Tessa Kaur says The Medium is a chilling tale about the horror lurking in Southeast Asian folklore.
To a Southeast Asian, The Medium is terrifying because its premise isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Where I live in modernized Singapore, stories of demonic possessions often end with "they had to call a bomoh," referring to a Malay shaman who practices black magic or traditional medicine. The plot feels like a story I might have been told by a friend as a teenager and one I would have absolutely believed.
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and co-written and produced by Na Hong-jin, The Medium is a mockumentary about shamanistic practices in the region of Isan in Thailand. The documentary crew follows Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), a shaman of the ancestral spirit Ba Yan, whose niece, Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech), has started acting strangely, an indicator that she is to be Ba Yan’s next shaman. Despite her increasingly erratic behavior, Mink’s mother, Noi (Sirani Yankittikan), refuses to let her take on the role.
A different shaman reveals that Mink has not been possessed by Ba Yan, but by multiple evil spirits, largely because her ancestors were wicked or had rejected Ba Yan’s blessings. Essentially, Mink was doomed from the moment she was born. They plan to exorcize her on an auspicious date, but in the days leading up to the ritual, Mink terrorizes her family endlessly, and Nim dies in her sleep. They try to carry out a ceremony, but it fails, everyone is possessed, and Mink sets her own mother on fire.
It would have been effortless for Pisanthanakun to follow the filmmaking formula that previous found-footage films have proven successful, but the film’s documentary format works at first. I found myself double-checking that I’d selected a horror movie, not an actual documentary, as the first ten minutes played out. However, the film could have benefitted from maintaining this level of realism for a while longer instead of giving up the bit after the first act. I was entirely on board until Nim passes away in her sleep after Mink stares eerily at her for a few minutes.
Gulmonkopech gives an appropriately creepy, surprisingly layered performance as Mink. While her acting in the later part of the film aligns with cookie-cutter possession tropes, her initial portrayal of Mink is sympathetic, clearly showing us that under everything, she is a young adult, exhausted and suffering from what’s happening to her. The rest of the cast elevates the film, especially Utoomma, who plays the stoic shaman to a tee. In one of the more gut-wrenching moments, Nim discovers the statue of Ba Yan she worships has been horribly decapitated, and we begin to see her sink into despair.
Where the film really shines is its writing. Thematically, the film centers on generational curses and human evil. From the film's beginning, Nim talks about how everything has a spirit, and the good ones protect us. Early on, a man takes liquor from a cemetery and drinks it, accumulating bad karma, and falling ill. Similarly, our ancestors sin, and we must pay the price, for every action has a consequence. It ties back to a regional Buddhist belief in karma, but it also hints at how Asian families tend not to communicate about family trauma or histories.
Without knowledge of what has happened, we can’t break a cycle of pain, whether that be a generational trauma or a literal generational curse. In Mink’s case, her great-grandfather was stoned to death by laborers at his factory, and her grandfather burned down that same factory for insurance money, killing all the animals and insects that lived there. Ba Yan initially chose Mink’s mother to be the shaman. Still, her mother pushed the responsibility away, rejecting a blessing and opening the gates for her children to suffer. Nim spends much of the film discovering this, wasting time until it is too late to save Mink.
This runs parallel to another prominent theme in the film: maternal instinct. In the vein of recent contemporary horrors like Hereditary (2018) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Pisanthanakun's focus on family elevates the film, especially when framed through its female cast. Ba Yan is a female goddess possessing only women within a specific family, passing through daughters. Manit’s wife disrupts the ceremony to exorcise Mink because she believes Mink has threatened her son, effectively dooming them all. In the film’s last moments, Noi tries desperately to save Mink even though all previous attempts have put everyone in harm’s way. Women desperately trying to protect themselves and their children is what propels the plot forward, and the fact that every action brings them closer and closer to doom makes the film all the more difficult to watch.
What is also clear, is the tension between Western religion and Eastern tradition. For Southeast Asia, Christianity is a remnant of colonization, one used to "civilize" locals. Noi converts to Christianity, claiming it is to save herself from becoming the next shaman for Ba Yan, implicitly giving the Christian God as much power as the ancestral spirits of the region. Mink reveals during her possession that Noi used every traditional tool she could think of to direct Ba Yan to Nim instead, including talismans in her shoes. In fact, at a Christmas parade, Mink terrorizes revelers by throwing things at them from on top of a float — it seems the Christian God has no power here after all.
However, ancestral spirits don’t have all-encompassing power either. In its final scene, The Medium depicts Nim having a crisis of faith the day before she dies, stating she doesn’t know if Ba Yan ever truly possessed her. It is unclear why she dies, but it appears to be directly connected to her crisis of faith. Perhaps Ba Yan turned her back because of Nim's lack of faith, or perhaps by faltering in her faith, she opened herself up to possession and harm. Regardless, it forces us to think about karma and superstitions, as well as what women will give up for their children.
The Medium is now playing in theaters on Shudder.