Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

BUCHEON, South Korea -- "13" ("13 Game Sayawng") starts off in a nondescript urban setting in Bangkok and soon veers into uncanny and sinister terrain. One of those accomplished suspense thrillers that mount the tension stage by stage without running out of steam at the end, it is also an unyieldingly cynical exploration of the human heart of darkness with an oedipal climax that makes it a field-day for Freudians.

Adapted from a popular Thai manga titled "The 13th Quiz Show" by Eakasit Thairaat, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Matthew Chookiet Sakveerakul, "13" shone at the domestic boxoffice last year, even when the Thai film market is now saturated with horror films. The winner of Pifan's competition feature section, the film should gain more overseas festival invitations and foreign distribution.

Chit is a music company employee who has lost his girlfriend, car and job. He gets a call enticing him to play a reality game show that offers a prize of 100 million baht (about $33.4 million) on completion of 13 challenges. As the tasks get more bizarre and reprobate, Chit's integrity also deteriorates. The game gradually turns into an excuse to vent his pent-up frustrations rather than an expedient means to a financial end.

In a white collar shirt-and-tie that gets symbolically soiled along the way, Krissada Sukosol Clapp ("Bangkok Loco") invests the character of Chit with just the right combination of trepidation, neurosis and animalism. Like Michael Douglas' laid-off defense workman in Schumacher's "Falling Down," his Average Joe image toys with the audience's natural instinct to root for the underdog, and herein lies the film's strength -- its moral ambiguity. Through flashbacks, we learn that the challenges mirror traumatic incidents in Chit's childhood, and some of his targets seem to deserve what they get. But does that justify Chit's acts?

The first half of the film is very effective in plunging the audience into an unsettling atmosphere that simulates the protagonist's disorientation. The locations are utterly mundane, like a street market, a Chinese restaurant, a bus stop or an office, but they are dotted with numerological signs and clues, and engage the audience in an interactive riddle like Greenaway's "Drowning by Numbers" or "The Da Vinci Code."

The tone wavers between the comic and grotesque, between reality and illusion. Head-spinning shifts between numerous indoor and outdoor locations expose a buzzing city plugged into interactive technology, but severed from interpersonal ties and devoid of compassion. The second half is more predictable as the film descends into a gore fest that takes it into a less plausible, supernatural realm. Nevertheless, the ending still packs a powerful punch as fleeting characters suddenly re-emerge as agents of destiny. Screenplay, editing and action sequences are all impressive for a 25-year-old director.

Sahamongkol Film International Co. Ltd/Baa-Ram-Ewe
Director-writer-editor: Matthew Chookiet Sakveerakul
Writers: Matthew Chookiet Sakveerakul, Eakasit Thairaat
Based on the manga by: Eakasit Thairaat
Producer: Somsak Techaratanaprasert
Executive producers: Prachya Pinkaew, Sukanya Yongsithapat
Director of photography: Chitti Urnorakanku
Music: Kitti Kuremanee
Chit: Krissada Sukosol Clapp
Tong: Achita Wuthinounsurasit
Surachai: Sarunyu Wongkrachang
Maew: Nattapong Arunnate
Running time -- 116 minutes
No MPAA rating