A harsh critique on internet fame and the drive to be a celebrity, the Thai thriller Grace is a dark tale of celebrity and envy gone horrifically awry.
Directors Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai set the stage for the film literally at the film’s ten second mark. We open on what appears to be one of an innumerable YouTube-like show where some pretty girl with dubious real talent or point of view is trying to manufacture for herself a career. Her name is Grace (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) and after greeting her audience and promising a backstage look at a YouTube series called “Summer Trick,” the camera pans over to two young women – bound, gagged and sobbing fearfully – with a third body on the floor in a pool of blood. All the while Grace continues to chatter away, blissfully promising more behind-the-stage looks coming up.
The two bound girls are Care (Napasasi Surawan) and a friend. Slowly, through flashbacks, we learn what exactly what fuels Grace’s murderous fixation on Care and Care is more than a little to blame for it. Grace has a certain amount of online celebrity as a cosplay model, but is learning that that sort of fame is fleeting. Care is an upcoming internet “idol” who supplements her modeling with fantasy stories revolving around a character based on her. Jealousy and obsession soon bloom in Grace, and things take a tragic turn after she and her photographer Jack are caught by Care breaking into her home while she is out shopping.
Just going by the plot description, one can see that there is a lot of cinematic DNA to be found in Grace. The teen girls here as bitchy and relentless as the ones found in Heathers, but without the dark comedy to blunt their edges. The kidnapping plot certainly owes at least a nod to the likes of Misery and The King Of Comedy, while the older idol feeling jealous and threatened by a younger upstart marks the film as an All About Eve for the cyber-era, except that the backstabbing becomes literal, not figurative.
Despite going into some truly dark places, Grace never stumbles into the realm of sleazy exploitation. Despite the sexual content, there’s no nudity and gore hounds will be disappointed that all the kills are done off-screen, sometimes right out of camera frame. This is all thanks to local censorship laws which won’t allow such things on screen.
That doesn’t mean that the film is safe and sanitary viewing by any means. In the scene where Jack sexually assaults a chain-bound Care while Grace gleefully video records everything, directors Homchuen and Donsawai score the moment with light, airy music that belongs more in a romance film than here. It’s a choice that not only tries to put us into Jack’s distorted mindset but to make us complicit as well. It’s a bold move that evokes a reaction in the viewer, an overall feeling of skeeviness. The whole scene is perhaps one of the more disturbing of its kind on film, rivaling the likes of They Call Her One Eye and Baise Moi, but disturbing on a different level due to its lack of explicit imagery.
Almost the entire main cast is called upon to take their characters to some dark places and they all do so very convincingly. Sakuljaroensuk gives an energetic and captivating performance as the unhinged Grace that never stumbles into broad or cartoony territory. And kudos should be given to Surawan, for selling the absolute terror of her character in the closeup shots at the end of the assault scene. It could not have been easy nor comfortable to perform.
What makes this film really stand out from other genre fare is that it creates a morally grey miasma that all it’s characters exist in. Everyone is a victim. Everyone is a perpetrator. There are no heroes here. Care is vain, cruel and more than a bit of a bitch who has driven Grace around the bend. Do Care and her friends deserve the vengeance that Grace rains down of them? No more than Grace deserved the cruel and sadistic bullying she received from Care’s crew.
But even as every new thing we learn more about each character makes them more unlikable, the more we find ourselves engrossed in their story. Do we just want to see unlikable people doing horrible things to each other? If so, is that a reaction to recent news events in which we see over and over again horrible things happening to the innocent and undeserving? Or perhaps we are just hoping the competition eliminates itself, making room for us?