultimately silly, and many talented Asian filmmakers have turned to them only because they are more likely to have a chance of making them than a film about ordinary people living their ordinary lives. But some of the films are interesting for their imaginative, low-budget solutions to technical problems.

Unborn Child, directed by Poj Arnon, resembles other Asian horror films in its predictably slow pacing and its fetishistic emphasis on specific body parts. The emphasis in Unborn is on vaginas and fetuses. The story is about a young couple whose little daughter befriends an invisible playmate that the father eventually realizes is the ghost of a child he paid to have aborted. Subplots involve young women who become pregnant and seek abortions, which are carried out under the most ludicrous conditions. (The subtitles further complicate matters by referring to "illegal" abortions, which suggests there are also "legal" ones in Thailand. Abortion is illegal in Thailand except in special circumstances.(2)) The woman who carries out the abortions is continually taking drags from a cigarette during the procedure, getting what is presumably placental blood all over her cigarette. The film indulges in this imagery to deliver a political message against abortion. It even tacks on a title at the end that reads (in the English subtitles): "This film is dedicated to all baby souls in the world and hope [sic] there will be no more losses."

The Unborn Child is so disgusting that, even though I watched it in my living room, I wanted to walk out on it. It spends seemingly half of its running time showing us characters who walk around looking for someone who isn't there. But even if it were a masterpiece, the film is a piece of propaganda representing abortion as a terrible, gruesome crime against the fetus. It suggests, with thudding stupidity, that women who have abortions, and men who make them necessary, will be visited by the ghosts of the unborn babies.

The woman abortionist in the film actually presents an argument that is informed by Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation. She says that she is doing a service for unwanted children whose souls will be able to find another life in another body, with parents who genuinely want them. But the action of the film - with the ghosts of the aborted fetuses attacking the abortionist en masse and forcing her to mutilate herself with the same instrument she uses to kill them - shows how little the director takes the Buddhist explanation seriously. The real villain in the film, the one who's responsible for all the trouble, is an incompetent undertaker who, instead of cremating them and releasing their souls, has to stockpile the bodies of aborted fetuses in his (un-refrigerated) morgue. After a few hundred end up being stuffed into the storage locker, the stench alone would've been enough to raise the dead.


(1) The number in the Thai title refers to the number of fetuses discovered buried near a temple crematorium in Bangkok. A trailer for the film can be seen
here.
(2) An excellent article on the subject can be found on the Manchester Guardian
website.

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