Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The release of Netflix and Disney + Hotstar by Roh (in Malay for “soul”), a supernatural demonic horror film and the first feature film by Malaysian director Emir Ezwan, marks another international success for a new wave of low-budget terror work in Southeast Asia.
Making his world debut on June 1, Roh was shot in two weeks in the Dengkil Forest, south of Kuala Lumpur, with a budget of RM 360,000 ($ 88,500). It debuted in flash on cinema screens in Malaysia and Singapore in August 2020, just before a new wave of COVID-19 infections closed cinemas.
Roh first entered the radar of the film world after being selected by the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) as the unlikely option to represent the narrow country in the international feature film category at the 93rd Annual Film Awards. ‘Academy.
Despite garnering nominations for festivals in the United States, Italy, Singapore and Indonesia, Roh did not enter the long list of Oscars. But it has joined the list of nightmare-inspired films of Southeast Asia that are turning the heads of industry protagonists and horror fans around the world and bringing recognition to the region’s grassroots film industry. .
Roh is a haunting story of demonic possession set in wartime on the edge of a rainforest. A broken family welcomes a strange girl into their home, wrapped in mud and blood. When he finally speaks after days of creepy silence, his fearsome curse will mark the beginning of a descent into a literal hell.
The film stands out from the group thanks to its mix of Islamic folklore and Malay black magic, the setting of the rainforest and the Malaysian costumes of the old world. Edgar Wright, the 2004 British director of acclaimed films, including Shaun of the Dead, praised Roh as “amazing stuff” on Twitter in March.
“The Netflix deal (all over the world except North America) came about thanks to our sales agent, the TBA studios based in the Philippines, which has represented Roh from the European film market this year,” he said. say Amir Muhammad, independent editor of pulp fiction in Malay and English, film director and general manager of Kuman Films, based in Kuala Lumpur, Al Jazeera.
Roh is the second and most successful of the four films in the production house, including psychological horror in Mandarin language Two Sisters (2019) by James Lee and Irul: Ghost Hotel (2021) by Prem Nath . Irul is possibly the “first horror film to be found” in the Tamil language in Southeast Asia and around the world.
Amir is now excited to see how spectators around the world will react to Roh. “We would never have expected it, but Spanish and Portuguese moviegoers have already done a lot of it,” he told Al Jazeera.
Thomas Barker, a professor of film and television at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur, and author of Indonesian cinema after the new order: Going Mainstream, says that “Southeast Asian filmmakers are innovating in a genre that it has become a bit obsolete in the West, with family troops, stories and monsters, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Supernatural folklore has long inspired generations of Southeast Asian writers, directors, and artists, and ghost stories are a well-established genre that has become bestsellers and blockbusters.
Some of the best known monsters, which originate from ancient animist beliefs shaped by Hindu-Buddhist cosmology and later by Islam, include the “pontianak” (known as “cuntilanak” in Indonesia), a carnivorous creature that arises at the death of a pregnant woman during childbirth and is often depicted as a beautiful young woman with a taste for blood.
Then there is the “toyol”, a gremlin-like undead baby, which shamans can summon to help with black magic rituals, and in Malaysia the “orang minyak” (“fat man”), a creature humanoid covered in slippery black fat that kidnaps and rapes young women. The most discouraged is perhaps the “penanggal,” a female vampire head with organs still attached to the severed neck, which flies at night chasing menstrual blood.
Barker believes that as companies like Netflix, HBO and Disney + are increasingly looking for new competitive content to attract regional audiences and the movies and TV series they can get from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are also appealing because they are more cheap to manufacture than similar European or Australian productions.
“Broadcasting platforms made the world a big market where anyone can access any film from any country, including Indonesia, and I can only be grateful for that,” said director Joko Anwar, one of the leading figures of the new current wave of Indonesian terror, he told Al Jazeera. His 2017 film Pengabdi Setan (The Slaves of Satan), a loose remake of the 1980 classic of the same name by Sisworo Gautama Putra, is Indonesia’s highest grossing horror film of all time and has been distributed for criticism in 42 countries.
Global waves on horseback
Satan’s Slaves aroused international curiosity about horror films in Indonesia and other regions that do not have the budgets of the best-known South Korean productions and have often been discarded as derivative and freak cinema.
But international horror fans, who miss the classic European and American horrors of the late 1970s and 1980s, praise Southeast Asian films for their similar craftsmanship (fast and cheap) and for the his exaggeration. Its unknown characters and original scenarios that exploit the rich and unknown ghostly folklore of the region add an extra air to a saturated global horror film industry.
Joko’s latest film, Perempuan Tanah Jahanam (released internationally as Impetigore), received 17 nominations and six victories at Indonesia’s largest film festival, the Citra Awards, before being screened at the Sundance Film Festival in United States. It was also nominated as Indonesia’s official presentation at this year’s Academy Awards and was included by the influential horror news portal Bloody Disgusting among the best international films of 2020.
Impetigore was chosen to distribute by the American horror transmission giant Shudder, a digital platform owned by the AMC film chain. The Indonesian horror films that have also burst onto the US market are Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, 2019, a remake of the 1981 Indonesian cult film by Liliek Sudjio), directed by Kimo Stamboel and scripted by Joko, and May the Devil Take You Too by Timo Tjahjanto.
Timo will soon direct the upcoming remake of the blockbuster Korean zombie apocalypse 2016 Train to Busan for Hollywood’s New Line Cinema, starring screenwriter Gary Dauberman of the Annabelle trilogy. “Obviously I’m excited to work with such a great horror writer. If you compare the original train with Busan with a ballet, this will be a mosh pit hard dance, ”Timo told Al Jazeera.
Timo is attracted to the success of Indonesian horror, but he also believes that the industry is not advancing fast enough and has a long way to go to overcome the “giant wave of magic in Korean cinema that people like me can only admire with fear.” .
COVID-19 has also hit the local film industry hard at a time when things were getting better, Timo says. “I’m realistic and I love the fans and the excitement, but I feel like sometimes we have to look beyond the hype and realize that we’re not doing our best yet.”
For Thomas Barker, the location of plots and scenarios are key to the success of the genre. “Based on local folklore and experiences, but also being deeply aware of the global horror genre, filmmakers bring fresh ideas, including new types of monsters and monstrosity,” he told Al Jazeera.
An example is Joko’s Impetigore, which tells the story of Maya, played by Tara Basro, a young, impoverished woman from Jakarta who decides to return to her ancestral village of Harjosari to pursue what she feels is a hidden family fortune. He soon learns that the legacy left by his father has a much more morbid nature, coming directly not only from the ghostly folklore of Indonesia, but also from its cultural traditions, such as the “wayang kulit” (puppets of ‘Javanese shadows).
“It’s not a choice, it’s natural,” Joko said. “I grew up reading and telling myself this kind of folklore all the time. It is even taught in textbooks in Indonesia.
Another recent low-budget Malaysian terror, director Ray Lee’s Belaban Hidup – Infeksi Zombie (2021), transformed the uniqueness of the Dayak culture – the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia and the Indonesian Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, known for being former bounty hunters – in the world’s first zombie movie in a Dayak tribal setting. Dayak is a general term for the natives, including the Iban and Bidayuh.
Belaban Hidup tells the story of a secret organization that moves from Madagascar to Borneo to set up a fake clinic and continue experimenting with humans. When a group of imprisoned orphans finds a way to escape, they unleash a horde of zombies that eat meat in the nearby rainforest, implicating the resident tribe in the fight. “My film wants to promote Dayak culture, language and habitat to the world,” Lee told Al Jazeera.
The theme was undoubtedly key to winning 13 film awards at Singapore film festivals in Canada, the latter being the Russian International Horror Film Festival and the Asian Film Awards in the Philippines.
“When the people of West Malaysia still don’t know the Dayaks well, the numerous international awards show how curious the world is to see their beautiful and unique culture,” Lee said.
Belaban Hidup continues to struggle to find an official distributor in Malaysia and cinemas have closed as part of the government’s latest “total closure” to curb an increase in COVID-19 cases.
But the future of Southeast Asian horror still looks set to thrive thanks to the opportunities offered by international film streaming platforms.
“Movie premieres will not be feasible this year due to the additional marketing costs and standard coronavirus operating procedures that would limit the number of viewers anyway,” Amir Muhammad told Al Jazeera. “It would be nice to go back to the widescreen releases, but at least for our next two films, The Screaming Sky and Arrogance, we’re definitely just watching the streaming debuts.”