An urban horror set in a notorious ‘haunted’ tower block in Bangkok, Sophon Sakdaphisit’s fourth feature, The Promise, is a masterpiece of spooky sensibility and painful memory in which two best friends inhabit different worlds. In 1997, Boum and Ib developed their friendship while their fathers were co-investors in a luxurious condominium in downtown Bangkok. But when the Asian economic crisis hit, culminating in a number of bankruptcies and suicides of businessmen, all of their parents’ assets were seized and they had to move to live in small flats. Amid growing tensions and hardships, the two girls decided to end their lives together at the unfinished tower, promising to be together forever. But Boum was too scared, seeing Ib’s suicide. She broke the promise.
Boum has never visited the abandoned tower until now, twenty years later. This time, she takes her daughter Bell, soon to celebrate her 15th birthday – the same age as Boum and Ib when they made their suicide pact. Bell was cured of sleepwalking as a child, but suddenly it returns. Boum sees in this a connection with Ib and her broken promise and tries everything to protect her daughter. Maternal love is a strong sub-plot in The Promise – from Boum’s love for Bell, Ib’s mother’s pain following her daughter’s suicide, and Boum’s employee, a poor working woman whose son has a sixth sense that can contact the ghost of Ib. The boy is forced by Boum to contact Ib, despite being forbidden by his mother. In the end, maternal love does not win all the time.
Unlike other Thai horror films, The Promise’s merits lie in its use of setting and mise-en-scene to create a chilling atmosphere, instead of relying on gore, blood and in-your-face shocks. We rarely see the ghost, except when she is contacted by the boy. Filming in a real abandoned tower (Sathorn Unique Tower), also a casualty of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, also creates a sense of realism. Over the last two decades, the building has been rumoured to be haunted and was seen as a challenge by many daring youngsters until a Swedish man was found hanged there in 2014. (The building has been made off-limits since then.)
Director Sukdaphisit smartly uses light and sound to construct the appearance of his invisible ghost, inducing the audience to imagine they are seeing the ghost appearing in the air, in the wall, and so on. Everyday gadgets of twenty years ago – a pager or telephone – and songs of the time are perfectly matched to emphasise this ghostly, painful fear.
A variety of image formats are employed to intensify the narrative of pain and memory that haunted Thai people two decades ago. Celluloid, news reports and VCR footage combine to reflect the pain of the film’s characters and of transitional Thais in general. This technical strategy supports the excellent performances of the two leads, Numthip Jongrachatawiboon as the grown-up Boum and Duentem Salitul as Ib’s mother. They deftly bring out their characters’ longtime scars in ways that bring out the audience’s tears.
All these elements make The Promise one of the top Thai films of 2017, when the country has faced comparable crises, drawing parallels with the experiences Thai people had two decades ago. The invocation of the rumour surrounding this legendary ‘haunted’ tower, shows why Thai cinema is so embedded with horror. According to Thai belief, the tower remains unfinished due to its aggressive location, blocking the view of a royal temple and a Muslim mosque.
Sophon Sakdaphisit graduated, majoring in Film, from Chulalongkorn University in 2002. His first feature film screenplay, Shutter, became Thailand’s highest grossing box office hit of 2004 and became one of the most successful genre films in Asia. Sakdaphisit’s directorial debut, Coming Soon (2008), achieved both locally and internationally. In 2011, Laddaland, his second feature, was a great reaffirmation of his outstanding horror-directorial talent. His third feature The Swimmers was sold to all major Asian countries even before its official release.
2008 – Coming Soon
2011 – Laddaland
2015 – The Swimmers
2017 – The Promise