It’s only August but it’s beginning to look a lot like
January Hallowéen (you can hum it to Michael Bublé’s hit, but in a minor key to count in that extra gloom – however, if you think about it, this year has been one giant spook of a celebration minus the candy corn and homemade cosplays; we don’t need to see it, we’re living it). Anyway, it’s been a month since cinemas were allowed to operate again, and the crooks have come out from their nooks to play. Every passing week seems to follow a sequence of terror. Most of them have been decent at best or… they might just coax you to a demonic purge in the bathroom ala The Exorcist.
I possess a very high tolerance toward horror films in general. If you ever accompanied me to a horror screening, I’d be the guy who stares down “frightful” sequences in the face, unfazed. Yea, I do get jolts whenever Annabelle decides to jump at the screen from a rocking chair, or when that insidious Valak painting abruptly comes to life and bares her teeth into your neck but nope, you won’t see me squirm. I’m the guy who you’d hide your head in while Samara lunges at you from beyond the TV screen. When the credits are playing, you’ll still notice a lone figure savouring the dissonant mush of strings as if it were Drake’s greatest mixtape. Just like how drinking coffee fails to keep me awake, horror films rarely do what they set out to do. However, an occasion comes once in a blue moon…
Roh, a local production by a relatively new studio, Kuman Pictures, was released in cinemas recently after premiering at Singapore’s International Film Festival and the Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival in Indonesia last year. It’s also the first feature film by So, this was like the fourteen million, six hundred-and-fifth horror film to hit theatres in a month? But oh, ho-ho, oh boy, was I not prepared for it.
It all started on a dark and stormy night (no, really). I had purchased a ticket from one of the cinemas in the vicinity. It was my first time attending this particular spot as Roh seemed to only be screening in select theatres. Seeing as the only suitable time slot was at 2030, I gleefully picked out the best seat in the hall, then proceeded to run some errands before the showing.
When the time came, I produced my ticket to the cinema attendant and proceeded to walk up the steps. However, something seemed really off about the ambience. And then it dawned on me. I was the sole soul.
The air was eerily silent. The usually illuminated film posters on the side of the corridor were not showing any signs of life. It felt like the forbidden bounds of a haunted property had been trespassed. As I wandered on the wooden floorboards, I could not help but notice that every other hall was quiet. I glanced at my ticket. Hall 8. End of the line. The one where the unlucky meet their demise at the jagged blades of a chainsaw. Warily, I entered the dark hall, and as expected, there wasn’t a single soul present.
I took my seat in the already darkened cinema. As if on cue, the film began playing. I knew I wasn’t late but the aligning pieces had put me on edge. My feet shuffled on the ground nervously. It seemed as though something just couldn’t wait to prey on the already fragmented emotions at the time. Regardless, I set my focus on the screen (and the green light emanating from the KELUAR sign slightly down below). The mission was clear. My soul was mine to keep.
Roh opens with a verse from the Quran:
“What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate when I commanded you?” Iblis said: I am better than him (Adam), you created me from fire, and him you created from clay.”
The aforementioned elemental components are instantly showcased on the screen, but it’s unholy matrimony. As a flame dances atop a lone white tree, a grimy figure steps into frame. A lone child caked in mud stares at the audience. In the dark of night, she tramples forward, halting at a mound by the enflamed trunk. She kneels down, unsheathing a small blade before taking multiple stabs at the raised earth, clearly shaped as if there was someone buried in there. Or maybe there was… (I was holding my breath nervously at this point).
Thankfully, the eerieness dissipates as the scene transitions to daylight. We meet our main protagonists for the first time. A mother (Farah Ahmad) rests on the steps of a wooden shack, puffing at her hand-rolled cigarette, as she tells her youngest, Angah (Harith Haziq) to handle the coals. Along (Mhia Farhana), the eldest child, scraps nearby with another chore in hand. A paternal figure is evidently absent. It becomes apparent that this family is living a life isolated from civilisation, surviving on their own terms without the necessity to bow down to the rules of a community. Nevertheless, this unit isn’t lawless. Mother, or “Mak” as she is affectionately called, is one to enforce the brutal laws of the jungle upon her children as she explains what happens to those who disobey in great detail.
It isn’t long before a little lost soul shows up at the doorstep of the family, of which she is pitied due to the unkempt nature of the child. However, the sweet and innocent little creature makes a sinister prediction that the family will perish by the next full moon, a statement that Along hastily dismisses as erroneous. However, they soon find out that things are indeed about to get worse, as unnatural occurrences begin to stalk them, creaking at the steps as th- HOLD TF UP.
That sound wasn’t emanating from the speakers. That was real as s***. I sort of panicked as my oxygen intake instinctively halted against my own will, my mind questioning as to whether an unholy presence would manifest beside me. I swore, if I saw a shape clad in white trod down the aisle, this earth would have seen the last of me in an instant. The trodding closed in.
And then, the figure came into full view.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that it was one of the cinema staff. He came in front of me and stared at me for a brief moment, before trodding up the steps yet again. Thanks, creepy cinema attendant. I appreciate if you were concerned and wanted to check on me to see whether I was a manic spirit. I mean, who else in their sane mind would watch a clearly disturbing film on their own?
Anyway… where were we?
Now, Roh is a slow burn, and I get that this may not bode well with certain members of the audience because there isn’t any freaky “thrill” every instance to keep your eyes glued/away from the screen. However, Roh is the type of film that relies heavily on its characters and atmosphere to drive its point home. Its scares are thematically driven and the tension builds naturally. It’s disturbing because of the care you have for this innocent family. To further get under your skin, you feel helpless, having knowledge of a certain impending doom but never actually having an idea of how it would play out. When it does, however, it jars you in the most horrifying manner possible.
Unpredictability certainly is a quality of the narrative. Early on, Mak establishes that whatever is witnessed in the jungle might not be true. Indeed, it is this very detail that will make you go “oh”, considering how the narrative forces you to question the fictional reality. It provides you with answers and then overlaps them with more questions that the audience must attempt to interpret on their own.
The script also does well to conceal and not reveal its true nature until the very end, and I applaud it for that. It may seem confusing at first. The ultimate evil is only present at the film’s conclusion, but it feels accomplished due to how steadily the structures were being set up.
Having watched the 2015 film, The Witch (or The VVitch – whatever you fancy, it’s pronounced the exact same way), I couldn’t help but notice that Roh had a similar goal to emulate said film or at least achieve the folk-tale-in-the-woods aesthetic from the get-go. A family living in the shack, away from society, as certain darkness creeps up to them? Yea, on the surface, it may seem like the same thing. BUT NO! Roh does not feel like a brutal plagiarism of Robert Egger’s work. Why? It’s because it’s rooted in local belief systems and cultures to make it significantly distinct.
If it was the filmmaker’s intention to pay homage to Egger’s masterpiece, I have to say, it thoroughly succeeds. Having seen the other 2020 folk horror film, Gretel and Hansel, I am sure Roh decimates its competition in that regard.
There are only six characters in the film, and they are each given fair opportunities to contribute to the narrative. Aside from the aforementioned core trio and the tiny girl, there are two other personalities born of fog and mystery. The first is a half-blind man, played by Nam Ron, who is known only as a hunter. Our thespian is at the top of his game, heaving a growling ferocity as his pained hound demands presence. On the other spectrum is a an elderly woman played by Junainah M. Lojong, whose shamanic talents make her the go-to spiritual advisor of the film. However, I just want to stress that whatever perceptions the filmmaker may have implanted in your head when you see these characters are wrong, especially when it comes to Nam Ron’s hunter, who’s given much more weight than initially bestowed.
If you haven’t already noticed, the characters in this film do not possess names. They are merely known by their family monikers or just addressed by their gender or societal status. Indeed the film never lets up on this aspect right till its harrow end. It certainly is a creative choice that works to the film’s favour as the simplicity of the film’s characters pave the way for more complex themes to manifest itself.
The filmography utilised here is a magnificent showcase of the isolation and confinement leading up to the home’s affliction. Certain shots with sprawling branches and a literal cage brilliantly filled the screen, either creating a divide between characters and elements, or fabricating a sensation of being cooped up. Indeed, the art itself translated to me as well, as I too felt confined within the four walls of the hall. Frozen. Still. Unable to move my legs. It evoked a sense of incapacity within my gut.
Indeed, I would liken my Roh experience to that of Midsommar, another film in recent memory that had me feeling queasy for a couple of days. The themes and overall character arcs were absolutely splendid, and while it was certainly filled with gory imagery, said film shook me to the core. I’ve just obtained that very same feeling with Emir Ezwan’s film.
I implore with you, dear reader, do watch this excellent feature in cinemas while you have the chance. Kuman Pictures, the self-acclaimed Blumhouse of Malaysia, has created a sweet gingerbread arthouse to break off and savour. It’s brilliantly executed, well-crafted, and stands out from the preceding month’s horrors of horror. If I was to extend my glorification, it’ll probably end up as one of the top ten films of the year.
Sure, the preceding events, overall environment, and one creepy cinema attendant may have played pivotal roles in making my entire experience a thrilling and nauseating one but I have to say, minus those ingredients, the film is still a gem standing on its own six feet. I love it. I simply do and I can’t stop gushing over it. Roh did what it set out to do: unnerve me. It’s just a bloody brilliant feature from the studio and director and I’ll be patiently biding my time for what they have in store for audiences next.
Your move PIXAR.
Roh is now playing in selected cinemas nationwide. The film is rated PG13. Viewer discretion is advised due to the film’s disturbing elements.
In the black of night, may your soul be taken in by this terrifying tale set in the depths of the forest. As a candle does burn off the wax edges, so does its bevvitching narrative, providing for an indie darling of unique and unnerving qualities, rising above the flames as one of 2020's best.