Shudder Secrets: The Medium Explained: Karma, A Family Curse, and Possession
The Thai-Korean horror film The Medium tries to do a lot, and I mean A LOT. It’s no wonder the run time inches past two hours. It explores shamanism, an ancestral curse, karma, and possession. Oh, and it has a major Blair Witch vibe at points. Comparisons to The Wailing are warranted, too, since that film’s director, Na Hong-jin, produced this film. However, The Medium’s director Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter) has crafted his own movie, one with a lot to unpack.
Major spoilers below.
Nim the Medium
Set in rural Thailand, The Medium first plays out like a docudrama about shamanism. An unnamed film crew interviews Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), a medium for the goddess Ba Yan. Nim makes frequent pilgrimages to the mountain to pray to the goddess. She also “heals” villagers, though she does joke that if someone has cancer and comes to her, they’ll most likely die. She explains she only “cures” illnesses of the unseen, like black magic.
Generally, Nim believes in a higher power through and through. For whatever reason, Ba Yan only possesses the women in her family, and she’s positive that she’s a vessel for the goddess. However, we never actually see her perform any miracles. This is especially true when her niece, Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech), exhibits violent and strange behavior. Nim appears powerless to stop it, no matter how many other shamans she enlists in various rituals. What’s important is the fact that the film crew never actually captures Nim performing any miracles of sorts. She talks about it. Villagers come to see her, but there’s no documented evidence any type of goddess moves through her. We only have her words and steadfast faith.
A Tale of Two Sisters and Family Disputes
Nim’s sister and Mink’s mother, Noi (Sirani Yankittikan), eventually confesses to the camera crew that she never wanted to be a medium for Ba Yan. In fact, she admits to converting to Christianity to avoid such a fate. She claims that her body started to hurt, and she had her period every day for months. To counter the pain, she refused the connection with the goddess. Mink, meanwhile, mocks the idea of shamanism, calling the rituals weird at one point.
After Noi rejected the role, the goddess apparently found another vessel in Nim, who does say early in the film that her role as a medium fulfills her. Yet, it’s not quite clear if she means that, or if she merely tells herself that. She and Noi act cool towards each other, most likely because Noi shunned her role as the next medium in line and forced Nim to take on Ba Yan’s spirit in her place. This role includes all the attention from true believers seeking a miracle or wanting to pay their respects and offerings.
A Family Curse
The Medium mixes complex family history with the supernatural. On the way to a funeral for Noi’s husband, Wiroj, Nim explains that all the men in Wiroj’s family are cursed. Laborers stoned one of them. His father died in a factory fire. And his son, Mac, died in a motorcycle accident, or so we’re led to believe. It’s utterly unclear why his family would be cursed, until much later in the film. The reveal ties much of the narrative together, including Mink’s violent behavior and eventual full-blown possession.
Symbolism Within Mink’s Nightmares
Quite early in the film, Mink lashes out in several bizarre and uncanny ways. She pushes children at an indoor playground. Later, she smacks a woman on a bus and calls her a hag. These first signs indicate a much deeper problem. More importantly, however, she tells Nim at one point that she has a re-occurring dream about a large man holding a sword. He licks the blood while a decapitated head tries to whisper something to Mink that she can’t hear.
Eventually, another shaman, Santi (Boonsong Nakphoo), explains the curse of Wiroj’s family. In simple terms, his ancestors beheaded thousands of people. This explains Mink’s horrific reoccurring nightmare. The victims cursed the family. Because Noi married him, she inherited the curse. To compound the problem, Noi also rejected Ba Jan and so did Mink, to an extent. Therefore, Mink especially is easy prey for vengeful spirits.
A family curse isn’t the only reason for Mink’s suffering. When she grows increasingly ill, Noi suddenly changes her tune and becomes more of a believer. She thinks Ba Jan chose her daughter for the next medium and rushes an acceptance ceremony. However, because it’s done in haste, it opens her up to any type of spirit, good and bad. As Santi explains, her body becomes like a car with a key left in it. It’s impossible to tell how many spirits are in her. He does, however, declare the spirits vindictive.
None of the spirits are ever named in the film, and it’s never quite clear if it’s one spirit possessing her or several. However, after Santi explains why the men in Wiroj’s family all die tragically, it’s likely at least some of the spirits possess Mink.
The Botched Exorcism
The film’s final act has an exorcism scene that rivals The Wailing. Once again, a shaman, Santi, tries in earnest to save someone from evil spirits. However, in this version, everything goes terribly, TERRIBLY wrong. Mink’s possession becomes a group affair. The spirits either possess Santi’s disciples or kill them. Even Noi faces peril. At one point, she claims that the spirit of Ba Jan finally chose her as a medium, once she started to believe, of course. However, because she performs a ceremony backward and it leads to more bloodshed, it’s unlikely a good spirit chose her as a vessel once her eyes blackened.
This leads to an ending that’s one of the bleakest I’ve seen in some time. Nothing is resolved in the film’s closing minutes, and the body count leaps higher and higher. What it has to say about faith is even more damning.
In the final scene, Nim cries in front of the camera crew. She confesses that she’s nervous about the exorcism/ceremony and Mink’s fate. Further, she questions her faith, admitting she’s unsure whether she’s even a medium for Ba Yan. This bit of footage, only revealed at the end, may hint at why the exorcism failed. Maybe Nim was never a vessel for the goddess. Heck, maybe the goddess is not a benevolent spirit. It’s never quite clear because the spirits never make themselves fully known or identify themselves once they grab hold of Mink and take the car for a spin. Meanwhile, Ba Yan is a character created solely for this film whose intentions are ambiguous at best.
More importantly, though, The Medium is a movie about faith and belief. Elements of Buddhism and Taoism are at play, specifically the concept of karma in relation to Wiroj’s ancestors. Debates between Nim and Noi about whether any type of deity exists remain my favorite scenes. Nim believes that spirits exist everywhere, in all living things. Considering how steadfast her character is for two hours, her confession at the end hits hard. Mink’s decay shatters Nim’s faith.
Blair Witch’s Influence
The Medium also wears its Blair Witch influence proudly. The exorcism’s setting looks like a dilapidated building, not dissimilar to the abandoned house where Mike (Michael C. Williams) and Heather (Heather Donahue) presumably die during Blair Witch’s last scene. One of the cameramen dashes through the woods, trying to escape the possessed group in the closing minutes. The jerky camera shots resemble Heather rushing through the woods, trying to find her friends and save herself. Heck, even Noi and Nim’s brother, Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn), wear a flannel shirt that looks like something Mike or Josh (Joshua Leonard) wore. Okay, maybe I’m stretching that last point a bit, but I’m pretty sure Manit didn’t wear a single piece of flannel clothing until the film really leans into its Blair Witch influence.
All of that said, I’m left scratching my head why The Medium uses the found footage style at all. The camera crew has no personality. They’re mere cannon fodder for the film’s bloody last 10 minutes. It’s unclear why they even film. Are they making a documentary about shamanism? Who knows! They’re just sort of… there.
The Medium works best when it explores concepts of faith and belief. Its ending is an all-out bloodbath. But I like its quietest moments best when Nim and Noi explore their own doubts and beliefs.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.