By Kim Voynar

Nymph Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Screening in the “Visions” section of TIFF, Nymph, by Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (something of a name among the arthouse crowd) is a languid, meticulously paced tale of love, infidelity and betrayal that’s kept from being truly compelling by a dramatic structure that’s top-heavy with many moments of nothing leading up to a faster-paced final 30 minutes or so.

It’s a shame, because I was drawn into the film immediately by the stunning opening scene, a lengthy, fast-paced single shot tracking a pair of rapists chasing their prey through the woods, and their supernatural undoing. Unfortunately, the opener doesn’t set the pace of the rest of the film, which takes the term “deliberate pacing” to extraordinary measures that exceeded the patience of a good many folks at today’s press and industry screening.

Visually, it’s all very lovely; Ratanaruang clearly has a photographer’s understanding of natural light and shadow and makes ample use of this talent throughout the film, but structurally, given that the film centers around a married couple who’s barely on speaking terms, things seem to drag on and on for a good deal of the film before it gets more interesting.

The story centers around Nop (Jayanama Nopachai) and his wife May (Wanida Termthanaporn), who is enmeshed in a long-term affair with her boss, Korn (Chamanun Wanwinwatsara). We can see that May is a woman in conflict … she cannot sleep without sleeping pills, for instance, and requests her husband hold her in bed though she refuses to make love with him (“Sorry honey, I have a headache” is apparently universal among wives who don’t want to have sex with husbands).

Nonetheless, May and Nop go on a camping trip in the woods, presumably so that Nop can do some photographing of things natural; Nop finds himself drawn to a mysterious tree, and before you can say, “supernatural,” Nop disappears without a trace.  Several days later, Korn picks May up and returns her to her home, and the next morning when she wakes, she finds Nop is back, asleep on the couch, dirty, dishelved and confused about where exactly he’s been. For the record, he has the remarkably good excuse of having been lost in throes of ecstasy induced by a wood nymph.

And from there things drag on for a bit, as May decides she really does still love her husband, Nop disappears into the woods again, and May and Korn go after him. Although the pacing is deadly, this is where the film actually gets philosophically interesting as it delves into ideas around marriage, love, infidelity and betrayal (and raises the ever-popular question: does being fed upon by a supernatural woodland creature constitute cheating on one’s spouse?).

There’s a heavy tone of “a cautionary tale” around May’s infidelity to Nop, Korn’s infidelity to his wife, and Nop’s infidelity (with the wood nymph) to May. It’s not so much a romantic triangle as it is a romantic loop-the-loop all tangled up with mud, roots, and sap as life-blood. Is there perhaps a bit of political morality of the environmental sort here as well, in Nop’s admonition of Korn that he and May have hurt the wood nymph, who never did anything to them? I expect so, but it’s not overly heavy-handed if there is.

There are certain things in the film that feel dramatically off — although it’s entirely possible that they are culturally specific references that simply elude me; for instance, the assumption that Nop has been dragged off by a wild animal, or perhaps taken by a forest spirit, rather than the investigators looking at whether his wife might have had something to do with his disappearance. a

Also — and I realize that I’m perhaps being a wee bit of a pansy of an urban girl here, but is it common in Thailand for people to traipse about in heavily wooded areas wearing skirts, shorts, and flip flops? I say this is someone deathly paranoid of things like ticks and spiders and snakes and such, and don’t even venture out for a hike on the carefully manicured trails near our house without jeans, long socks, long sleeves and an abundant cloud of insect repellent, but still. Who wanders around in the woods barefoot, at night?

There are spiritual elements to the film that I liked quite a bit, and visually, there are some interesting things going on as well, particularly with the symbolism of entertwining tree roots and a man suspended in them like a fly willingly caught in a web while the wood nymnph feeds. Overall, though the pacing of this film drags it down, in spite of the spectacular opening shot and a tight, interesting ending.

It’s too bad that Ratanaruang seems to have lost his way structurally for the bulk of the film, and at only 94 minutes, there’s not a whole lot of room to tighten it up — though if you cut out the middle, you might have a pretty good short film. On the plus side of the equation, Nymphisn’t quite strong enough nor horror enough to merit a bad American remake starring Nic Cage. Some days at a fest like TIFF, I take my blessings where I can get them.

-by Kim Voynar

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