Mona (Bongkoj Khongmalai) is a successful young Thai career woman, putting in all the long stressful hours necessary to scale the corporate ladder at the multi-national Bangkok securities trading firm where she works. However, as much as she strives to keep her professional and private lives separate, Mona is continually drawn back into a fraught relationship with her fractious middle-aged mother.
Relying on the free medical benefits provided by her daughter’s high-powered employers, Mona’s sick mother scrapes a subsistence as a lowly store owner. After just the latest contretemps between the feuding members of this family existing in definitely different worlds, in which a broke Mona has to reveal that she really can’t afford her sublime condo overlooking the Rama VIII bridge, it seems that their relationship is beyind repair. That night, alone in her dilapidated store, Mona’s mother is consumed by a mysterious fire.
Shocked from her superficial consumerist slumber, Mona is not satisfied by the police’s response to immediately close the case, especially considering the strange circumstances of the death. Finding an ally in idealistic young officer Don (Charad Na Songkhla), Mona discovers that her mother succumbed to an apparent case of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) and is just the lastest victim in a spate of such hushed-up incidents sweeping Bangkok. Stonewalled by the hospital which treated her mother, Mona with Don in tow secretly meets nurse Ploy (Archiraya Peeraphatkunchaya) who believes her own mother too, having been prescribed the same experimental medication from the hospital, is at risk from SHC.
When Don is removed from the case by his superior officer Wang (Sutheerach Chanukul) and crusading reporter Kwan (Prangthong Changtum) takes up the challenge with them to unmask the faceless mastermind behind the machinations of the Terradyne Corporation, powerful forces combine which threaten to silence the three once and for all…
The poster, trailer and synopsis for Burn squarely pitch the film into the new wave of Thai horror. This perhaps isn’t surprising given director Peter Manus’ previous work on the effective but desperately derivate slasher 999-9999. However, in a move which unbalances the whole experience, Burn is actually a contemporary conspiracy thriller which, in an effort to maintain the mystique, can’t let go of its horror trappings. All the creaky old tried and tested staples of the horror genre, including visual and audio red herrings aplenty, are wearily trotted out.
What this does achieve is simply to call the audience’s attention to an obvious attempt to distract these hardy paying punters from a procedural plot so severely limited in conflict. Scribe Wichai Laorapeeporntong, working from an original story by Peter Manus, commits a cardinal screenwriting sin in allowing the audience to get so far ahead of the protagonist in the adventure that we’re waiting an infuriating 40 minutes or more for Mona to catch up. Only in the final reel does Mona start to mentally put the pieces together and by then she’s in the middle of a climactic action set-piece: The Parallax View, to which the film eminently aspires, this is most certainly not.
As Mona, Bongkoj Khongmalai does her best with a painfully underwritten main role. As aforementioned, given that there’s no conflict in which she can engage, Mona simply stumbles from one location to another, looks a bit scared when doors eerily slam or unexplained voices are heard, chats a bit with Don and then moves on the next point in a picture postcard version of Bangkok. In what should be an emotional journey for Mona to change from a hard-bitten careerist (lazily personified by making her sport designer glasses) into a caring human being, the pouty Bongkoj Khongmalai just looks bored. From this, it’s very difficult to either identify or empathise with Mona so there’s no sense of wishing her to succeed in or even survive her quest when the peril finally kicks in during the last 15 minutes. Granted, she can carry a film, she more than matches her leaden onscreen love interest Don and it’s indeed a better performance than in the awful Chai Lai Angels: Dangerous Flowers reviewed here, yet that is to damn with faint praise.
Where Burn does score some points is in its depiction of the struggle of modern Thai womanhood to find a place in a male-dominated corporate milieu. Spoken through the protestations of the character of Mona’s mother, the film does at least highlight the loss of a uniquely Thai identity and spiritual emptiness prompted by the sacrifices necessary to succeed in such an environment.
This, however, sits very ill at ease with the rampant product placement which is present in the opening sequence and crops up with annoying regularity throughout the film. Coffee, airlines, eyewear, footwear, cellphones, communications providers: everything one needs to survive on a holiday in the Land of Smiles. It also subverts the film’s own exceedingly heavy-handed notion of multi-national corporations exploiting Thailand as a country and the impossibly honest hardworking Thai populace as a race. This, naturally, plays very well to a Thai audience and is endemic in Thai cinema but it really does grate (and this is no spoiler) when the villains of the narrative are identifiable purely on the basis of being non-Thai.
Without wishing to give away the single surprise which survives to the climax of the film, the narrative reasoning behind the outbreak of SHC is totally nonsensical. Instant, unexplained immolation is a potentially engrossing subject, especially when encompassing the strong sense of supersition that permeates Thai culture; what opportunity there is to create an unnvering experience is totally foregone by cliches piled atop one another and a ludicrous motive for the conspiracy.
Director Peter Manus does at least try to fashion an interesting look for the film, creating a cinematically airbrushed version of neon-soaked Bangkok so far removed from reality that it actually engenders a persona all of its own in the narrative. Nary a tuk-tuk nor genuine poor person in sight, Director of Photography Kittiwat Semrat creates a breathtakingly beautiful pastel-coloured rich man’s playground by day and urban nightmare by night. The understated score composed by Origin Kampanee is also suitably chilling in places.