The 2006 Thai horror film Dorm (original title Dek Hor) is a movie that is out of this world. Unfortunately it isn’t a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-type of movie with space but the kind with another world for the dear departed. Not feeling the horror genre? Dorm has more than that, with a coming-of-age, feel good movie with dramatic horror intricately woven to create a story about a boy who finds the true meaning of caring for a friend instead of thinking of only himself. Ghost stories? Boarding-school education? Getting caught with naughty magazines? What’s a new kid supposed to do to fit in?

I first saw this movie around 2006 or so, fresh from high school and still trying to assimilate into the life of an awkward college student. This movie touched me on different levels that I tear up each time I watch it. Personally I do not cry so easily at movies. I found a kindred spirit in Amir after reading his review on Sepet when he spoke about not crying so easily to Yasmin.* The movie flows smoothly, from our young hero’s transition into boarding school to the climactic conclusion leading him to accept his new school with cheer. While there are a few scares here and there thanks to the brilliant cinematography, the movie ends on a carefree tone, something I believe is integral to the resolution and finally transforms our hero from a sulking young boy to a more mature preteen who cares for those around him.

The music is placed at all the right places to give chills in a seemingly normal school. There is a lot playing around with lights and shadows which amplifies the mood of the film from the two friends sneaking into an all girl’s school parade to picturing ghostly apparitions while telling stories at night. I would say the re-watch value is pretty high for a movie about young seventh-grade boys in a foreign country but I like to believe that the ‘foreign’ criteria is universal towards all who view it; that is what makes this movie something to watch again and again. Although the language is different, the story transcends that. Despite a majority of the cast being young boys with at least four major women important to plot (Mother, Headmistress, Namtarn, Pen the maid), I could relate to the boys and what they were going through which I feel adds to that momentum of understanding feelings and actions without knowledge of language.

From here on out will be a short description on characters and notes on themes. Please do not read if you do not want spoilers.

Cast of characters and short descriptions

Ton/Chatree: Ton is the name his family and his best friend Vichien uses when addressing him whereas Chatree is what everyone in the boarding school calls him as a formality. He is a young boy transferring to a boarding school in the middle of seventh grade. He likes watching television.

Ton’s family: Consisting of a father, mother and younger brother (Toh), their family seems relatively well-to-do. They have two maids and a two-story house. The family car is European made, with the driver’s seat on the right-hand side versus cheaper American cars which is on the left-hand side. Father is loving yet strict with Ton, possibly because he is the eldest son. It is insinuated that the father sent Ton away because he caught his father and one of the maids (Pen) in the middle of sex. Ton’s mother is very pretty yet uses copious amounts of makeup and a Western perm hairstyle that is out of place in rural Thailand. Toh is Ton’s precocious little brother who lovingly and innocently trails after Ton.

Miss Pranee: The headmistress of Ton’s boarding school. She is strict with almost a robotic personality and monotone voice. She watches over Ton after the insistence of his father. She plays a sappy love song on the record player that consistently repeats due to a heavy scratch and stares at an open drawer in her desk. She believes that she played a major part in the death of a student years ago…

l to r: Pok, Nui, Toei, Peng

Peng, Nui, Pok, Toei: A group of four boys who target Ton to bully. Peng is the leader of the group yet a numbskull; Pok is the shortest and constantly has white ointment on his face (reminds me of the chamomile lotion put on me to prevent me from scratching); Toei is a smartass and hangs around the rest; lastly Nui is a creepily misunderstood boy whose family owns a coffin business and is the first of the boys to understand Ton besides Vichien.

Vichien: A boy around Ton’s age, he shows him how to adapt to school life easily. Because Ton is ignored by everyone at school, he opens up to Vichien the most because they are alike in that same aspect. It is revealed through subtle hints until the big reveal that Vichien is a ghost; he drowned in a prank gone wrong in the school’s pool. It was Miss Pranee who later found his body, breaking her to the point of being stricter with the boys so that it does not happen again. Vichien’s father was a corrupt police chief who was sentenced to 25 years in prison and the same day he found out, Vichien drowned. It is Vichien who helps Ton, even before meeting him (I won’t admit this to you but I have warm feelings everytime I see the flashbacks of Vichien helping Ton).

Television and Ghost Stories: A Portal to Imagination

Ton loves to watch television. He risks punishment to watch shows late at night because it leads him to a different world than what he lives in. During the movie, we see a progression that is akin to history’s transformation of storytelling. Ton reads books/comics off-screen meaning that he has read them already or have outgrown the content. He then goes towards T.V. However when he is sent to boarding school, he does not watch any T.V. in the common room, possibly because he does not want to share what he likes with the other boys or maybe the T.V. is broken, limiting any of the boys’ contact to the outside world of cartoon, drama, news, etc. Instead, his “new” form of entertainment is ghost stories in the form of oral storytelling thanks to Master Peng and his cronies. Ton is going back to his roots, listening to ghost stories that have supposedly happened in the very school he is now living in. There is no glass separator confining the ghosts in a box a la television and instead they are wandering around, evidenced from the ghost of the old dorm master walking through them.

top to bottom: modern storytelling vs oral storytelling

In the beginning scene we see Ton go through his desk drawer and flip through Japanese comics (manga) to find a picture with his two other best friends from school. Why does he not keep a picture with himself and his friends outside where he can easily reflect on the good times? Possibly in a frame to protect it from damage? My theory is that he keeps his friends between the pages of manga (especially a sports manga) because he internalizes his youth between foreign influences (example: Japanese comics) in order to get away from home life. (I found it bittersweet since the flashbacks of his home life look somewhat normal instead of terribly abusive.) It also signifies summer vacation is what they made of themselves, free from constraint and homework (until the very end!). Ton’s significant hobby the viewer observes through flashbacks is his love of television. At one scene, he is watching a drama (not cartoons, something strange I observed from a boy… Do young boys prefer live-action over cartoons?) and quickly turns off the T.V. when he hears his father come in. Despite the many textbooks around him, Ton betrays himself by having placed himself in front of the T.V. while doing homework. How many times have we gotten in trouble for that? His father unplugs and takes a piece out of the cable plug thus severing the link to the outside world of stories for Ton.

This is better than cartoons!

So how is Ton able to see Vichien and not the other boys who have been there longer than him and tell him the ghost stories? This theory has something connected to the T.V. medium but bigger: Movies. A communal activity where all the boys gather to watch a hilariously scary movie (Hong Kong’s Mr. Vampire, 1985), they each mimic the moves one of the characters uses when faced with a hopping vampire (jiangshi), from bringing their legs up to their seats to covering their crouches. There is much laughter among everyone as if they laugh at the film as well as themselves for being scared. The boys know it is just a movie yet they physically react as if the monster was there grabbing at them! It isn’t until the boys hold their breath that marks the big reveal to Ton: Vichien is a ghost. There is no glass screen or film tarp between the viewer and the ghost, instead the barrier is gone with Ton having to deal with the real thing.

Where did everyone go? Followed by monkey see, monkey do

Growing up

Dorm isn’t just a movie about a kid helping his ghost friend, there are themes of growing up both emotionally and physically. Although Ton only grows two centimeters since he first came to the boarding school, the more obvious growth is within him emotionally. Over the course of the movie, I felt that Ton was exposed to a world that I wasn’t exposed to when I was his age (Yes, I can see the age difference already). For one thing, he has an idea of drama and romantic relationships despite having none; the closest would be his crush on Namtarn. While sneaking off to watch T.V. he hid underneath a shelf, observing first-hand his father’s adultery with one of their maids. Even Touch, the comic in Ton’s room is aimed at young boys and has themes of romance intermixed with baseball. With Vichien’s help, Ton locates his secret stash of naughty magazines and once he is caught by Miss Pranee, is held in high regard among the boys for being caught and going unpunished for being curious about sexuality. The ironic thing to think about is that in a learning establishment, it is negative to want to “learn” about sexual behavior but it could be an age issue.

top to bottom: Dark side of becoming a man and the benevolent perks that come with it

Crossing the Threshold

Have you heard of the land of the dead in Greek mythology? In which there is a river called Styx (not to be confused with the American rock band) that has a ferryman that ferries the souls of the dead into the Underworld, crossing the threshold of the living? That being said, there are two worlds that inhabit the mythos: the Living and the Dead. In Dorm, the first scene that significantly shows this is the bridge scene, in which we get our first look into superstition. The family car is crossing a large body of water while Toh holds his breath to make a wish. Along with the film where the boys hold their breath in connection to a ghost, Toh holds his breath because of a positive superstition in receiving a wish. As we watch the family cross the river, are we witnessing the group cross the threshold into a different world or maybe Ton is crossing into this as a challenge put forth by his father?

Crossing the river is an obstacle in itself

When I was younger, I read folktales that describe spirits or ghostly entities not being able to cross bodies of running water because of the life the river holds (animals and vegetation) as well as water being a key component in surviving. However a key component is crossing the threshold into the next world to save Vichien. By using ether, Ton splits his soul from his mortal body in order to save the drowning Vichien through the spirit world. Now, one must remember that he is in a pool of water. While the stories I’ve heard mainly had European roots, bodies of water could have other meanings besides a deterrent for spirits; the water could hold religious meaning (India’s Ganges River for example is traditionally where the ashes of the deceased are thrown) or could be seen as a reflection pool to the other world/or another person to your supposed “reflection”.

How… can I save him?

Dorm is something to look out for when considering which movie to watch on a Thai-horror theme Halloween movie night. Or maybe a Thai-theme slice-of-life-horror-family theme Halloween movie night. The movie does not disappoint (just ignore Ton’s ever-changing hairstyle) and maybe you’ll shed a tear or two. Not because of romantic love but more so of a seemingly impossible task accomplished through the motivation of friendship.

“What would you do if you died?”

Dorm cover picture:

*Muhammad, Amir. “Sepet.” In Yasmin Ahmad’s Films, p. 73-74. Kuala Lumpur: Matahari Books, 2009.

All pictures taken from screencaps while watching the movie at 3 am. Was I scared? Maybe…

This review has been a result of viewing and writing for ASAN 491G: Topics in Asia: Asia (Cinema of Southeast Asia) taught by Professor Paul Rausch of the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Feburary 13, 2013.