Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun may not have a name that easily sticks to western recollection. But when I tell you that he co-directed and co-wrote the original 2004 horror film Shutter, the movie that spawned an American remake as well as numerous similarly-themed other movies, it’s likely to cause recognition in many a genre aficionado’s mind.
Backed by Thai major studio GDH 559 and co-produced by the South Korean movie distribution moguls of Showbox, with the added involvement for production duties of Na Hong-jin, maker of the excellent horror-thriller The Wailing (2016) and gaining 6th place in the Korean 2021 box office, The Medium, titled Rang Song in its native Thailand, has all the pieces in place promising a worth-while Asian fright ride.
Filmed entirely on location in the Isan province of Loei, in the North-East region of Thailand near the Laotian border, The Medium sets itself up with the framing device of a documentary crew venturing into said location with the purpose of documenting a local shaman. Yes, this is a found footage movie – I use the term broadly here as it operates chiefly as a faux documentary.
Anyone whom this is given pause, now anticipating the usual found footage tropes of frantic camera work, questionable (if not idiotic) decisions, and trite conversations can rest assured as the film is mostly made as a professionally shot documentary, awash with atmospheric establishing shots, interviews, and recorded montages of the day-to-day proceedings in the lives of its central characters.
The Medium introduces us to a woman named Nim (Sawanee Utoomma, The Promise), a local shaman who purportedly channels a benevolent spirit called Bayan. Nim is an ordinary, everyday woman, a bit of an unofficial she-monk, living alone and dedicating herself to reclusive prayer, private sacred rituals, and helping other villagers. She quietly goes about her daily business; she’s soft-spoken, has a grounded, mildly cynical worldview and she’s averse to ceremonial pomp.
Her duties to Bayan were passed on to her, from generation to generation, as the second in line of succession, the first being her elder sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) who refused to be a medium and converted to Christianity. Nim and Noi are at odds with each other, but when Noi’s husband passes away Nim goes out to attend the funeral ceremony where Noi’s daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech, The Wife) suddenly makes a scene.
After the funeral, Nim and her older brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn, The Cave) stick around at Noi’s home for support to her and Mink in their days of loss and grief, when they notice alarming personality changes in Mink. And when Nim suspects that this could be Bayan’s calling for the ceremony of acceptance towards the next spiritual succession – something Noi adamantly opposes, the documentary crew now plans to expand the scope of their documentary to the entire family to which Noi, Manit, and Mink agree.
But things take a dark turn when Mink exceedingly shows signs of evil possession. Meanwhile, Nim conducts her own spiritual investigation into the malevolent forces that may have invaded Mink. But when she eventually finds herself out of her depth, she calls for the aid of Santi (Boonsong Nakphoo, The Protector 2, Scared), also a practicing shaman, to jointly prepare a rite of exorcism for Mink – something that may save Mink’s life, or claim her own.
The Medium’s first act is, simply put, a sight to behold with its panoramic, almost otherworldly landscapes. The village sits on the bank of a river; the surrounding hills are forested and fog-patched, and It all looks absolutely stunning, breathtakingly beautiful, and eerie at the same time. It furthermore focuses on an absolutely stunning performance from Utoomma who anchors everything with her subdued but deep portrayal of Nim.
The inner workings of her devotion to Bayan are laid out in a concise yet comprehensible way and while the proceedings are, on average, more fascinating than outright thrilling here, they’re captivating and engrossing all the same, with evil seemingly lurking constantly just around every corner.
And thanks to Utoomma and the attention The Medium dedicates to Nim, she’s totally relatable and I savoured each and every second that the movie let me spend with her. She has an interesting character arch too, starting out as a modest, friendly, contemplative, somewhat aloof yet warm and trustworthy woman, and while constantly questioning herself, her capabilities as a medium, and even her worldview, she stands firm when the situation calls for it, determined in her actions but not hesitant to change course when the situation calls for it.
The second act is marked by the expansion of the (faux) documentary’s scope to the relatives, by diverging its focus also towards Noi and Mink. Noi is a caring mother, who’s headstrong and initially stuck in denial of what’s going on with Mink. An initially light-hearted young woman in her early twenties with a job at a day-labour agency, Mink gradually loses her sanity Regan MacNeil style.
Manit is Noi’s and Nim’s doting brother (Mink’s uncle) who genuinely cares about the family he has left but his presence never really amounts to much and the script doesn’t give him anything meaningful to do. Thankfully, The Medium never really focuses much on him and he’s just kind of there, standing by and hanging around most of the time without getting in the way of anything.
The Medium’s final act plays out like a countdown to Mink’s exorcism ceremony as we see the possession take a stronger hold on her, and Santi and Nim go through their preparations. The film descends into more conventional and erratic found footage tropes as the grand finale rolls around and the haunting situation spirals out of control.
It all still works on that level, and for some, it may be satisfying to see the earlier celestial and deliberate overtones give way to bloody and gruesome spectacle. I found it a bit of a letdown, particularly after The Medium’s exceptional first act, but it’s effective enough in its own right. However, the movie ends on a particularly memorable and heartbreaking note, redeeming, at least to me, some of its preceding shortcomings.
The Medium boasts a hefty runtime, clocking in at around 130 minutes. And while it has moments that feel padded, in particular some scenes involving Mink and Manit, most of that abundance of time is used to its advantage to let the movie breathe and settle, allowing us to fully take in the atmosphere of the microcosm it revolves in. The way the environment is filmed, and the time we spend with Nim, are moviemaking at its finest: immersive, fascinating, beautiful, frightening, and engrossing.
The Medium is a distinctly Thai movie, in that the social, cultural, and spiritual dynamics in it are uniquely theirs, rewarding those who get behind them. Its pedestrian, formulaic third act and generic finale are, while still okay by themselves in their execution, somewhat threadbare and unfortunate in the light of the film’s brilliant setup, but its final scene will still stick with you long after the end credits rolled.