By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Farah Ahmad, Mhia Farhana and Harith Hazig
Written and directed by Emir Ezwan
Though numerous supernatural and folk-horror films have been made in Malaysia in the last decade or so, they’ve rarely seen commercial U.S. release. ROH (SOUL), now viewable via Virtual Cinemas and VOD/digital platforms, has the cachet of being the country’s submission for Best International Film at last year’s Academy Awards, though it’s not as groundbreaking as that status would suggest. It will appeal to those curious about the international horror scene and fans of slow-burn, atmospheric terror, even if it doesn’t add up to much storywise.
Set at an indeterminate time, ROH focuses on Mak (Farah Ahmad), who lives with her young teen daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and preteen son Angah (Harith Haziq) in a simple forest dwelling. Their father is absent for unspecified reasons, and their lives are mostly devoted to the basics of survival; it’s an existence so isolated that when Mak tells her children, “Let’s not mention this to anyone,” you wonder who there is for them to tell. What she’s referring to is a mute, bedraggled young girl (Putri Syahadah Nurqaseh) the kids discover in the woods, and whom they bring home. We’ve already seen the girl performing rituals involving fire and blades, so it’s clear this is a bad idea, and just how bad it is becomes evident before long.
Although Emir Ezwan, making his feature writing/directing debut here, has a background as a visual effects artist, ROH eschews digital trickery for a naturalistic, matter-of-fact approach. He draws us quickly into the family’s hardscrabble existence, in which they’re dependent on what nature can provide, yet decisions are touched by superstition; Along and Angah discover a deer hanging in the woods that could feed them for a week, but Mak refuses to let them bring it home. Cinematographer Ahmad Saifuddin Musa captures all the colors of the woods, both inviting and ominous, with deep black nights pierced only by firelight, and Reinchez Ng’s score is mostly subdued, to eerie effect; in many scenes, the only sounds are those of nature. Ahmad provides a quietly persuasive center for the drama, and Farhana and Hazig are impressively unaffected as her offspring.
There are only a couple of other characters in ROH: a one-eyed hunter (Malaysian stage veteran and award-winning filmmaker/actor Namron) and Tok (Junainah M. Lojong), a woman from a neighboring village. Both turn up at Mak’s doorstep inquiring about the little girl, and it’s hinted that either or both might be more than they seem. Inexplicable events begin plaguing the mother and kids as well, and it seems that a dangerous presence haunting the forest, which Mak warns Along and Angah about in an early scene, is now targeting them. Ezwan is elliptical in the way he develops the threat(s) against them, largely preferring suggestion and mood over action and narrative complexity; at one point, Mak says they’re living in dangerous times, hinting at a greater context that’s never explicated. Though quite a bit is explained toward the very end of ROH, much of the movie is about buildups rather than payoffs, and in the end, it doesn’t have a lot to add to what’s been seen in previous occult chillers (from Asia and elsewhere). The craft and talent that have been applied to the material, however, make it worth a look.