Sick Nurses

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July 30, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

I suppose I’d best clarify immediately, I’m not here to argue that Sick Nurses is some manner of overlooked gem. Maybe that’s exactly what you wanted to hear but it’s simply not the case. Sick Nurses definitely isn’t a masterpiece. In fact, depending on your frame of reference, an argument for the exact opposite would be easy to formulate. Nonetheless, with expectations set suitably low, there’s definitely enjoyment to be derived. So I guess I’m writing this because, should you some day find yourself in a similar position, wondering what silly thing to watch to wile away a spare 82 minutes, then this is by no means the worst you could do.

You could be forgiven for fearing the worst during the opening scenes. Keeping exposition to a minimum, it’s made almost immediately clear that a crooked doctor, Dr. Tar, is making money from harvesting the parts of cadavers he sources through a Thai hospital. Also clarified in this sequence is that his accomplices for this most grim of tasks is a bevy of sexy nurses. Unfortunately the latest unwitting organ donor isn’t actually dead yet. She used to number among the nurses but, for reasons not yet known, she’s aggrieved her cohorts enough for them to turn on her. Having dispensed with those basic events, it next becomes clear that a malevolent spirit has seized the hospital and plans to enact its revenge against those who wronged it. No prizes for guessing its prey.

For those expecting a Asian horror of the standard contemporary mold, replete with predictably unexpected manifestations of jet-black hair, you won’t be disappointed. Hoping for something a little more interesting, since Japan and its East Asian cohorts have already beaten that dead horse into a fine paste, Sick Nurses offers one or two other twists that redeem its otherwise crushing ordinariness. If nothing else, not since Takashi Shimizu’s Juon series have I found a contemporary horror film seemingly so indifferent to narrative. It’s not that Sick Nurses is abstract, but rather that it seems so uninterested in even bluffing a storyline that it at times appears to border on the avant-garde.

To that end it’s helped by a production scheme that veers between the expressionistic and the surreal. Was this a high-minded artistic decision or simply the result of the script’s preposterous events requiring an empty space in which to unfold unhindered? Betting types would be advised to put their money on the latter. The hospital, which provides the setting for almost every single frame of the film, is a weird simulacrum of such a location and the nurses that occupy it are no more convincing. I might add that the nurses really are the building’s sole occupants. Perhaps they work things differently in Thailand but I’ve never heard of a major hospital shutting down at night to allow for what amounts to a staff slumber party. In any case, these women of medicine certainly don’t waste their time looking after pesky patients.

As for the nurses themselves, they certainly look the part, provided you interpreted the word ‘nurse’ to mean ‘fashion model.’ The unabashed glossiness of the central cast can’t help but recall Hong Kong’s riotously awful, Chek law dak gung (aka. Naked Weapon). That film also boasted a cast of up-and-coming models1 but, in terms of unadulterated ridiculousness, it’s actually on a whole other level2. Getting back to Sick Nurses, each character looks like she was freshly lifted from an FHM3 photoshoot. Even the vengeful spirit finds the time to seductively drape herself over the furniture. The only characteristic that delineates the nurses from one another is that they each harbour a different obsession. One is bulimic, one exercises relentlessly, one covets fashionable designer products, and two more spend their time incessantly texting each other and giggling like schoolgirls (one supposes a certain lesbian intent). The final nurse on the spirit’s hit-list is defined by her romantic attachment to the aforementioned Dr. Tar who, despite his central role in what little narrative the film sees fit to cultivate, remains on the fringes until the conclusion.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, each nurses’ obsession will inspire an ironic mode of murder…unless you’re the nurse who works out all the time, she just gets drowned in a big fish tank. Seriously, if the spirit had just smashed her head in with a barbell it would have been more on-point but I digress. Of course it’s the chosen modes of death that provide the core entertainment and it’s here that I really found myself being won over. Sick Nurses can’t really boast too much by way of originality but the vein of wicked humour carried through some of its setpieces, coupled with potential odes to stalwarts of the Asian horror craze4, offer it a certain degree of distinction.

In so much of genre cinema, as any fan will attest, a certain amount of ‘box-ticking’ is expected before you’re treated to the pay-off, be it wholesale slaughter or the happy couple walking into the sunset. In distinguishing between stronger and weaker titles, a lot rests on the methods used to make that process of setting up the inevitable seem more interesting. Snappy dialogue, exotic locations, or perhaps a particularly distinctive narrative hook can all play a part. Sick Nurses doesn’t exactly get off to a flying start but it doesn’t really feel like its ticking the boxes for later either. In its own haphazard way it is, but having unveiled almost everything you need to know in the first few minutes, everything else that occurs up until the girls start dying seems so pointless as to suggest nods to the surreal.

Knowing that it can’t just jump right into a murderous rampage because, if it did, we’d be done in a couple of minutes, the film seems unsure as to how it might proceed. To resolve this dissonance it opts to bide its time, following each girl and outlining their obsessions- a feat that could have been achieved in as little time as it took to read my one or two sentences doing just that three paragraphs ago. Still, it’s not like this section is boring. Although the opening scene toys with the notion of nudity, without actually revealing anything, Thai cinema is still extremely conservative from a sexual perspective5. Still, with a cast of beautiful women at their disposal, the directors are surely obliged to shoot some skin. Sticking to horror convention, a shower scene makes perfect sense. Hitchcock’s Psycho laid all the necessary framework and Ase Wang provides an undeniably alluring subject. Bearing all that in mind, there are many ways to obscure nudity in cinema, in shower scenes and otherwise, but I must admit that keeping the actress fully clothed throughout is a particularly novel approach. Boredom doesn’t even enter the picture when you’re trying to work out why that’s happening.

It’s this strange combination of outlandish deaths, a theatrically abstract backdrop, and a narrative chomping at the bit to get to the good bits that make Sick Nurses a rewarding escapade. It’s probably unintentional, at least mostly so, but the whole thing feels a little like a more menacing incarnation of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s insane, hyper-artifical Hausu. The obvious comedic thrust isn’t there, nor the openly postmodern deconstruction of tried and trusted cinema convention, but through its reliance on shorthand and seeming indifference to basic standards of narrative (and thus dramatic) cohesion, Laoyont and Siriwiwat’s film entertains on fundamentally the same level. It’s a surprising treat for those of us who’ve seen enough cookie-cutter horror films to appreciate someone doing it just wrong enough to kind of redefine what’s right.

The story even comes with a twist in its tail. One so predictable, in its own inimitable way, that I didn’t see it coming because I’d already sarcastically suggested and dismissed it about a half hour earlier. And no sooner as it’s unveiled, the film ends and we’re treated to footage of all the girls, alive again, frolicking on the beach in bikinis. It’s not a flashback to happier times like the basketball game that intersperses Battle Royale, or a dream-sequence intended to reframe what went before. No, it’s simply a sexy photo-shoot, presumably drumming up publicity for the film or else just doing what makes sense when you’ve got a bunch of models on staff and a few hours free. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the film and, like a Jackie Chan gag-reel, it’s primarily tacked on for fan-service.

It’s the perfect end to a film that frequently confounds expectations due to a strange combination of ineptitude, disinterest in boring details, and the difficulties of making a sexy film without really indulging in sex. If the gore easily matches similar international fare then the drama, particularly the romantic entanglements that fuel the central story, are on a par with a particularly poor Mexican soap-opera. Which is why, if you have 80 minutes to spare someday, you really could do a lot worse than Sick Nurses.

1 Including Maggie Q, now well established as an international film property.

2 It’s a genuine ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ experience. I’d go into more details about why it’s gloriously off-kilter and misguided from its very first frame but that’s be a whole other article. It’s probably best to experience it for yourself anyway.

3 Literally

4 The removal of a nurse’s lower jaw again reminds me of Shimizu’s Juon series, this time going right back to the original direct-to-video duo that preceded the more widely seen Japanese theatrical version. The rather sketchy CG imagery only furthers the connection.

5 Although if the cinema of Prachya Pinkaew is anything to go by, gung-ho national pride is perfectly okay. I should mention that Pinkaew is credited as a producer here, further suggesting that he’s a primary figure in the successful export of contemporary Thai cinema.

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