The modern age of cinema is a wonderful thing, for all of the collective conscience cooing for anything nostalgia soaked we are lucky to have access to film from around the world – the ability to access unique stories and narratives. While film may have always been an international affair thanks to festivals and specialty theaters, there is something to be said about the easy access we are now granted – easily accessible digital services like Netflix and have whole other markets, not conventionally in reach, available at the push of a button.
Arguably, a film like Roh – titled Soul for western audiences – could only get the attention it deserves within the modern landscape of distribution, particularly coming from a country (Malaysia) whose presence within global cinema is still new to many. As such, I was excited to expand my own cinematic experiences and dive deep into the darkness to see what I might find.
What is it About?
“Cut off from civilisation, a single mother puts her children on high alert when they bring home a young girl caked in clay. She tells of spirits and spirit hunters, but these are not mere superstitions. As more strangers show up on her doorstep, she quickly finds another reason to fear the forest.”
Produced on a modest budget under 100,000 USD, the folk horror film has gone to garner critical acclaim. This lead to the production being selected as Malaysia’s entry into the 2021’s Oscars for ‘Best International Picture’.
What Did I like About It?
Nature is chaotic, and Roh is one of those productions which brilliantly captures the sense of uncertainty. The family unit in the film undeniably respects the jungle which provides them a livelihood while in equal parts conjures superstition as an entity that must be respected. Consequently, when a curse befalls the family and their actions disrespect the jungle, an all-consuming sense of despair and horror begins to wash over the family who is trapped in the tangling confines. Ultimately, the film deep-rooted in folklore, religion and superstition to summon up an unforgettable and horrific experience – both for the subjects trapped in Roh and the viewer.
As a visual and audio experience, the film is impeccable with long sweeping shots of the forest imbuing the nature exhibited with life and wonderment – pulsating between beauty and horror. The score offers up a devious ambiance that also helps with the contrast between serenity and chaos of nature. Overall, the aesthetic of the production is perfectly honed to capture a deep sense of dread – an impressive feat considering both director Emir Ezwan and cinematographer Saifuddin Musa came together for their first theatrical film for this project.
What Did I not Like About it?
Admittedly, I do feel like some profundity was lost due to cultural differences, I may not not in the position to resonate with particular insights. That is not to say, however, the film excludes a general audience, but I don’t believe I experienced the full effect due to limited understanding of Malaysian folklore as a foreigner. This personal fault keeps it from being a ‘perfect’ experience for me, although it is damn close in the execution. As a positive effect, I am definitely excited to immerse myself in more cinema of the region to deepen my own understanding of the nuances inherent in such material.
As a side note, the film is an atmospheric slow-burner which in itself seems to be decisive among horror fans these days. Personally, I always favor atmosphere over action, but I can see this being more an annoyance to the fandom that needs constant action to scratch that particular itch – think A24 over Blumehouse to give a western perspective.
Where can I Watch It?
Produced by Kuman Pictures, the film is currently available on Netflix throughout Asia – lets hope it becomes more readily available soon. The Academy Awards may raise the needed exposure as a venue.
What a wonderful trip that was, gorgeously shot and so thick with atmosphere that made me uneasy – soaked in a pervasive sense of dread methodically crafted. It really did not take long for the film to sink hooks into me and drag me through the jungle terrified of what secrets it held. Simply put, I loved every fear inducing moment of it.
From the moment the curse kicked off with a child slitting her own throat, I knew I was in for a dark, macabre tale steeped in superstition and folklore- utterly entrancing as the situation worsens for the remote family. Overall, Roh is delectably dark trip into the jungles of Malaysia that you don’t want to miss.
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