mae nak: the close-up and the invisible

Yongyu Chen provides a new lens on the well-known Thai ghost Nak in his video essay, “Mae Nak: The Close-Up and the Invisible.” Chen draws on Pimpaka Towira’s 1997 film, Mae Nak, to suggest new understandings of cinema, ontology, desire, and nation.

Video excerpts courtesy of Pimpaka Towira, dir., Mae Nak, VHS, 1997

Mae Nak: The Close-Up and the Invisible


// 1. Introduction


[4:15-4:52: close-up of  the rice]

[6:07-6:17: when we finally understand that the identity of the previous image was rice]

[6:55-7:30: face moves into view from the off]

—> In Pimpaka Towira’s Mae Nak, there are many close-up shots. Here, for instance, the camera is zoomed-in so intensely that, for more than half a minute, we can’t determine the identity of that which is falling through the framed visual field, that which is moving against the black background. I think of rain, first of all. But also flashes of light. Hail.

—> Later, in a shot that’s much more zoomed-out, we find out that it’s rice. In the moment, however, the spectator experiences a suspension of knowledge; during the duration of the close-up there’s no way that our eyes can tell us for certain what is shown. During the duration of the close-up, an ocular paradox is vividly felt: the close-up moves us closer to a certain object but this moving-closer can also make it harder for us to identify what we have been moved towards.


[cycle between the rice close-up, in the mood for love rain, emerald feathers, faster and faster.]

—> In the shot of the falling rice, the close-up ends up presenting the rice not more clearly but actually more obscurely, as something indeterminate; the close-up, which we might expect to stabilize, has the tendency, instead, to destabilize what it images, insofar as the spectator becomes confused as to what is being shown — especially when the close-up in question is very intense, as is often in the case in Mae Nak.

—> Vivian Sobchak, in “What My Fingers Knew,” recounts a similar experience while watching the first scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano: in her case, the visual frustration caused by a close-up causes her to focus instead on her sense of touch; unable to understand the scene visually, Sobchak resorts to what, as she says in the title of her essay, “her fingers knew.”

[2 minutes]



// 2. Vertigo


[00:01-00:38: water scene]

[15:00-16:14: rain scene]

—> Last semester, in England, I was reading a book called The Off-Screen: An Investigation of the Cinematic Frame, by Eyal Peretz. In it, Peretz formulates, in more abstract, theoretical terms, the feeling that I’ve already described — the feeling that the close-up generates at the same time a clarification and an obfuscation. Peretz notes that “The nearer we draw to the object in the close-up, the farther we drift away from the world and ourselves. This feeling of simultaneously moving nearer to and farther from produces a sense of vertigo… the vertiginous effect of drowning”

—> Vertigo. The close-up brings with it both a gain (the ability to see an object in greater detail) and a loss (the loss of the contextual world that surrounds that singular focused-upon object.) Because the size of the frame doesn’t enlarge during the close-up, the close-up necessarily results in the loss as well as the gain of visual information. The close-up surrounds a gain with a loss. We can think of this in two separate ways; on the one hand, the close-up is a making-use of loss for the end of achieving a particular gain; there’s a poem I love, by Natalie Eilbert, called “Judges,” which ends with the speaker noting that “I saw I was ready to make use of loss”; on the other hand, however, and in the sense that I want to focus on in the context this essay, the close-up is a way to make loss vivid by emptying out a gain.

[2 minutes]



// 3. The In-Visible


[8:25-10:05: the giant rotating scene]

—> As we can imagine, when the close-up process is pushed to its logical extreme, then only one object would be shown inside the screen, in what I would call the on-screen; everything else would be pushed into the off-screen. As this contextual world is lost, as it is pushed from the on-screen space past the frame and then into the off-screen space, its visual characteristics necessarily change — once pushed into the off-frame, it belongs to a new visual order; we see it in a different way, with a different modality of vision.

—> As objects move out of the on-screen (a motion which happens not only in close-ups but also, for instance, when the camera moves or turns, as in this spinning scene, causing objects to cycle in and out of the frame continuously, as in turnstile of presence and absence)…. As objects move out of the on-screen space, a space where things are immediately and explicitly given to our vision, where things are, in short, simply visible, and move into the off-screen, they don’t become invisible — not exactly.

—> Akira Lippit mentions this in his book Atomic Light, in which, drawing on Derrida, Lippit makes the important distinction between two registers of invisibility. There is, first of all, the absolutely invisible (“refer[ing] to whatever falls outside the register of sight, namely the sonorous, the musical, the vocal” — data that can’t be processed by our vision) and there is that which is only provisionally invisible, which Lippit calls the in-visible, the in-hyphen-visible (here Lippit is referring to “[that which is] invisible… because [it has been] kept out of sight [like a part of my body beneath a veil]… but they are still of the order of visibility: an operation or an accident can expose them or bring them to the surface; their interiority is provisional and bringing their invisibility into view is something that can be propsoed or promised.”)


[pause on 10:05 “where is my wife.”]

—> The objects that inhabit the off-screen belong to this second, provisional order of invisibility. If the framing were enlarged or shifted, we would be able to see what, at the moment, remains off-screen. (Here, we would be able to see the rest of the husband body.) And, insofar as the framing doesn’t change, we can still imagine what is off-frame. The off-frame in visual art belongs to an order of visibility in which we do not actually see but only as-if-see; it is inhabited by objects that are not literally visible to us and yet are not literally invisible either — rather they are as-if-visible, visible insofar as we can imagine it, we can picture it for itself, insofar as imagination is a kind of approximate, makeshift vision. It is as if, surrounding the on-frame, is a huge veiled area; and there, as when a part of the body is veiled, we can imagine what is behind the veil, drawing from our own visual memories, drawing from our fantasies, rational or irrational speculations, deductions.

[4 minutes]



// 4. Haunting


[pt 2 00:58-]

—> If the off-screen zone is inhabited by objects characterized by the paradoxical kind of visibility described previously — neither visible nor invisible, but rather an invisibility that is as-if-visible, a kind of visibility of the invisible which collapses the binary between the visible / the invisible — the off-screen zone is also characterized, in a parallel way, by a paradoxical ontology, an ontology in which things are neither present nor absent, but rather characterized by the presence of an absence.

—> Peretz describes this well in a quote in which he is actually referring to the off-frame zone of paintings, but his conclusions apply as well to the off-screen zone of films: “this outside of the frame,” Peretz says, “seems to be a (nonspatial) part of the painting, belonging to something we might call the fictional [diegetic] realm of the painting (a realm that is ‘larger’ or ‘more’ than what the painting makes visible), an outside only made possible by, and in fact to a certain extreme co-extensive with, the painting itself…. [But] while it belongs to the painting, it has no actual presence, only a presence we can understand, for lack of a better term, as virtual, and thus as a nonexistence that is nevertheless in effect. We can name such being-in-effect of what does not actually exist, a ‘haunting’ [emphasis added.]”

—> “Haunting,” Peretz says. It’s interesting and appropriate that Peretz, describing the off-frame, starts to use the terminology of spectrality. / The things that inhabit the off-frame are not present (as they are in the on-frame) nor are they exactly absent — rather, they are the presence of an absence; they are a virtual (to use Peretz’s term) presence, the presence of that which “does not actually exist.” In other words, they take part of the ontology of ghosts; a hauntology; they are spectral objects and, as such, they are able, as Peretz noted, to haunt everything that seems solid and ghostly.

—> To summarize, a ghostly visuality and a ghostly ontology characterize the off-screen zone that surrounds the filmic screen.

[3 minutes]



// 5. Identity



—> In film, there is always such a ghostly off-screen surrounding the on-screen space; but we are not always aware of it. The close-up dramatically draws our attention to the off-screen space because almost everything is pushed off-screen now — the close-up makes us aware of it, curious of it, the close-up activates it for us, brings it into play, we try to see what is off-frame to help us contextualize what is, indeterminately, within the frame of the close-up shot — we bring the ghosts into play.


—> As a result, the close-up not only decontextualizes that which it focuses on but also renders its status precarious in many senses — only the infinitely thin line of the frame separates it from a zone of spectrality. A ghostliness, a loss that what is on-screen will tip into if only the camera shifts a little, very little. In the close-up, the on-screen is haunted by the off-screen.


[1:16-1:20: hair close-up

3:24-2:28: dead body close-up

6:19-6:29: feet close-up

8:52-9:06: exorcist close-up

9:43-9:53: husband close-up during exorcism

10:30-10:50: close-up of back

10:55-11:11: profile close-ups

12:5-12:57: hand with candle

15:55-16:10: closeup from behind.


0-06: face in blue

1:57-2:07: eye

changing into her face, spinning into

4:58-5:12: hand gripping

5:28-5:30: body black

7:15-7:25: feet again]


—> In Mae Nak, it’s important to that it’s often people who are shown in close-ups. Time after time, now and again, the frame cuts off faces from bodies, bodies from faces. The frame cuts off body parts from whole bodies — very rarely, in fact, do we see an entire. For the most part, the characters belong, at least in part, in the off-screen. For the most part, the characters are decontextualized in space and time, rendered indeterminate, practically illegible. The question often arises , at least for me, of where, for instance, and when a character is situated spatiotemporally. And, also, for a given scene, where the characters are situated in relation to each other. And, on a much more basic level, who is actually being shown? What are they doing? It’s often hard to determine who is on camera. As a result, ultimately, it’s hard to even count how many characters appear in the film, let alone who each character is.

—> The close-up’s haunting force, its ability to destabilize the identities of what it shows, to almost hollow them out of content, is applied, in Mae Nak, to people. And, crucially, the people in Mae Nak’s world are not just anyone but people whose identities are very important to a Thai sense of nationhood. As indicated by the very title of the film, Mae Nak, as well as the basic narrative events in it such as the preparation for Nak’s burial that involves the tying of Nak’s hands, and such as the exorcist scene, Pimpaka Towira’s film features the story of Nang Nak, a story which May Adadol Ingawanij describes as that of “Thailand’s national ghost,” a “story everybody knows” in Thailand.



// Part 5


—> May Adadol Ingawanij, in “Nang Nak: Thai Bourgeois Heritage Cinema,” points out how, in the late 1990s in Thailand, the ghost story of Nak lends itself easily to nationalist motives. She explains that, in the late 1990s, in the midst and wake of the disorientation and trauma of 1997 Asian financial crisis that affected Thailand, a genre of film called Thai bourgeois heritage cinema came to prominence, seeking, among other goals, to construct, to reconstruct, and to configure a coherent national identity, one which yearned schizophrenically “for [both] Thainess and global prestige in globalisation.” And, in her essay, May Adadol points to how another film about Nak — namely, Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang Nak, made in 1998, just one year after Pimpaka Towira’s film — taps into the collective familiarity with Nak’s story to construct a sense of shared heritage: the heritage film, as May Adadol notes, is based on “the presentation of Thainess as a visual attraction, the pastiche of historical personages and traumatic episodes in the biography of the Thai nation, and most significantly the wishful claim to quality as films of a sakon or ‘international/Western’ calibre”; for May Adadol, Nang Nak represents the concept of “a nationally shared story remade by a national figure [Nimibutr.]”

[7.5 minutes]


—> Pimpaka Towira, in her own film, defuses the possibility for a nationalist use of the identities of Nak and Mak by hollowing them out and rendering them practically illegible through her overwhelming use of close-ups that disorient both the spectator and the narrative. The spectacle is no longer Nak and Mak as cultural artifacts, but the pure, aesthetic, formal qualities of Pimpaka Towira’s film itself. Mae Nak renders inoperative the nationalist use of the legend of Nak’s ghost in a historical moment in which such a use of Nak’s ghost was becoming more and more important for certain Thai filmmakers; seeing Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang Nak, it’s easy to see how that film could be used to help found a dream of nationalist revival; watching Pimpaka Towira’s Mae Nak, however, it seems impossible to found a nation-dream on it.

[5 minutes]



// 6. Coda (On Flirtation)


—> The aesthetics of the close-up, in Mae Nak, can be read politically, as I’ve tried to do above; but it can also be read in relation to sexuality and desire.

—> If the close-up performs an operation in which the on-frame is ultimately rendered precarious, deeply contingent, if the close-up is linked to a worldview that situates contingency as what is primary, then the close-up is already similar to flirtation, insofar as flirtation and its light eroticism (as Adam Phillips describes in On Flirtation) is the sexuality most consistent with contingency.

—> Phillips, in his book, contrasts flirtation with commitment, a flirtatious relationship with a committed, romantic, sexual relationship; for this reason, he says that “flirtation puts in disarray our sense of an ending.” Flirtation, faced with contingency, does not try to find assurance, a contract, but rather “eroticizes the [very] contingency of our lives by turning doubt — or ambiguity — into suspense” — flirtation, in Phillip’s formulation, keeps “the future open.” It is “an attempt to re-open, to rework, the plot; to find somewhere else, in the philosopher william james’s words, ‘to go from.’ ”

—> Interestingly, flirtation excludes sexual contact — its avoidance of the definite is the avoidance also of the definiteness, the concretness of sex. Flirtation is erotic without being sexual — in fact, it rarely even involves touch: thus, flirtation presents the possibility of a flirtatious sexuality that’s totally divorced from the act of reproduction; and insofar as reproduction is something that the state is necessarily interested in, the biopolitical maintenance of the population, flirtation is heterogeneous, other to the state — in a concrete sense, very much against what the state wants. (Steven Wisensale notes, for instance, that in communist Vietnam, “the state provided substantial support to [working] women so that they could also continue their role as reproducers” — showing how both production and reproduction are key interests of the state”; Tani Barlow, similarly, points out that, in Maoist China, “scientific midwifery connected family reproduction to state politics” such that “The modern socialist jiating [family] and Maoist guojia [state] coexisted in synecdochic unity, as concept-metaphors of each other.”)) In this way too, in this flirtatiousness inherent in the act of the close-up, Mae Nak forecloses what the nation-state wants.

—> There is a quote that Phillips draws from Georg Simmel, with which I would like to end this video essay: “every conclusive decision brings flirtation to an end.”

[3.5 minutes]