Set to screen at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival, Story of a Southern Islet rests as Malaysia’s only entry into the prestigious festival. Having found myself intently interested on the new wave of horror films coming out of the region, I was excited for a chance to get Ket Aun Chong’s debut film, particularly off his win of best new director at the 2020 Golden Horse Film Festival.
What Is It About?
“Cheong, a Chinese man, falls sick after a row with his neighbour. His wife Yan is desperately looking for a remedy to cure her husband. Throughout the journey, Yan endures strange encounters and unearthly experiences. Finally, Yan is convinced that she should seek help from the village shaman. Mysteries, legends and shamanism surround Yan with unknowns yet to be solved.”
Atmosphere is key here. The film successfully utilizes this at various locations and delivers a nuanced visual approach to capture the struggles of a mother in the face of a curse besieging the family. Less a horror film and more a drama with unnerving elements, moments such as an unknown entity writhing in the mud as a chants accompany his bizarre contortions instil a sense of unease in the face of the uncertain. Consequently, the journey of Yan to find a cure for her husband can feel like a deep dive into the superstitions and religious beliefs of an unknown land – both for the viewer and Yan who we are introduced to as an outsider to the local customs.
Pauline Tan (Yan) works as an ideal lead for the production, transforming from dutiful mother to a woman desperately seeking salvation for her family. Capturing a realistic sense of desperation, Tan dive headfirst into a world of superstition and religious beliefs in attempt to save her husband. As abstract as the story can get, the actor is able to keep the work grounded through the sincerity and humanity her character portrays.
Based on a true story, or rather a true account, the story does explore the context of how one man came to become revered as a shaman with great knowledge. Even though the story does not focus on this individual significantly, his inclusion is key to the story nevertheless. In addition, the exploration of traditional arts, like shadow puppets, gets a wonderful showcase through the film. A truly wonderful craft that I personally have come to appreciate from covering a documentary on the subject. Granted, not everyone may have said experience, but it is still wonderful seeing it embedded as part of the narrative.
What Did Not Work?
Seeped in the native lore of the region, the film feels made for a Malaysian audience. Undeniably, there is nothing wrong in this approach, but it does limit the general appeal and commands audiences to try to immerse themselves in a belief system that is mostly completely foreign.
The film is far removed from modern horror landscape, speaking to a primal fears from a specific region and closer to drama than horror (would not be surprised if this is rated PG on domestic release) . Combined with lore specific to the region, Story of a Southern Islet requires an abundance of patience. Yes the atmosphere is there, but the inclusion of imagery more horrific than haunting would have gone a long way in making this an unforgettable experience. Overall, the film requires a commitment that will see the majority of horror fans passing – arguably, the production should not even be approached as a ‘horror film’
I am hesitant to compare films from the same region, but given the limited releases here in the West of Malaysian cinema, I could not help to find myself comparing this to another recent watch in Roh. Dealing in both mysticism and a curse visited upon a family, Roh nailed the dark atmosphere but was able to punctuate it some sensational scenes of violence. In comparison, Story of Southern Islet never really pushes any boundaries or gives the viewer lasting imagery – it just kind of exists.
There is no denying the film is tedious to get through, particularly for those who like their horror films more dramatically paced and sensational. Personally, the brooding atmosphere, exploration of cultural superstation and a constant sense of mystery kept me invested in the film, but I sincerely struggle to think what audience would appreciate the work on a deeper level.
Greetings, My name is Adam and I am from Canada.
My love for all things bizarre came at a young age, as boredom in a small town lead me down a rabbit hole of obscure film, music, tv and literature. I have carried these fascinations with and turned it into a passion for writing, sharing and discussing the various arts.
My area of expertise, if there was one, would be geared towards Asian horror with a particular interest in film and manga. However, if it is odd, disturbing or trashy I probably heard of it or can at least pretend I have in conversation.
Thank you for taking the time to read my work, I always look to grow both as a writer and fan. I truly appreciate anyone willing to come along for the journey and share their passions in turn.