Unlike most horrors from the regions, Malaysia’s submission for the 93rd Academy Awards, Roh (a.k.a. Soul), is a kind of horror that favor creeping atmosphere and a storm of uncertainty to deliver the scare. It’s only the second film by Kuman Pictures—an indie studio focusing on low-budget horror—and the directorial debut for Emir Ezwan (previously known as visual effect supervisor for One Two Jaga). However, this folk horror shows prominent composure and confidence in delivering an unlikely horror story that effectively works on several layers at once.
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For starters, Ezwan—who also writes the script with Amir Hafizi and Nazri M. Annuar—doesn’t shy away from wearing the influences on the sleeve. Roh, a period horror set amidst dark woods, draws immediate comparisons to Robert Eggers’ The Witch for some elements that might be mirroring each other. The story revolves around a family—a mother (Farah Ahmad) with a daughter (Mhia Farhana) and a son (Harith Haziq)—living in a remote shack in the middle of the woods; there doesn’t seem to be any neighbors around even when the story suggests that there’s a village across the woods. The plot never explicitly teases any backstory about how they end up living in the woods or where the patriarch figure is. From the start, we are led to observe how vulnerable this family is should looming darkness bestow upon them.
When a strange girl (Putri Qaseh) arrives at their doorstep messed-up and mud-soaked, the family takes her in and feed her only to find her cursing them for death as she slits her own throat in the morning after. From that moment on, bizarre things begin to arrive at their doorstep one by one. At one moment, it’s strange meteorite rocks suddenly rain on their ground; on another moment, the daughter begins to see things and falling into a mysterious sickness. The ground gets sourer and more baffling as two enigmatic figures pay visit to them separately. One is a an old healer from a neighboring village (June Lojong) and the other is a one-eyed wandering hunter (Namron) wielding an ancient spear. Each brings their own warning for their family and their own wisdom; but, in the end, Roh plays out with the thought of who to believe in the dark, dangerous woods.
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Once the strangers makes their mystifying entrance to the story, Roh begins to feel like an into-the-wood remake of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Both horrors toss the audiences around with trust issues—providing logical and illogical moments to blur the truth until proven otherwise. There are supernatural moments and nightmarish vision; but, that never is the true intention. The constant disbeliefs on what ground to step on becomes Roh‘s infamous commodity. Even when borrowing elements from the South Korean horror almost unashamedly, including the religious symbolisms (even when Ezwan transliterates it into some Islamic views), the story carefully sets up those elements to be unique on its own.
Clocking in on only 83 minutes, Roh might seems to be missing some beats in the build-up. Once the trust game commences, the plot seems to be giving away its build-up gradually to set up for its harrowing conclusions. While there’s barely loose thread and ineffectiveness in storytelling, Ezwan’s direction with the story makes Roh surprisingly thin and less sophisticated than it’s supposed to be. Yet, Ezwan’s precise direction and Saifuddin Musa’s stark cinematography divert the attention from such gripes to make this Malaysian horror one of the most important ones in the recent years.