‘New Kinds of Monsters’: The Rise of Southeast Asian Horror Films | Arts and culture news
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The Netflix and Disney + Hotstar premiere of Roh (Malaysian for ‘soul’), a supernatural demonic horror film and feature debut by Malaysian director Emir Ezwan, marks another international achievement for a new wave of horror works low-budget produced in Southeast Asia.
Making its world debut on June 1, Roh was filmed in two weeks in the Dengkil Forest south of Kuala Lumpur with a budget of RM 360,000 ($ 88,500). It made its lightning debut on Malaysian and Singaporean movie screens in August 2020, just before a new wave of COVID-19 infections closed theaters.
Roh first appeared on the radar of the cinematic world after being chosen by the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) as the unlikely choice to represent the country with narrow laces in the International Feature Film category at the 93rd annual awards ceremony. Oscars in April.
Although he was nominated at festivals in the United States, Italy, Singapore and Indonesia, Roh was not on the long list of the Oscars. But it has joined the list of films inspired by Southeast Asian nightmares that are turning heads of industry players and horror fans around the world and bringing recognition to the local film industry of. the region.
Roh is a haunting tale of demonic possession that takes place during wartime on the edge of a tropical rainforest. A broken family welcomes a strange girl, covered in mud and blood, into their home. When she finally speaks after days of chilling silence, her chilling curse will mark the start of a descent into literal hell.
The film stands out from the crowd thanks to its blend of Islamic folklore and Malay black magic, the atmospheric setting of the rainforest and the Malay costumes of the old world. Edgar Wright, the British director of acclaimed films including 2004 Shaun of the Dead, called Roh “amazing stuff” on Twitter in March.
“The deal with Netflix (worldwide except North America) was made possible through our sales agent, TBA Studios based in the Philippines, who represents Roh from the European Film Market this year,” said Amir Muhammad. , an independent publisher of pulp fiction in Malay. and English, director and general manager of Kuman Films, based in Kuala Lumpur, at Al Jazeera.
Roh is the second and most accomplished of the production house’s four films, including the psychological horror in Mandarin Two Sisters (2019) by James Lee and Irul: Ghost Hotel (2021) by Prem Nath. Irul is perhaps the “first found images horror film” in the Tamil language in Southeast Asia and around the world.
Amir is now excited to see how viewers around the world will react to Roh. “We weren’t expecting it, but Spanish and Portuguese moviegoers have already tweeted a lot about it,” he told Al Jazeera.
Thomas Barker, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Nottingham Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur, and author of Indonesian Cinema after the New Order: Going Mainstream states that “Southeast Asian filmmakers are innovating in a genre. which has become somewhat obsolete in the West. , with familiar tropes, storylines and monsters, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Supernatural folklore has long inspired generations of writers, directors and artists across Southeast Asia and ghost stories are a well established genre that have become bestsellers and blockbusters.
Some of the best-known monsters, which originate from ancient animist beliefs shaped by Hindu-Buddhist cosmology and later by Islam, include the “pontianak” – known as the “kuntilanak” in Indonesia – a carnivorous creature that emerges upon the death of a pregnant woman during childbirth and is often portrayed as a beautiful young woman with a taste for blood.
Then there is the “toyol”, an undead child resembling a gremlin, which can be summoned by shamans to aid in black magic rituals, and in Malaysia, the “orang minyak” (“fat man”) a humanoid creature coated in slippery black grease. who kidnaps and rapes young women. Perhaps most frightening is the “penanggal,” a female vampire head with trailing organs still attached to her severed neck, who flies through the night in pursuit of menstrual blood.
Barker believes that as companies like Netflix, HBO, and Disney + increasingly look for new, competitive content to attract regional audiences and the movies and TV series they can source from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are also attractive because they are cheaper to manufacture. than similar European or Australian productions.
“Streaming platforms have made the world a great market where anyone can access any movie from any country, including Indonesia, and I can only be grateful,” said Director Joko Anwar, one of the leading figures in the current new wave of Indonesian horror, told Al Jazeera. His 2017 film Pengabdi Setan (Slaves of Satan), a loose remake of Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 classic of the same name, is the highest-grossing Indonesian horror film of all time and has been distributed and critically acclaimed in 42 countries.
Surf the global waves
Satan’s Slaves has sparked an international curiosity for Indonesian and regional horror films which lack the budgets of more well-known South Korean productions and have often been dismissed as spinoff and trashy cinema.
But international horror fans, who miss the classic European and North American horrors of the late 1970s and 1980s, praise Southeast Asian films for their similar craftsmanship – fast and cheap. – and their exaggerated gore. Their unknown characters and quirky sets that harness the region’s rich and largely unknown ghostly folklore add another breath of fresh air to a saturated global horror film industry.
Joko’s latest film, Perempuan Tanah Jahanam (released internationally as Impetigore), received 17 nominations and six wins at Indonesia’s biggest film festival, the Citra Awards, before being screened at the Sundance Festival in the United States. It was also nominated as Indonesia’s official submission to this year’s Oscars and was ranked by the influential horror news portal Bloody Disgusting as one of the best international films of 2020.
In the wake of this success, Impétigore was chosen to be distributed by American horror streaming giant Shudder, a digital platform owned by the AMC movie channel. Indonesian horror films that have also burst onto the American market are Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, 2019, a remake of the 1981 Indonesian cult film by Liliek Sudjio), directed by Kimo Stamboel and written by Joko, and May the The Devil Takes You Also from Timo Tjahjanto.
Timo will soon be directing the upcoming remake of the Korean blockbuster 2016 zombie apocalypse Train to Busan for Hollywood’s New Line Cinema, starring writer Gary Dauberman from the acclaimed Annabelle trilogy. “I’m obviously delighted to be working with such a great horror writer. If you compare the original Train to Busan to a ballet, this one will be a hardcore mosh pit dance, ”Timo told Al Jazeera.
Timo is thrilled with the success of Indonesian horror, but also believes that the industry is not moving fast enough and still has a long way to go to beat the “gigantic wave of Korean cinema magic that people like. I can admire with wonder ”.
COVID-19 also hit the local film industry hard at a time when things were improving, Timo says. “I’m a realist and I love the fans and the excitement, but I think sometimes we have to look past the hype and realize that we’re not doing our best here yet.”
For Thomas Barker, locating plots and sets is the key to the genre’s success. “Drawing inspiration from folklore and local experiences, but also being deeply aware of the global horror genre, the filmmakers are bringing new ideas, including new types of monsters and monstrosities,” he said. at Al Jazeera.
One example is Joko’s Impetigore, which tells the story of Maya, played by Tara Basro, a young woman from impoverished Jakarta who decides to return to her ancestral village of Harjosari to hunt what she perceives as a hidden family fortune. She soon learns that the legacy left by her father is of a much more morbid nature – a legacy that flows directly not only from Indonesian ghostly folklore, but also from its cultural traditions, such as the ‘wayang kulit’ (puppet of Javanese shadows).
“It’s not a choice, it comes naturally,” Joko said. “I grew up reading and being told about this type of folklore all the time. It’s even taught in textbooks in Indonesia.
Another recent low-budget Malaysian horror, Belaban Hidup – Infeksi Zombie (2021) by director Ray Lee, transformed the uniqueness of Dayak culture – the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia and Indonesian Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, reputed to be ancient headhunters – in the world’s first zombie movie set in a Dayak tribal setting. Dayak is an umbrella term for indigenous peoples, including the Iban and Bidayuh.
Belaban Hidup tells the story of a secret organization that moves from Madagascar to Borneo to set up a fake clinic and continue to experiment on humans. When a group of imprisoned orphans find a way to escape, they unleash a horde of flesh-eating zombies on the nearby rainforest, involving the resident tribe in the fight. “My film wants to promote the Dayak culture, language and habitat around the world,” Lee told Al Jazeera.
The subject has certainly helped win all 13 film awards at film festivals from Singapore to Canada, the latest being the Russian International Horror Film Festival and the Asian Cinematography Awards in the Philippines.
“When the people of West Malaysia are still unfamiliar with the Dayaks, the many international awards show how curious the world is to see their beautiful and unique culture,” said Lee.
Belaban Hidup is still struggling to find an official distributor in Malaysia and cinemas have been closed as part of the government’s latest ‘total lockdown’ to curb an increase in COVID-19 cases.
But the future of horror in Southeast Asia still looks set to prosper thanks to the opportunities offered by international movie streaming platforms.
“Movie releases will not be possible this year due to additional marketing costs and coronavirus standard operating procedures which would limit viewership anyway,” Amir Muhammad told Al Jazeera. “It would be nice to go back to big screen releases, but at least for our next two films, The Screaming Sky and Arrogance, we’re definitely only watching the streaming debuts.”