Nymph -- Film review


Bottom Line: A subtle tale of relationship woes that wanders off into a forest of slow-moving mysticism.

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In "Nymph," a photographer becomes seduced by a spirit dwelling in the jungle while his wife, hitherto absorbed with her own infidelities, is compelled to venture into the wilderness to look for answers to their problems. Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang evokes a trancelike atmosphere in his representation of Nature as an animate, mysterious entity. Less effective is his idea of stripping his plot and characters to their bare essence, as what remains is a symbolist exercise with droning rhythm devoid of his usual sexy humor and lush visuals.

Ratanaruang's versatile output has always been highly appreciated by international critics and programmers, and quietly avoided by mainstream moviegoers back home. "Nymph" will be no exception. The director's stated intention to make a ghost film in which the ghosts are not scary could give the willies to buyers considering commercial release. Hopefully, it will fare better in arthouse distribution.

Ratanaruang, who has previously set and styled his films with the taste of an urban sophisticate, explores rural mysticism for the first time. The opening introduces an Ovidian dimension with elliptical rape and death scenes that allude to the legend of the titular forest nymph. A shamanistic view is intoned through an interview with a healer, who warns that spirits avenge those who harm them.

His use of the jungle as his main location triggers associations with the imagist experimental films ("Blissfully Yours," "Tropical Malady") of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Actually, Ratanruang is on a very different plain from this Thai contemporary in terms of film syntax and vision, being just as preoccupied with loneliness, temptation (of money or sex) and death as in all his works. Only this time, these themes and the way they affect relationships are couched in an eco-elegy on humans' inability to live in harmony with nature.

Photographer Nop (Nopachai Jayanama) takes his estranged wife May (Wanida Termtanaporn) on a field trip to the jungle. There, Nop behaves as if possessed, embracing a large tree and caressing its gnarled surfaces, and gnawing at a roast rabbit like a caveman. These are intercut with the elusive appearances of a naked, siren-like woman. When Nop disappears the next day, May, who has been having an affair with her married boss Korn, is overcome with anguish.

Back home, May becomes sad and withdrawn, until Nop makes an uncanny re-appearance. Nop seems to retain part of his jungle experience, and strangely, it enables him to communicate with May like never before. As ever, May's confused feelings resonate with the same sense of abandonment, guilt and grief felt by protagonists in Ratanruang's "Last Life in the Universe" and "Invisible Waves." However, these scenes have a washed-out texture that somehow does not wring the mood sufficiently.

A large proportion of the film is shot with a handheld camera that skillfully simulates the viewpoint and sensory reactions of someone fumbling through the jungle, occasionally varied by some sweeping shots that take in the enormity of the area from above. The changing lights and diverse ambient sounds are captured in detail, but one can only stare at foliage for so long -- no matter how many shades of green.

Sales: Fortissimo Films
Five Star Production, Local Color Films
Cast: Wanida Termthanaporn, Chamanun Wanwinwasara, Nopachai Jayanama, Phorntip Papanai
Director-screenwriter: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Producers: Saksiri Chantarangsri, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner
producers: Charoen Iamphungporn
Director of photography: Charnkit Chamnivikaipong
Production designers: Saksiri Chantarangsri, Wittaya Chaimongkol
Sound: Koichi Shimizu, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr
Costume designer: Visa Kongka
Editor: Patamanadda Yukol
No rating, 108 minutes