The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28th to September 12. For more details, click here

“Grandpa, bring us their hearts”

You have just read one of the two notes I took in my capacity as a film critic. The other we will get to later, but that lack of notes is in itself a sign of the elemental force with which the Malaysian horror flick Roh (or Soul, its alternative English title) tells its story. It functions extremely well as an example of straightforward, masterfully executed nightmare cinema. But be it by design, a side effect of my own cultural ignorance, or a combination of the two, there seems to exist a layer underneath the minimalism, which I found to be endlessly fascinating.

The story goes like this: Mak and her two children, Angah and Along, live far away from everyone and everything. It’s a simple yet demanding way to live, and one mostly devoid of joy or anything but the dutiful work of scraping by and surviving. An enigmatic, mud caked little girl follows the kids home one day and Mak graciously offers her shelter.

This turns out to be a horrible, horrible mistake.

Meanwhile, there is Adik, played by an intense as hell Putri Syahadah Nurqaseh. A mysterious one eyed man carrying a spear is on a mission, and the look in his one good eye is a clear indicator that he won’t let anything stand between him and his final objective… whatever it may be. Having a basic idea of how movies work, it is of course inevitable that this man Is on a collision course with Mak and her family. But the movie is extremely cagey about whether when they meet he will act as their savior or their destroyer.

Assuming, of course, that salvation is even possible. Which is absolutely not a guarantee.

It has been said that monsters, at heart, are a set of rules that keep you safe. Vampires don’t like crosses or garlic. Werewolves appear at a full moon and are vulnerable to silver. Never look a medusa in its eyes. Don’t feed Mogwais after midnight. The above quote that started this review appears at first to be in the same mold, a chant to ward off a malicious spirit. But where the film is interesting is that it’s less a portent of menaces to come but serves merely as an incidental anecdote in a film that seems more concerned with the nature of evil itself than anything that lurks in the shadows.

This is where the bracing power of the film comes from: the sense of menace is pervasive. Director Emir Ezwan manages to avoid so many of the cliches of modern horror; the daylight scenes are just as menacing as the nighttime scenes. There are no jump scares, every horrific moment unfolds with a kind of nightmarish eventuality. It doesn’t seek to startle, but unnerve.

And the most unnerving element of all is how much of the horror lies not in what happens onscreen, but the unknowable nature of so much of what transpires. The first twenty minutes of the film are rife with these disconnected enigmatic moments; we see what is happening, but we do not know what they mean. It creates a world suffused with unseen supernatural menaces and then steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny that the supernatural even exists.

Mak befriends Tok, a woman from the nearest village (which, it turns out is actually quite far away) whose arcane knowledge is put to the service of protecting the family from this menace that they don’t fully comprehend. She puts everyone to work enacting rituals and incantations,ill-explained practices purported to ward off unknown evils. Yet it is Tok that attempts to reassure Angah that anything you can’t see is irrelevant and that mankind itself is the only thing worth being afraid of. The movie exists between those two poles, and it is that exact tension that animates the genuinely unsettling atmosphere that permeates every last frame.

With not much in the way of overt monsters or spectacle, it falls to the actors to really sell the horror, and they come through in spades. First among equals is Farah Ahmad as the hard bitten mother who seems permanently cranky. She spends much of the opening of the movie treating his children with barely disguised resentment, which does little to endear her to us. It is only in a fleeting moment where she silently reveals the depths of her exhaustion that the cracks begin to show in her veneer.

And as events spiral beyond her understanding or ability to control, those cracks only get wider, letting out all the buried love and fear and despair she’s been hiding. And yet due to the sheer ferocity of her performance, even in her lowest moments she never loses that initial edge or defining toughness. Harah Haziq and Mhia Farhana make a potent double act as the siblings, Farhana’s seinsible and protective nature playing very well off of Haziq’s mix of naivete and puckishness. They do feel like actual siblings. Namron is perfectly odd as the little girl with the bad tidings, and Juaninah M. Lojong is equal parts warm and eerie as the seemingly helpful medicine woman.

The second and final note I took, and I’ll try to avoid explicit spoilers here, I took towards the end of the film. It is a single line, which I will now relay with giving you the full context of:

“Ephemerality belongs to us”

In this single line, I felt the full impact of the issues laying beneath the surface of Roh, the thing that made it feel like something more than just an exceedingly well-executed piece of horror. Roh asks big questions about the nature of evil and the supernatural, and it does it without the use of long philosophical debates or, really, very much in the way of dialogue it all. Like any good film that takes advantage of the medium, it posits its questions visually, using its imagery and its actors to create a world that may or may not be at the mercy of unseen, unimaginable forces. Forces that might not even be supernatural at all, but merely natural, as natural as life itself, but nowhere near as benevolent as we’d like to believe. And forces the characters and the audience alike to wonder: if evil is all around us, does the form it takes even matter?

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