The Medium

The Medium (2021)

The Medium first published by

“You might have watched too much TV,” Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) tells an unseen film crew. What we are watching purports to be footage that this crew has shot making their documentary Shaman Bloodline – and Nim is their focus because, although she is an ordinary-seeming seamstress in a small town in Thailand’s northeastern region of Isan, she is also the latest in a long line of female shamans to have been possessed by local goddess Ba Yan, after her older sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) rejected the goddess and turned to Christianity. The film crew are half-expecting Nim to gurn or gesticulate wildly as a mark of the divinity within her – but the down-to-earth Nim is keen to normalise her special communion with the goddess, and to emphasise the difference between the conventional iconography of possession (as mediated in films and television), and its more banal reality. Nim is just a hard-working woman who, on the side, helps people with their spiritual problems.

Noi’s daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) is a young, secularised adult who works in a job centre, and does not really believe in the shamanism that has taken over the lives of so many women in her family. At one point she even shows the documentary crew how easy it is to play-act being possessed (in a sort of rehearsal for what is to come). Like her mother, Mink has turned her back on the family tradition, and she regards shamanism as, well, a sham. Yet as Mink’s behaviours start to become strange, even alarming, Nim at first suspects that her niece is showing signs of ‘Shaman Fever’, and that Ba Yan may be about to jump from her body to Mink’s – and then, as Mink becomes violent and dangerous, Nim starts to wonder if something else might have entered her, from the male side of the family with its own more harrowing local history.  

Co-writing with Na Hong-jin (The Wailing, 2016), director Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter, 2004) has crafted an uncanny, increasingly jolting horror from the contradictions both in a community, and in the film’s own ‘mockumentary’ form. The Medium may start as a naturalistic ethnographic study of an area where Buddhism, Christianity, and pagan animism are made awkwardly to coexist, and may feature characters who keep expressly mocking the silliness of the way in which possession is presented within the horror genre, but by the end it will fully embrace all these horror clichés, while carefully relocating, reformulating and recontextualising them into something both ancient and jarringly new. The diegetic nature of all the visual material – amalgamated from the documentary crew’s multiple cameras as well as from workplace CCTVs and on-road dashcam – primes the knowing viewer to expect a genre-bound simulacrum of reality (of the ‘found footage‘ variety). For here, fly-on-the-wall realism collides with the supernatural, truth meets lies (several characters engage in deceit), and possession itself is shown to be a kind of fictive performance whose participants (both the possessed and their would-be exorcists) take on the sometimes frightening rôles of others as part of a staged ritual (not unlike the process of horror filmmaking).

With vindictive spirits gradually tearing this family – and any bystanders – apart, this at first slow-burning cultural study eventually devolves into pure pandemonium. Yet in a film so concerned with the traffic between tall tales and true, somehow, despite the massacre at the film’s end, someone has managed to collate and edit all this footage, adding informative intertitles and significant flashbacks, as though to keep reminding us that, after all, what we have been watching is only a movie – indeed a horror movie which has taken possession of the documentary form. The medium, you see, is part of this film’s unsettling message about faith, scepticism and the willing suspension of disbelief. The result is a paradox: for while The Medium foregrounds its own awareness of the artificiality, even the absurdity, of horror tropes, it still manages in the end to deliver them with terrifying conviction.

Strap: Banjong Pisanthanakun’s horror mockumentary puts the sham in shamanism, while shaking our conflicting beliefs and making the medium the message.

Anton Bitel