Saturday, July 19, 2008

When lying in a coffin isn’t so bad


A MOVIE trailer for a Thai supernatural thriller starts with a mass funeral for the living where believers slip into coffins that are then nailed shut.

And a television journalist reports: “In the province of central Thailand this morning thousands of people turned up for a bizarre ritual called Non Loeng Sadorcro which literally translates as sleeping coffin get rid of bad karma.”

Did Ekachai Uekrongtham, the writer/director of The Coffin that premiered in South Korea on July 10, concoct a bizarre ritual so that he can weave it into his movie of two characters facing terrifying experiences after lying (separately) in a coffin?

No, a Thai ritual where believers lie in a coffin to get rid of bad luck or to prolong life inspired him.

“It is a story that I was keen to tell as it deals with one of my greatest fears – death. Not so much my death but the death of my loved ones,” explained Ekachai, who also directed Beautiful Boxer.

His intrigue with the ritual began three years ago when he read an article in a Thai newspaper about thousands of people attending a death ritual for the living.

“How was it possible that you have to go so ‘near’ to death in order to prolong your life? It seems like a contradiction,” he said, adding that at that time he also had difficulties in dealing with his father’s death.

Convinced that the ritual was a good basis for a movie, Ekachai scripted a storyline about two people who performed the ritual.

The Coffin tells the interlinked stories of Chris (Ananda Everingham), a claustrophobic Thai architect whose Japanese fiancee is dying of brain tumour and Sue (Karen Mok), a nutritionist from Hong Kong, who is diagnosed with lung cancer one week before her wedding.

Non Loeng Sadorcro (which literally means ‘Lie in Coffin, Rid of Bad Luck’), according to Ekachai, The Coffin scriptwriter, took off from a Thai practice of giving money to temples to purchase coffins for the poor.

“The practice evolved when donors wrote down ‘I want to transfer the good karma I’ve accumulated (from buying a coffin) to my loved one who has passed away’ on a piece of paper and pasted it on the coffin that they had bought,” he explained.

In the last few years, the ritual took a bizarre turn when donors lie in the coffin (with its lid shut but not completely so that they could breathe) while a group of monks performed death rites on them as if they were dead. And when the donor rose from the coffin the monk read a chant of new life.

“Many participants felt as if they were reborn after the ritual – with all their bad karma buried behind them,” Ekachai said.

“Some claimed that the ritual helped fool the spirits that they’re already dead so they could start their new lives afresh like newborns.”

In his interviews with believers, Ekachai said some told him that they met the spirit of their dead loved ones while they were lying in the coffin. “They told me that they made a connection with the dead,” he said.

The scriptwriter also went through the archives of a Thai TV station, watching a documentary of a man – with a serious heart problem – who even his doctor gave up on his chances for recovery.
“The man claimed after going through the ritual he recovered gradually. And since then he performed the ritual annually,” he added.

Non Loeng Sadorcro detractors brand it as an occult practice.

“Many feel it’s bad omen to lie in a coffin when they’re still alive,” according to a press release issued by The Coffin producers.

“Some said this ritual is nothing but a case of commercialism entering the sacred religious domain.”

Did Ekachai try out the coffin ritual? No. He’s claustrophobic.

And he believes that a coffin is a place where you should only lie once. “I think I am just chicken,” he added, laughing.

At the end of The Coffin trailer, Chris, who is inside a coffin, uses his handphone to light up his pitch-dark surrounding and then you hear anxious knockings as if someone was trying to escape death.

(Published in The Star on July 19, 2008)