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The naga is a fierce, mystical serpent with many heads, revered as the protector of Buddha. According to Buddhist lore, a naga once magically transformed itself into a human and sought to become a monk. But the Buddha, detecting its false nature, expelled the naga from the monastery – though not before teaching it the path to righteous karma so that it could truly be reborn as a man.
This is the central allegory in the high-concept thriller In the Shadow of the Naga, which combines tense drama with a philosophical exploration of karmic retribution and redemption. The story follows three robbers – Parn, Por and Singh – who are on the run from the police after a successful heist. In desperation, one of them buries their loot on temple grounds, but after a few months, they are dismayed to discover that a new hall has been built on top of their stash. To retrieve the money, they have no choice but to coerce the monastery's elder monk to ordain them. Can Buddha's teachings free them from their dark nature, or will their violent impulses force them into desperate measures?
This is a provocative theme for a Thai film after the recent censorship of Syndromes and a Century, in which scenes of monks playing the guitar and operating a remote-controlled UFO were censored for “violating Buddhist precepts.” The potential for controversy is strong here: while Parn and Singh are charismatic and masculine, they are also portrayed as dangerous loose cannons who don't hesitate to use guns while wearing their orange robes. But In the Shadow of the Naga also has a strong moral undercurrent, with Por acting as the trio's conscience. Though he decides not to become ordained, Por is nevertheless plagued by a sense of guilt, and seeks absolution from his sins in the teachings of the abbot. The sudden intrusion by Singh's girlfriend, sassily played by Inthira Charoenpura (of Nang Nak), lights a fire under the already simmering tension, and the enthralling denouement is as unexpected as it is brutal.
In Thai culture, “naga” also refers to a young man in his prime who renounces his sexual urges for monkhood. The film ends with a poetic ordination ritual of one such naga, thus taking us back to the legend and highlighting the cyclical nature of karma. -- Raymond Phathanavirangoon
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