Bangkok University student Ake Ekapon (Krit Sripoomseth) is hopelessly enamoured with Buppah Rahtree (Laila Boonyasak), an introverted, enigmatic loner who will not give him the time of day. Eventually Ake’s earnest courtship wears down her resistance. They spend a lusty three-day weekend together at a holiday resort. Shortly thereafter Ake screens a sex tape of them together for his wealthy college buddies. Turns out he seduced Buppah in order to win a bet. However after receiving a bottle of Johnny Walker for his efforts, a guilt-ridden Ake confesses the truth to Buppah. Only to find out she is pregnant. Ake’s parents, eager to safeguard their son’s promising future, have Ake convince Buppah to get an abortion before sending him to England to continue his studies. Abandoned alone in a dingy apartment block, Buppah endures the painful after-effects of a botched procedure that result in her tragic and grisly demise. While attempting to remove the body from the now-vacant apartment, the hapless residents discover Buppah has become a malevolent, vengeful ghost that proceeds to terrorize them all.
Released in the midst of the great Asian horror boom of the early 2000s, this Thai horror-comedy remains largely unknown in the West. Yet across Asia, Buppah Rahtree (also known as Buppah Rahtree: Flower of the Night or simply Rahtree, while sources differ as to whether the correct spelling is ‘Buppha’ or ‘Buppah’) became a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, siring sequels, parodies and remakes. It is essentially yet another avatar of the vengeance-driven ghost girl archetype that has haunted Asian horror from The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959) right through to Ringu (1998). Much like those Japanese horror classics, alienation proves a key theme. We follow the titular anti-heroine as she is abused, humiliated or mistreated by a selection of shockingly callous characters (including a sexually abusive stepfather who plops into the narrative then departs just as abruptly) until she eventually morphs into a self-destructive monster. In a manner faintly reminiscent of The Tenant (1976), Roman Polanski’s underrated study of apartment living as urban hell.
Shot in an interestingly unobtrusive, documentary style, Buppha Rahtree’s first third dwells exclusively on romantic drama. Both Buppah and Ake come across as shy, introverted, dare one say even inscrutable protagonists separated by what the film implies is an insurmountable gulf of misunderstanding destined to end in tragically. That said it is hard to tell whether the glacial performances are a deliberate choice in service of the alienation theme or simply stilted acting. Once the focus shifts in the second act onto a cross-section of wacky working class residents, principally Sirisin Siripornsmathikul’s shrewish self-serving landlady Mrs. See though also shop assistant Dave played by Sayan Meungjarern a Thai stand-up comedian with Down’s Syndrome, the tone shifts unexpectedly into broad farce. Yuthlert Sippapak has his cast indulge in silly slapstick, gross-out gags (the lady coroner vomits all over the crime scene), profane wisecracks and satire at once unsubtle yet too parochial to translate to non-Thai viewers. He also pokes fun ghost-busting conventions in both Hong Kong horror films and Hollywood genre classics like The Exorcist (1973). First a pair of Mr. Vampire (1985) style Taoist mystics are undone by Buppah’s ghost then two Catholic priests fail spectacularly at an attempted exorcism where she spouts the regulation profanities and spews green vomit.
In its focus on a coarse yet close-knit working class community aspects of Buppah Rahtree’s middle third evoke the classic Shaw Brothers social comedy House of 72 Tenants (1973) (also a major influence on Kung Fu Hustle (2004)). Class is another theme woven into the narrative as Ake’s wealthy family create a problem the working class tenement community has to deal with. However, for all their buffoonery, Buppah’s neighbours come across as a collectively self-serving, unsympathetic bunch seemingly incapable of empathy. Which, given Asian comedy-horror films have a history of showcasing protagonists that are jerks, may be part of the joke. The problem is Sippapak’s attempts to ape the Hong Kong formula are undone by lethargically staged skits that do not really go anywhere nor strike the appropriate balance between silly and scary. Take the grim scene where a bleeding Buppah bangs on a neighbour’s door begging for help until an obese transgender woman screams at her to shut up. Or the finale wherein sexy fast food delivery girl Muay (Chomponoot Piyapane) happens upon a grisly nod to the climax of Takashi Miike’s infamous Audition (2001).
Given Sippapak’s background in graphic and architectural design the film is shockingly devoid of style or technique. He does not weave much of an otherworldly aura around Buppha. She looks exactly like what she is: an actress in pasty white makeup. Nevertheless the film’s unrelentingly grim tone is strangely fascinating and clearly struck a chord with the Thai audience. Sippapak followed its success with Buppah Rahtree Phase 2: Rahtree Returns (2005), Rahtree Reborn (2009) and Rahtree Revenge (2009). More recently he delivered Buppah Arigato (2016) in which the embittered lady ghost tangles with a Thai boy band.