Adapted from his own comic book story “13th Quiz Show” by writer Eakasit Thairaat, 13: Game of Death finds mild-mannered salesman Phuchit (Krissada Sukosol) having the day from hell. He’s lost his job and his car and being a dutiful son is obliged to handover the last of his money to his mother, leaving him destitute. Suddenly, a mysterious phone call offers Phuchit a chance to win 100 million baht (Thai currency) on an obscure internet game show. To win the jackpot, he must complete thirteen tasks without revealing his participation in the game to anyone around him. At each stage he will receive an interim cash payment directly into his bank account, but should he fail to complete any given task, he will lose all money won up to that point.
Sceptical at first, Phuchit swats a fly as his first challenge and finds the first payment has been placed in his bank account. His next task proves rather more difficult. Phuchit has to eat the fly, but the cash reward confirms the game is real. Gradually, his challenges grow increasingly grotesque, both morally and physically, ranging from the task of making a group of schoolchildren cry, to dining on a steaming pile of shit at a fancy restaurant, to fishing out the bloated, gangrenous corpse of an old man trapped down a well. Meanwhile, concerned co-worker Tong (Achita Sikamana) and quizzical cop Surachait (Sarunyoo Wongkrachang) do their own detective work to uncover what is going on, as Phuchit continues his downward spiral towards degradation and violence before the shocking denouement.
Although elements recall such disparate mainstream thrillers as The Game (1997), Falling Down (1993) and Eagle Eye (2008), Eakasit Thairaat and co-writer/director Chookiat Sakveerakul have crafted a killer premise. But although 13: Game of Death starts sober it grows increasingly farcical before concluding on a truly risible note of pseudo-intellectual social commentary. The filmmakers cart out that old adage how human beings are essentially vile, but while those with no pretensions about their self-serving nature are basically okay, those who cling to their principles have something nasty to hide. This idiotic ideal of nihilist chic is a bugbear of modern cinema and consequently blunts whatever satirical intent this film has.
Which is a great shame because when the film is good, it’s gangbusters. Sakveerakul takes time to illustrate the pain of Phuchit’s daily grind so we understand the desperation that drives him to such extreme lengths. Thai pop star-turned-actor Krissada Sukosol is actually outstanding as the downtrodden good guy twisted into ravenous, blood-soaked ghoul, but while Achita Sikamana offers staunch support, the remaining performances are pitched too broadly. Indeed the film falters whenever it crosses the line into outright spoof - as when Sakveerakul crosscuts between Phuchit’s terror-stricken attempt to haul the corpse out of the well to the strains of a thunderous thriller score, and the family’s sitcom squabbles amidst total silence. Or the moment the unlikely survivor of a gang of decapitated teenage bikers crawls along the road with half his brain spilling out. A few black humoured episodes do hit the funny bone however and Phuchit’s attempts to elude the cops in a crowded hospital is the source of much edge-of-your-seat tension.
As often in this sub-genre, some suspension of disbelief is required to accept how the shadowy conspirators have eyes and ears everywhere and can manipulate events to an often ludicrous degree. However, the final revelation of who is pulling the strings strains credibility too far and is so bleak in its assessment of humanity as to be slightly offensive. For satire this is too vague and too muddled a morality tale to justify what is essentially an elaborate sick joke.