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FANTASIA ’23 MOVIE REVIEW: “PETT KATA SHAW” is a transgressive folk horror anthology

Friday, August 11, 2023 | Reviews


Starring Chanchal Chowdhury, Pritom Hasan and Afzal Hossain
Written and directed by Nuhash Humayun

Some of the most shocking events in Nuhash Humayun’s PETT KATA SHAW occur offscreen, forcing the audience to contemplate subversive, potent images that are never directly shown. An anthology film that sutures together four shorts based on Bengali folklore, PETT KATA SHAW extends its folk horror roots to highly contemporary ends, often finding profound meeting points between ghost and machine. Here, cell phones and internet rabbit holes instigate spectral revelations or tense encounters with primordial entities.

In its first chapter, a shapeshifting djinn with devilish origins offers the seeming gift of omnipotent memory to Mahmud (Chanchal Chowdhury), a struggling sweet shop owner. While this intellectual gain first escalates Mahmud’s business and marital success, the rush to his ego creates dangerous overconfidence in a second encounter with the djinn. As if extending the adage “too much of a good thing” (funnily often moaned in response to the gratuitous consumption of treats), Mahmud’s memory expands past the creation of the universe into an unconscious abyss that proves fatal.

While the concept of the djinn (here embodied by Afzal Hossein) makes for some genuinely frightening jump cuts and camera tricks, Humayun produces his most gruesome images indirectly – most notably in the off-camera screams from a mother whose son, remembering his own fetal growth, attempts to return to the comfort of the womb. Similarly, the film’s second chapter, in which a young man (Shohel Mondol) becomes trapped in his apartment by a fanged witch (Shirin Akhter Shila) drawn by the smell of fresh fish, relies on suggestion and allusion. Humayun grasps that the visual of long fingernails dangling in a fishbowl over a plump goldfish is more evocative than the inevitable carnage to follow.

Without the familiar pleasures of a single narrative arc, anthology films can struggle with order and rhythm. The third and fourth chapters of PETT KATA SHAW are arguably the most interesting, taking formal leaps that include illustrative montages with puppets and a meta-commentary on what film cannot capture. Yet, for all of their ambition, these final shorts exceed the tight pacing of their precursors. The second to last chapter unfolds multiple interconnected stories from the elders of a village cursed by a hideous act of collective violence. With all of its intriguing narrative threads, this penultimate short would be more suitable as a feature – not least because its treatment of gender nonconformity deserves expansion.

Attuned to the similarities between horror and comedy in their capacity to conjure uncomfortable ironies and unstitch a seemingly fixed social order, it’s no surprise that Humayun’s directorial philosophy has intersected with Jordan Peele, who, along with Riz Ahmed, is executive producing his short film Moshari. While PETT KATA SHAW lands in an opportune moment when folk horror has regained significant cultural momentum, its excellence rests on the talents of an emerging filmmaker with confidence in his audience’s ability to not only grasp unsettling ambiguities but sit with them.

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