Wednesday, October 27, 2021

ROH (Soul)

The recent boom of horror films from Southeast Asia makes sense, since countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have Islamic, Shamanistic, and Animist supernatural folkloric traditions to mine. It also helps when the local governments ease up on censoring genre films. You could certainly say Malaysia did so in this case, when they submitted an eerie tale of black magic for consideration as a potential best international feature at last year’s Oscars. It wasn’t nominated but it was still a moment for Malaysian horror. Screenwriter-director Emir Ezwan’s ROH (a.k.a. Soul) also happens to be genuinely scary, so it makes perfect Halloween viewing when it releases Friday on VOD.

For some undisclosed reason, Mak moved with her young son Angah and daughter Along way into the heart of the forest, a formidable distance from the nearest village. The children eagerly await their absent father, but it is clear Mak never expects to see him again. Everyone has a regular regime of chores just to get by, but their routine is interrupted when a strange little girl follows the children home.

Initially, they assume she wandered away from the village, but her sinister behavior suggests a more infernal nature. Just when they think her evil has passed, a ruthless old hunter comes looking for her. Caught between a metaphorical rock and a hard place, Mak’s family experiences curses and supernatural illness. Perhaps providentially, an itinerant medicine woman offers advice, but she vibes viewers the wrong way.

has some of the gore Malaysian horror films are known for, but it is also darkly brooding and suggestive. Ezwan masterfully creates an atmosphere of dread and pestilence. It really is not accurate to describe the film as slow or deliberately paced. Viewers are not sitting around waiting for things to happen. Rather, we’re holding our breath and hoping things don’t happen.

ROH you can smell the undergrowth of the forest and the sweat and the fear of Mak’s family. Young Mhia Farhana and Harith Haziq give remarkably natural and naturalistic performances as her children. They might be emotionally scarred for life, but they did great work. Putri Qaseh is the scariest little girl since vintage Sadako in The Ring franchise. Veteran Malaysian thesp Namron looks appropriately ghostly as the Hunter, while June Lojong gives a subtly weird turn as the old woman.

Somehow Ezwan and cinematographer Ahmad Saifuddin Musa make the forest look truly evil. This is not a jump-scare movie, but nobody would call it “post-horror” either. It just represents some terrific genre filmmaking. Very highly recommended,
ROH releases this Friday (10/29) on VOD platforms.