Emir Ezwan’s directorial debut goes heavy on atmosphere and symbolism, marking another high point in Southeast Asian horror
Micro-budget production house Kuman Pictures has been a breath of fresh air in the Malaysian horror scene in recent years. Through its internationally acclaimed 2019 debut Two Sisters, the studio proved that its cost-effective and creatively challenging ethos could produce interesting alternatives to a genre inundated in the Southeast Asian mainstream by schlocky, jump-scare-driven efforts. And nowhere is that more evident than Kuman Pictures’ sophomore offering, Roh (Malay for ‘soul’), which made its mark as Malaysia’s official submission for the 93rd Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category.
Filmed in just two weeks on a tiny budget of RM360,000 in the Dengkil forest of Selangor, this feature film debut from director Emir Ezwan is a thematically rich, slow-burning folk horror in the vein of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Set in an indeterminate past, Roh follows an isolated family living in a barren hut deep in the jungle. Quickly, we gather that the single mother (played by Farah Ahmad) is distrustful of outsiders and prefers to raise her son Angah (Harith Haziq) and daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) in seclusion.
One day, their simple life is up-ended when they decide to take in a mud-caked little girl (Putri Syahadah Nurqaseh) lost in the forest. After they clothe, clean and feed her, the child suddenly prophesises that they will all die by the next full moon, before slitting her own throat.
The spooked and shaken family is soon beset by a series of frightening supernatural misfortunes, punctuated by visits from two other strangers. One is a kindly shaman healer (Junainah M. Lojong) offering assistance, while the other is an imposing spear-wielding hunter (Namron), who is tracking the mysterious aforementioned child. The family, and the audience, is at first unsure of who to trust –- which plays into Roh’s key themes of paranoia, pride and the primordial human instinct that anything unfamiliar in the wild, seen or unseen, is a potential threat.
Going light on plot and dialogue but heavy on symbolism and metaphor, Emir does a fantastic job of crafting ominous imagery from the film’s natural surroundings. The director and his cinematographer Saifuddin Musa envelope viewers in a sense of desolate isolation – subtly compelling the idea that there’s a presence, a person, a creature, a something, just behind the abundant foliage.
This effect is greatly aided by Reinchez Ng’s foreboding score as well. Roheschews cheap scares to meticulously craft a thick atmosphere of suspense, which makes the occasions when the film does choose to frighten you with brutally unsettling sequences all the more haunting and horrific.
Roh preys upon deep-rooted superstitious fears of falling victim to sinister influences. Its opening quotation of a Quranic verse about the crafty nature of Satan’s evil is the closest the film comes to spelling anything out for you. Instead, Emir relies on recurring religious motifs of fire, clay and blood – from burning trees and the charcoal that becomes the family’s subsistence, to characters constantly covered in mud, to the copious amounts of spilt blood.
The ways Emir uses these tableaux of brown and red amid verdant green, signifying the inescapable intertwining of danger and life, offers the visual cues needed to decipher this chillingly dark fable. Casual horror fans looking for faster pacing and more visceral thrills may not necessarily enjoy Roh’s ambiguous allegories.
Nevertheless, the global success of this film instantly announces newcomer Emir Ezwan as one of Southeast Asia’s premier genre filmmakers, standing alongside the likes of Indonesia’s Joko Anwar and the Philippines’ Mikhail Red. Roh is the kind of subtly layered, dread-laden, minimalist horror that lingers in your mind long after the credits have rolled, proving that the future of Malaysian horror is bright thanks to a new generation of storytellers and studios that are unafraid to take risks and go against the grain.
By : Hidzir Junaini – NME