A new spirit of Malaysian horror
An interview with the makers of Roh, a Malay film on Netflix that thrives on dark ambience and earthly supernaturalism
The Malaysian film Roh (on Netflix) is a pagan horror with clear Koranic references, a work of foreboding menace set entirely in a nameless forest somewhere deep in the Malay peninsula.
Directed by Emir Ezwan, Roh topped the Malaysian Netflix chart when it started streaming on the platform earlier this month and boosted curiosity in Malaysian ghost films, a rich repertoire sometimes overshadowed by the more prolific Thai and Indonesian horrors.
Roh tells the story of a jungle-dwelling family -- a mother and her two pre-teen children -- who encounter a series of increasingly supernatural threats. First, a mysterious little girl appears at their house, and the next morning something gruesome happens to her. Soon a grey-haired crone visits the family, speaking cryptic warnings and recommending black magic counter-curses. Then another stranger shows up looking for someone -- probably that little girl, now covered in clay somewhere in the forest. The mother and her two kids find themselves trapped in a world of spirits, dark spells and satanic dangers from which they will have to find a way out.
Like Thailand, Malaysia makes a number of ghost films every year. Most of them thrive on jump-scare and gore, with a mix of comedy when it fits, and while Thai horror has Buddhist monks as the ultimate vanquishers of evil force, the Malaysians have imams and other Islamic influences as restorers of peace.
Roh, which represented Malaysia in the Oscars last year, stands out because it relies more on disturbing ambience and elusive, invisible threats -- until the final act when all hell breaks loose. The film opens with Koranic verses about how Satan, born of fire, taunted his superior status to soil-made men; but the film itself is also based on folk belief and pre-Islam supernaturalism -- no imams or other agents of religious faith coming to the rescue here.
Here Life speaks with Roh's director Emir Ezwan and producer Amir Muhammad to answer questions about the film and their ideas about all the scary stuff on screen.
Let's start with something simple. In which year or period does the film take place? Also, in what part of Malaysia?
Amir Muhammad: It's not a specific time and place; it harks back to the Malay movies that were in the purbawara [period] style, and not many movies are still done this way. Not contemporary, but also not a specific period. Even the type of Malay they speak has no regional accent, so there is no specific geography.
Emir Ezwan: There are a couple of shots where you can see palm trees, and palm trees can only be found in abundance in the early 20th century here in Malaysia. The initial plan was to clean those trees out during post-production, but I decided to leave them in. Looking at the film then, I think it helps to give the story more depth without having a specific period.
I asked the first question because Roh looks different from most Southeast Asian and Malaysian horrors -- no chanting, no imam. The story looks like something from a pre-Islam setting to me.
Ezwan: I look at it as not just a horror film, because it questions what it means to have faith in a bigger scheme of things. So I guess everything came together or somewhat drifted into that meditative direction.
Muhammad: Some people have said that [about the pre-Islamic setting]. But there are also some Islamic references, which may not be something the characters themselves experience but are placed as discursive frameworks for the viewer.
The Koranic references are clearly visible, from the quotes at the beginning to the final scene that features fire and soil. Can you say something more on this?
Ezwan: I was inspired to explore the devil as a figure of speculation; for instance Iblis [Satan] is created from fire while men from soil. Also the tale of the spectre huntsman's inevitable and inherited fate, cursed to roam the forest, is somewhat parallel with the downfall of Iblis, cursed and bound to this Earth to lead men astray.
So the script is also based on a folk legend?
Ezwan: Here is one specific tale about the spectre huntsman legend. It's about a man cursed and condemned to hunt white deer in the forest.
What was the censor's reaction to the film? I heard that in Malaysia, a horror film has to have a religious figure defeating the ghost at the end. It's not the case here.
Muhammad: We were pleasantly surprised that the film was passed uncut. The first distributor we showed it to thought it would get banned because it was an unconventional depiction of how faith is portrayed, and how the good people end up.
Thailand is known for its horror films. In your view, what are the differences between Thai and Malay horrors? To be more specific, do Islamic countries make a different kind of ghost film compared to Buddhist or Christian countries?
Muhammad: I love Thai horror movies such as Shutter and the horror-comedies such as Pee Mak. For starters, the technical quality tends to be much higher than our horror films. Perhaps an underlying similarity would be the parallels between different forms of earthly retribution; be it karma in Buddhism or kifarah in Islam. There would also tend to be more melodrama related to family than you would get in Western films. Religious education in Malaysia tends to focus a lot on sin, fire and brimstone, the signs of the end of the world, Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on; so I suppose our most successful horror films would tend to have a similar sort of messianic zeal that people recognise.
Roh is streaming on Netflix.