Soul (Roh, Emir Ezwan, 2020)

“We’re now living in a dangerous time. Many people are desperate and feel unsafe” according to the beleaguered single-mother at the centre of Emir Ezwan’s slow burn folk horror Soul (Roh). The latest film produced by Malaysian powerhouse Kuman Pictures which specialises in low budget horror, Ezwan’s tale of supernatural dread situates itself in a world in which there is “always something evil around us” and existential threat may arrive in the most unexpected of forms. 

This a small family discovers to its cost when they come across a little girl (Putri Qaseh) wandering in the jungle and, as anyone would, take her into their home where they give her food and shelter while trying to find out where she’s come from and what might have happened to her. Unfortunately, however, after some ominous events, the girl tears apart one of their chickens and eats it raw before cursing them by issuing the prophecy that they will all be dead by the next full moon, thereafter slashing her own throat. The woman, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her two children, daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and son Angah (Harith Haziq), are obviously upset and afraid but have no idea what to do. They take the body further into the jungle and leave it there. After that more visitors arrive at their remote hut, a hunter with a spear and a milky eye (Namron), and a wise old woman, Tok (June Lojong), who always seems to be offering them advice only to remember that she has other important business to attend to before imparting it. 

Things only get worse for the woman and her children who, as far as we know, have done nothing wrong, only try to help a lost little girl. Living as they do on the edge of the forest, they are well acquainted with its duplicitous mysteries. “Never believe anything that you see or hear in the jungle” Mak cautions the children, scolding her hungry son who’d wanted to take a deer he and his sister found mysteriously hanging from a tree and bring it home to eat. Along fears a tiger, but logically someone put that deer there for a reason and might not be happy if someone walked off with it, though as far as the family knew they were the only ones nearby. Still they don’t seem to find anything odd in the sudden arrival of the old woman who tells them she’s come from across the river to gather herbs, warning them that there are bad vibes all round their house and something untoward is sure to befall them if they don’t take care. 

Caught between the wise woman and the vengeful man apparently hot on the trail of the little girl, the family has no idea who to believe or where to turn. The old woman tells Angah that he has no need to be afraid, evil is all around us but can only hurt through other humans which is why it’s better not to trust anyone. Yet supernatural threat is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to strike. We have no power over you, it later confesses, all we had to do was whisper and you obeyed. Mak, alone with her children, is entirely cut off from the outside world. She has no idea what has happened in the village across the water, and no recourse to help outside of Tok and the power of prayer, something she is later accused of not having valued enough. She and her children are accidental bystanders in someone else’s spiritual battle, completely powerless and entirely at the mercy of those who selfishly pursue their own desires with little thought to the family’s lives. 

Ezwan conjures a deep atmosphere of existential dread as the darkness begins to seep out of the forest and engulf all around it. Mak warned the children that they shouldn’t go taking things out of the jungle, but despite the eerie superstitions of ghosts and ghost hunters she knew from her youth was all too easily tricked by something that walked out on its own and followed them home. There is darkness everywhere, and with darkness fire. “Your next life will be as eternal as your soul” the voice of darkness warns, make your choices wisely.


Soul is available to stream in Europe until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ma (Kenneth Lim Dagatan, 2018)

Ma poster“Lost or beguiled?” asks the strange talking tree at the centre of Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma in an opening which might as well be aimed at the audience as the confused little boy about to find himself on a very dark path indeed. In this fairytale world nothing comes without a price, but how much would you pay to maintain a connection fate has seen fit to sever?

Little Samuel (Kyle Espiritu), arm in a sling, cruelly tortures a dying crow before following another into a mysterious cave where he finds a lone tree, improbable in its vibrant greenery somehow illuminated from above. He touches it and its leaves cut him, before the tree raises its voice to tell him that there is “an end to every pain” but “every blessing comes with a price”. Running from the cave in fear, Samuel trips and discovers that his broken arm is now healed, but makes a shocking discovery on his return home. His mother seems to have become ill with a nasty hacking cough which later produces blood. When she haemorrhages over the dinner table, Samuel and his younger siblings have no idea what to do. Returning to the cave he assumes that the tree requires a sacrifice, “life for life”, and offers up the family’s pregnant cat pleading that his mother be returned to him, but the tree’s desires are deeper and darker. Ma returns, but in a different form.

After this short prologue, Dagatan pulls the focus to heavily pregnant, somewhat distracted, school teacher, Cecile (Anna Luna). Unlike Samuel and his family, Cecile seems to come from a comfortable background but is apparently single and living with her domineering mother (Susan Africa) who wants her to see a different doctor against Cecile’s own wishes. Gradually we learn that there is tension between Cecile and her mother’s younger European husband (Ian Curtis), while she is still deeply grief-stricken over her husband’s suicide. The two plotstrands begin to converge when Cecile decides she’s had enough of her mother and goes to stay with an old friend in her hometown.

While Samuel, a child after all, is prepared to go to great lengths to preserve his status quo through saving his mother, Cecile is far from secure in her impending motherhood. She wonders if her pregnancy tipped her husband over the edge, bristling at her friend Gelyen’s (Kate Alejandrino) claim that it wasn’t her fault with the words “we are all to blame”. Attempting to visit Samuel’s mother Lina (Glydel Mercado) who was in fact a childhood friend, the women too come across the cave, idly wondering if the legend behind it – that the ghost of a pregnant woman raped and killed by the Japanese during the war lurks inside, has been updated for a new generation.

Gelyen lives her life surrounded by religious icons but also suggests, perhaps jokingly, that as people around here are mostly Catholics they’d believe anything. In any case, the cave seems to have a particular meaning to the women surrounding a mysterious incident connected with Gelyen’s apparently missing brother and late father. The cave, a kind of womb itself, appears to feed on familial distress and emotional discord. It can relieve your burdens, but only at a price – the choice is yours should you decide to pay.

Then again, some things are supposed to pass and artificially reviving them might not be the best solution for anyone, not least the hollow simulacrum of a deceased loved one. Did Lina die because Samuel found the cave, did he pay for worrying that crow? Likewise, did Cecile’s husband die because of her childhood adventure? Perhaps the tree guided her here, engineering her inescapable guilt to reclaim what it to needs to live and prosper. Samuel does the unthinkable and drags his little siblings into his dark game, while Gelyen’s room full of religious icons are apparently no match for the ominous power of the natural world. Families are in a sense restored to a kind of satisfaction, but only through great personal sacrifice that alleviates the sense of guilt without offering the relief born of mutual forgiveness. Filled with a macabre sense of dread and gothic fatality, Ma is an ambitious debut from Dagatan which matches its beautifully conceived images with the bloody horror of grief-stricken desperation. 


Ma screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Krasue: Inhuman Kiss (แสงกระสือ, Sitisiri Mongkolsiri, 2019)

Inhuman kiss poster 2Vengeful ghosts are one thing, but what if you get possessed by a malevolent entity and go about committing evil deeds during the night only to forget them by the morning? A Krasue, in Thai mythology, is a supernatural creature which infects an ordinary woman with a curse which causes her head to detach from her body at night to devour nearby cattle. The heroine of Krasue: Inhuman Kiss (แสงกระสือ) received the curse as an overly curious child only for it to activate on entering puberty during which time she is also caught between the love of her two childhood best friends.

The gentle Sai (Phantira Pipityakorn) first encountered the Krasue when dared to go into a creepy “haunted” cottage by her cowardly friends who largely stayed outside. 10 years later, she still misses her best friend Noi (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang) to whom she gave her protective amulet, while her other best friend, Jerd (Sapol Assawamunkong) silently pines for her but despite his confident persona is too shy to declare his feelings. Shortly after Noi returns from Bangkok in order to escape the approach of the war, a Krasue comes to town. Gradually, Sai begins to worry something is wrong when she keeps waking up with bloodstained sheets but is at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, a band of bandit Krasue hunters has also descended on the village with the intention of “purifying” it of the troublesome curse.

Set around the time of the Second World War, Krasue: Inhhuman Kiss takes place in a rural idyll untouched by conflict but also home to ancient superstition and primitive prejudice. Though belief in the Krasue is fading, the evidence of its reappearance is undeniable and even if the townspeople can consider themselves “safe” because the monster only targets cattle, they still fear it and that their wives and daughters could become infected. Noi, who left the village long ago for Bangkok, has come back in search of safety but finds himself longing once again for the civilisation of the big city where monstrous curses are regarded as ridiculous superstition and modern medicine a potential cure for any ailment.

Thus when he realises that Sai has become a Krasue, his ultimate plan is to flee with her to the city where they might find help or at least different kind of safety in the midst of civil unrest. Originally horrified, Noi turns to a local monk for advice who counsels him that he should believe what he sees, but do as his heart tells him. Therefore he tries to protect Sai by preparing food for the Krasue so she won’t have to leave her house and risk discovery while he looks for a cure.

Meanwhile, Jerd becomes increasingly jealous of the obvious bond between Sai and her childhood friend but lacks the courage do much more about it than pout and resent Noi’s unexpected reappearance. Jerd joins the hunters, seemingly looking to emphasise his manliness against Noi’s intellectualism while allying himself with strong male role models like the worryingly intense Tat (Surasak Wongthai). In the end, however, both men act to protect the woman that they love albeit in different ways even as they fear she has become monstrous and a danger to herself.

The curse of the Krasue is, it turns out, the legacy of an ancient love triangle and an all powerful man who couldn’t accept that the woman he loved had fallen in love with someone else. Tat’s band of rage fuelled bandits are as much about misogynistic prejudice towards transgressive women as they are about protecting cattle from “supernatural” threat and their intimidating presence eventually puts a stronghold on the increasingly jumpy village in which the torches and pitchforks eventually come out in a show of intense paranoia.

The wartime corruption has finally reached the village, rendering it no safer than the city and infected with a deeper, older anxiety born of wounded male pride and female subjugation. Selfless love struggles to endure but may be no match for the humiliated rage of a spurned lover leaving acts of mutual sacrifice perhaps the only path towards salvation. A supernaturally tinged coming of age tale in which a teenage love triangle neatly overlaps with an ancient curse, Krasue: Inhuman Kiss is a surprisingly rich and delicate experience which imbues its essential horror with genuine warmth and deeply felt compassion.


Krasue: Inhuman Kiss was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, Cheng Wei-hao, 2015)

The Tag-Along posterWhy are little girls in red dresses such a frequent figure for fear? From the cheerfully naive little red riding hood and her unavoidable association with unscrupulous wolves to the murderous spectres of Don’t Look Now, we don’t seem to be able to abandon our strange anxiety on seeing little girls incongruously alone and distinctively dressed. A little girl in red became a national meme in Taiwan in 1998 after accidentally photobombing an ordinary family out on a mountain hike, notably appearing behind a family member who later passed away though no one was able to remember having seen the little girl on the day. Truth be told, our little girl in red does not actually feature as much as you’d expect in Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, Hóng yī Nǚhái), but she does become the embodiment of the “mosien” – an ancient monster appearing in the form of a child or a monkey who bewitches and feeds on guilt.

Cheng opens in the mountains with an old woman, Shui (Pai Ming-hua), wandering. Shui is subsequently reported missing and much missed by her friend, grumpy grandma Shu-fang (Liu Yin-shang). Everyone seems to be worried that ancient spirits may have dragged her off to the mountains, but Shui does eventually return, albeit not quite as she left. Meanwhile, Shu-fang’s grandson Wei (River Huang) is an overworked real estate agent in a committed five year relationship with radio DJ Yi-chun (Hsu Wei-ning). While Wei is keen to get married and start a family, Yi-chun is not convinced partially for financial reasons but also perhaps because she simply is not ready to give up her individual freedom to become a member of Wei’s family.

Indeed, Yi-chun asks her radio listeners if marriage isn’t “the tomb of love”, but shows no other signs of wanting to break up with Wei only emphasising that she does not envisage marriage as part of her life plan – something later contradicted by a message she scrawled on the back of a photo five years previously. In a touch of disappointing conservatism, The Tag-Along makes Yi-chun its ostensible hero who alone battles against  preternatural horror to reclaim her rightful relationships, but frames her mission as a gradual process towards conforming to conventional social norms in which she learns that her qualms over marrying Wei are nothing more than commitment phobic selfishness and pointless guilty self obsession – something which she needs to abandon in order to fulfil her proper role as a woman by marrying and making a home even if she is also allowed to continue her radio career.

Meanwhile Wei, who has a strong desire to start a family of his own precisely in order to forge his own identity, treats his loving granny with contempt and irritation, eventually mortgaging the family home in order to buy a fancy apartment he hopes will help convince Yi-chun that he has the means to marry. Yi-chun, again, is not convinced partially because she fears Shu-fang may think it was all her idea and use it as evidence of her gold digging. The rot has already set in at home. Shu-fang feels sad for Wei who seems to have lost his parents young but also for the burden he feels himself under because the family lost their money, while Wei resents being shackled to an old woman who still cares for him as if he were a child, nagging him about getting married when she herself is one of the obstacles in its way.

Yet “civilisation” is perhaps the force that each of them are fighting, living as they do in ultramodern, always aspirant Taipei. The mountains represent something older and earthier, filled with atavistic passions and the dark fear of the unknown. One of the more supernaturally inclined elderly residents of Wei’s apartment block speculates that the forest spirits are angry with the encroachment of modernity, that persistent tree cutting has destroyed their natural habitat and sent them into the cities in search of souls to devour like foxes hungry for human suffering. Another forest dweller adds that every time a tree is removed, the spirits steal a body to “plant” in its place in an ironic act of restitution. An encounter with dark nature however sends each of our conflicted souls reeling back to the comforts of urbanity, suddenly no longer quite as afraid of the things which frighten them and now convinced that their salvation lies in each other and in repairing the bonds of the traditional family. Socially conservative as it may be, The Tag-Along’s spectres of moral decay are all too real in the increasingly indifferent city plagued by greed and selfishness where competition is key and human feeling merely an afterthought in a rabidly acquisitive society.


The Tag-Along screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput, Timo Tjahjanto, 2018)

may the devil take you posterTop travel tip – if you encounter a door which is plastered with Buddhist sutras, it’s generally a very bad idea to open it. In this case, just not opening the door is a valid and very sensible option. Sadly, it’s one the protagonists of Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput) decided not to take. Following Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, May the Devil Take You also has a few hard questions to ask about the nature of “family” and how strong those bonds really are when the supernatural presses on already exposed nerves.

The film opens with formerly successful property entrepreneur Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) entering some kind of agreement with a demonic shamaness whom he later kills and hides in the basement of his remote country villa. An undisclosed amount of time later, Lesmana is struck down with a mystery illness which forces his fractured family back together. Alfie (Chelsea Islan), Lesman’s estranged daughter from his first marriage, is called back to the bedside along with her step-siblings Ruben (Samo Rafael) and Maya (Pevita Pearce), famous actress step-mother Laksmi (Karina Suwandhi), and half-sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab). Forced politeness eventually gives way to resentment, especially when Laksmi begins to ponder selling the villa which is technically in Alfie’s name even if still thought of as a “family” property. When everybody unexpectedly turns up at the same time in search of things of value, they have very little idea of what it is that awaits them there.

Once again the threat is a bad inheritance in which the children are forced to pay for the crimes of their “father” who has let greed get the better of him and allied with dark supernatural forces in order to make himself fabulously wealthy. Lesmana’s sensational success is less due to his business acumen than to selling his soul, well not actually “his” but those belonging to his loved ones, to the Devil. His business empire apparently in tatters, Lesmana has both a problem and a solution, but the Devil is always wanting more and there may lines Lesmana won’t cross even when he is apparently willing to sacrifice the lives his wife and children just to be accounted a “success”.

There may be horrors lurking in the cellar of every home, but in this one they are quite literal and very, very angry. Family, as a concept, is the weapon the Devil chooses to wield, poking into all the dark and uncomfortable corners that basic civility usually leads most to avoid. Alfie, angry and carrying the trauma of her mother’s death, is resentful of her father’s new family and most particularly of her imperious step-mother whom even Maya later describes as “not a good person”. Yet for all that she can’t quite bring herself to “hate” her step-siblings, especially the kindly Ruben who seems to have embraced his role as a natural peacemaker. Their bonds will be tested by insidious evil which presses hard on their insecurities of their awkward family set-up in which no-one quite feels accepted, or wanted, or loved by almost anyone else.

Then again, family itself becomes a source of salvation when the buried past is unearthed and then reburied having been properly dealt with. Rather than a comment of Lesmana’s rejection of traditional religion and misuse of black magic, May the Devil Take You is an exploration in the desperation of a greedy man whose desire for infinite instant gratification is matched only by the Devil himself. Lesmana was willing to sell his family for gold only to change his mind and lose them anyway. The supernatural horror is all too real, but rooted in the sins of the father and in the broken familial connections which continue trap each of the protagonists in the stereotypically creepy remote rural mansion complete with creaking floorboards and leaky ceilings. Tjahjanto’s awkward tone, over-reliant on genre norms to degree of parody but distinctly serious, makes for a strangely uneven experience but there is certainly enough hellish imagery to fuel the nightmares of many a susceptible viewer.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Jung Bum-sik, 2018)

Gonjiam Haunted Asylum posterBack in 1992, all of the UK was scandalised by a strangely realistic “drama” starring three well respected TV personalities “investigating” poltergeist activity in an ordinary house. Screened as part of an ongoing anthology drama series, the show was presented as if it were live complete with a telephone number for viewers to ring in. Many were tricked into believing the events they were witnessing were “real” and that a genial children’s TV presenter they knew and loved had been dragged off by a malevolent supernatural entity. Fast forward 10 years and the nation was once again gripped by a “live” ghost hunting show presented by a dubious psychic and a (former) children’s television presenter but this time at least keeping up a pretence of “reality” even if the show’s appeal lay more in its exaggerated seriousness than it did a genuine interest in the paranormal.

The world may have been a more innocent place back in 1992, but ghost shows are still big business even in this comparatively more cynical age. Reality TV ghosthunters Horror Times decide the best way to pick up their flagging views is to go viral by going live inside a notorious disused sanatorium listed as one of CNN’s seven freakiest places on Earth. Rumour has it that Gonjiam Mental Hospital (a place all too real though here given a fictionalised history) was built by the Japanese over the top of a mass grave for resistance fighters though, according to our guides, it was also accounted one of the best psychiatric facilities in the country. Its director received numerous awards from the government of Park Chung-hee (which ought to tell you she was probably up to no good), but the hospital fell into disrepute after an incident in which all the patients mysteriously died and the director herself “disappeared”. Ever since then teenagers have been breaking in to try their luck, but anyone who’s tried to open the door to room 402 has met a sticky end.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Gonjiam) is a found footage horror movie in the modern mould and like most, the crime our “heroes” are about to commit is one of extreme hubris. Cynical in the extreme, the Horror Times crew have absolute certainty in the non-existence of the supernatural and actively mock it through their exploitation of engineered “scares”. In an odd way, if you really thought about it, Horror Times would be quite an exploitative show if it involved “real” ghosts – perhaps you should let malevolent spirits lie rather than bullying them to fight you for the entertainment of others. Nevertheless, the Horror Times crew are about to find out just how wrong they are. While they bicker amongst themselves, hatching plans to wind up the most “expressive” of the team members, setting up bizarre “rituals”, and faking being “scared” to get more money, the Captain keeps a firm eye on the numbers from the safety of the editing tent and the horrors of Gonjiam begin to bubble quietly below the surface.

The thing is, there is clearly horror in spades in this version of Gonjiam where we are told the directoress excelled at treating not only the “distressed” but also “political prisoners”. The lab holds its share of bizarre discoveries including some kind of weird chicken in preserving fluid while the “collective treatment room” is filled with individual confessional boxes which are completely closed save one opening at the chest level. The spectres we later see have large scars running down their torsos and we can only image the true horror of whatever it was that was done here and to whom and on what grounds, but Horror Times aren’t interested in any of that despite their rather superficial “investigations” of the directoress’ office and her many photos of that time she got a prize off a dictator. By the time everyone starts speaking in tongues and getting trapped in strange underwater realms, it becomes clear the “truth” is going to remain buried. 

Maybe the other lesson the Horror Times guys should have learned is that the traumatic past is not your playground and it’s probably fair enough if those unable to pass on begin to feel upset about their personal pain being exploited for ghoulish thrills. Perhaps there’s a mild lesson in the unhappy fates of those who’d rather poke the ghosts than cure them, revelling in the darkness of another era rather than trying to expose it, but Gonjiam isn’t so much about lessons as good old fashioned scares. The abandoned hospital itself is atmospheric, as are the distant banging and doors opening of their own accord but there’s a glibness in its unease that undercuts the sense of dread and inevitability so essential to the genre. The biggest irony of all is that Horror Times’ viewers lost interest when the “real” ghosts showed up – reality TV never really was about “reality” anyway.


Screened as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next and final teaser screening will be A Tiger in Winter on 17th September at Regent Street Cinema at which the full programme for this year’s festival will be revealed.

International trailer (English subtitles)

For the curious, a clip from Ghostwatch (1992)

Dukun (Dain Iskandar Said, 2018)

Dukun posterInspired by a notorious real life crime, Dain Iskandar Said’s Dukun proved too controversial Malaysia’s censors and is only now reaching cinema screens after languishing on a studio shelf for the last twelve years. It arrives, however, alongside a number of similarly themed East Asian horror films which pit ancient “superstitions” against “respectable” religions and, unlike many, broadly comes down on the side of Islam which perhaps makes the fact that it was banned a little surprising. Then again, as a lawyer points out midway through the unconventional femme fatale’s murder trial, there are many who believe in “black magic” and perhaps faith is not enough to hold off the overwhelming supernatural dread of incomprehensible otherworldly forces.

Said opens with the conclusion as Diana (Umie Aida), the “gifted” shamaness and glamorous nightclub singer, dolls up in a beautiful ballgown to be sure of making an impression at her own hanging. Dialling back a little, the dismembered body of a businessman is discovered with evidence that suggests a ritualised killing. Meanwhile, veteran lawyer Karim (Faizal Hussein) is desperately searching for his 17-year-old daughter Nadia (Elyana) who ran away from home after an argument. Fearing Nadia has gotten herself mixed up with drugs, Karim hopes to get an old police contact to help him keep tabs on new arrests but in return he finds himself agreeing to defend a difficult client who has already rejected all 23 public defenders put in front of her. Diana argues that the businessman died as a result of a ritual intended to make him invincible because he didn’t listen to her instructions and the spells didn’t work – his death, therefore, is not her “fault” but the unfortunate consequence of improper respect for shamanistic practices.

Dukun’s banning is apparently not so much down to a direct confrontation of Islam and shamanism, but the sensitivity surrounding the real life case which inspired it. In 1993, former pop-singer Mona Fandey, who had rebranded herself as a top shaman catering to the rich and famous, was arrested for the murder of a politician whose dismembered body was eventually discovered in her storehouse. As the investigation progressed, more bodies were discovered as was a lengthly paper trail detailing a shopping spree which even included a face lift. Unsurprisingly given all the grizzly details and celebrity connections, the trial was a media sensation which Fandey milked for all it was worth.

Though the narrative and facts of the case have obviously been fictionalised, the comparisons are obvious – the accused shamanesss is even called “Diana” which was the title of one of Fandey’s unsuccessful albums. Actress Umie Aida perfectly mimics Fandey’s deluded fame hungry creepiness but also adds the oddly alluring quality of a film noir femme fatale as she shifts between elegant nightclub singer and all powerful practitioner of black magic. Diana plays to the gallery, attempts to charm the court, and acts as if her trial is just another show conducted in front of her adoring fans while preparing herself for the grand “finale” which, unbeknownst to the legal system, may all be a part of her greatest work of ritual magic.

Meanwhile, Karim attempts to defend her with a keen application of the law, pitting “irrational” ritual against state sponsored logic which itself is perhaps largely under the sway of conventionally religious thinking. Karim’s wife disappeared ten years previously, leaving him to raise his daughter alone only to have her disappear too. Diana seems oddly familiar with Karim’s difficult family circumstances and offers to “help” him in return for delivering makeup and a mysterious object from her apartment. Karim is desperate enough to accept, but in accepting may have already betrayed himself even if he’s careful to also consult his local Imam as to the best course of action.

As in the all best supernatural noir, darkness is coming for Karim. Engulfed in an inescapable spiral of dread and despair, Karim finds himself sinking ever deeper in his quest to rescue his daughter little knowing that they are all involved in an ancient conspiracy over which they have little or no control. You can’t play around with the supernatural, Diana counsels, but the supernatural may very well play around with you.


Dukun screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 13th July 6.15pm

Official trailer (English subtitles for dialogue, contains disturbing imagery)

Bamy (バーミー, Jun Tanaka, 2017)

Bamy posterCan you be so haunted that you eventually become a ghost? The protagonist of Jun Tanaka’s Bamy (バーミー) sees lonely spirits everywhere but they don’t frighten him, in the expected sense at least, so much as act as supernatural jailers lurking just out of sight ready to remind you that there is no escape from their all seeing eyes. Which is to say, he begins to find them irritating especially as he feels himself pulled along by the unstoppable forces of “the expected” without being entirely sure “the expected” is what he really wants. Perhaps Ryota (Hironobu Yukinaga) is just another commitment-phobe getting cold feet before a wedding and looking for an excuse to find out if the grass is greener with someone else, but then again perhaps there are forces operating beyond our understanding, be they good or ill.

Our pair of lovers are brought together by the sudden and unexpected arrival of a bright red umbrella falling impossibly from on high. As their eyes meet across the incongruous sight, Fumiko (Hiromi Nakazato) recognises the man on the opposite side as Ryota – an old friend from her university days. Fast forward one year from this atypical meet cute and Fumiko and Ryota are moving in together with a wedding date already in place. The red umbrella hangs proudly on their balcony as a romantic tribute to their love but at odd times it seems to glow ominously, as if emanating a sense of inescapable unease. The couple’s happiness is ruptured when Ryota spots the first of his ghosts lurking in the bedroom. Before long he’s seeing them at work, in the streets, everywhere. He’s seen them all his life and though they do not frighten him, he is sick of their constant presence. Gradually the ghosts place a wedge between himself and Fumiko as he begins to neglect the wedding preparations before running into another woman, Sae (Misaki Tsuge), experiencing the same problem who might be better placed to understand what he’s going through.

The ability to see ghosts, it has to be said, is not an especially good excuse for neglecting one’s fiancée. Ryota, who seems to have forgotten there are many other words in the Japanese language besides the one which means “sorry”, does not appear to be a very good communicator and never thinks of confiding in Fumiko about what it is that is bothering him, nor does he ever try to communicate with the ghosts who perhaps are just looking for attention. In fact, Ryota never seems to take much of an active role in anything and almost “haunts” his own life, remaining isolated on the fringes, drifting along aimlessly like a man without a soul.

Existing to one side of the world around him, Ryota eventually makes ghosts of both his women. Sitting alone before a table on which lies a lovingly prepared meal, Ryota cannot see Fumiko as she lurks behind him, her form distorted and indistinct as filtered through the frosted glass which acts as divider to their living area. Later her face appears again through a frosted door as she grows ever more distant towards him, no longer “Fumiko” but a strange, unknowable being. Her hand on his face once grounded him, brought him back to the real but since the umbrella disappeared all that has changed. Meanwhile, Ryota wonders if the ghost seeing Sae is his real soulmate only to see her pale before him, her fingers dark and cold as she too becomes little more than something that will bind him to a fate he isn’t sure he wants.

The umbrellas at least seem to want Ryota to be with Fumiko, whatever he (or she) may think about it. An echo of the “red strings of fate”, the umbrellas bind the lovers on a cosmic level which can never be severed – Ryota’s “rebellion” is perhaps towards fate itself, towards having his life dictated to him (by an umbrella) with his personal agency all but removed. Then again, maybe “the umbrellas” know best and what they’ve given Ryota is a gift, only the pleasure of a gift begins to dissipate when it is made clear that it cannot be declined. The cosmos seems determined on railroading him and perhaps the only way to “escape” its harbingers is to accept its judgement and submit, turning a given fate into a chosen one through a conscious act of will. Echoing Kiyoshi Kurosawa in his conflicted romanticism and David Lynch in his eerie sense of the everyday surreal, Tanaka conjures an atmosphere of inescapable supernatural dread as his hero begins to realise his only source of salvation may lie in willing submission. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

TFF trailer (English subtitles)

Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan, Joko Anwar, 2017)

Satan's Slaves posterBad things happen in houses where they don’t pray. So says a kindly Imam in Joko Anwar’s chilling horror remake Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan). Taking inspiration from a 1982 classic, Anwar updates the tale of supernatural dread and familial breakdown for the new century while maintaining the early ‘80s setting and pushing back still further into the superstitious, gothic past. The family, threatened by financial, social, and spiritual pressures is stretched to breaking point by supernatural unease. Advised that the cure for their ills is religion, they begin to conform but, unlike the original, godliness cannot save them from a greater evil and if the family chooses to save itself, it will be through acts of selfless love rather than brutal adherence to a set of outdated social codes.

As the film begins, eldest daughter Rini (Tara Basro) – a 22-year-old former college student, has given up her studies and become the defacto maternal figure to her small family while her mother, Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi ), remains bedridden after a long illness. Mawarni was once a famous singer and the family’s breadwinner, but having been out of the spotlight so long her music has begun to go out of fashion. Royalties have dried up and there is little prospect of any further income. Lacking the funds to pay for ongoing hospital care, the family have brought Mawarni home to care for her themselves though the father (Bront Palarae), worrying about feeding his children, secretly urges his wife to be on her way to a better place, as a disturbed Rini hears him say from outside the door. Soon enough, Mawarni is gone, but not forgotten. Strange noises fill the old mansion as Mawarni’s bell continues to tinkle in the night, her records play without warning, and radios reset themselves to play her song. When dad leaves the siblings – 16-year-old Tony (Endy Arfian), 10-year-old Bondi (Nasar Annus), and 7-year-old Ian (M. Adhiyat) who is deaf and mute, in Rini’s care to head into the city in search of money, the kids are left to deal with the legacy of his moral cowardice all alone.

Adopting the trappings of the classic European gothic chiller, Satan’s Slaves sets itself in an old fashioned villa located in a forest some distance outside of the city. If the house were not creepy enough on its own, it is also conveniently located next to the local graveyard where Mawarni has now been laid to rest (in theory, at least). Moving in “next door”, a kindly Imam and his spiritually open minded son Hendra (Dimas Aditya) promise to provide pastoral care to the bereaved children but find themselves engulfed by the house’s increasing power to isolate and terrorise.

Tipped off by Hendra, Rini discovers a dark and disturbing secret regarding her mother’s former life and her own origins. Devolving into a vast conspiracy involving satanic fertility cults and their apparently omnipresent spy networks, Satan’s Slaves revels in its oppressive atmosphere of supernatural dread and human impotence as the children find themselves surrounded on all sides by faceless, umbrella wielding zombies lying in wait to tear their home apart.

Rini is told, by an old friend (Egy Fedly) of their grandmother’s (Elly D. Luthan), that the fertility cult requires child sacrifice but that the cult cannot take the child unless the family gives it up. She is being asked, quite literally, to put her life (and those of her siblings) on the line in order to save “the family”, yet “the family” or more particularly hers already has its problematic elements. Rini’s grandmother, recently deceased in mysterious circumstances, was not originally accepting of her daughter-in-law because of a class difference and also because of her occupation as an “entertainer” which was not considered respectable at the time. She only warmed to Mawarni once the children were born which was already some years into the marriage as Mawarni, finding it difficult to conceive, became desperate for a child and for her mother-in-law’s acceptance.

Rather than the lack of spiritual rigour which the Imam blames for the increasing demonic presence, it is these social taboos which seem to have opened the door to evil. The kids try the religious solution, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t help them. Literally haunted by their late mother who feels herself “abandoned” by her family, her loving husband hastening her death now that she is no longer economically useful and has become an unbearable burden, the only way to defeat this curse is to reverse it through unconditional familial love and solidarity even given what Rini now knows about her history. Oppressive in atmosphere yet filled with an eerie beauty as shadowy figures slowly colonise the misty Indonesian forest, Satan’s Slaves challenges the idea of “the family” in the face of strict patriarchal social codes and finds that in order to survive it must salvage itself through acts of defiance and self identification.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Sophon Sakdaphisit, 2017)

The Promise Thai 2018 poster20 years on the Asian financial crisis continues to loom large over the region’s cinema, providing fertile ground for extreme acts of transgression born of desperation in the wake of such a speedy decline. Sophon Sakdaphisit’s ghost story The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Puen Tee Raluek) places the financial crisis at its centre in its cyclical tales of betrayed youth who find themselves paying heavily for their parents’ mistakes through no fault of their own. Yet there is a fault involved in the betraying of a sacred promise between two vulnerable young people made half in jest in a fit of pique but provoking tragic consequences all the same. Sometimes lonely death chases the young too, trapping them in solitary limbo growing ever more resentful of their heinous betrayal.

In 1997, Ib (Panisara Rikulsurakan) and Boum (Thunyaphat Pattarateerachaicharoen) are best friends. Daughters of wealthy industrialists making an ill fated move into real estate with the building of a luxury tower block destined never to be completed, Boum and Ib may have been separated by being sent to different schools, but they spend all of their free time together, often hiding out on the construction site fantasising about sharing an apartment there and listening to sad songs on Ib’s ever present Discman.

When the crisis hits and their fathers are ruined, the girls pay the price. Not only are they left feeling betrayed and humiliated in being so abruptly ejected from their privileged world of mansions and horse riding, but also suffer at the hands of the fathers they now despite – Ib more literally as she is physically beaten by her strung out, frustrated dad. Already depressed, Ib talks ominously about a gun her mother has hidden in fear her father may use it to kill himself. When Boum falls out with her mum, she gives the go ahead for a double suicide but can’t go through with it after watching the twitching body of her friend, lying in a pool of blood after firing a bullet up through her chin.

20 years later, Boum (Numthip Jongrachatawiboon) is a successful industrialist herself, apparently having taken over her father’s company and turned it around. The economy is, however, once again in a precarious position and Boum’s business is floundering thanks to a set back on a high profile project. The idea is floated to finish the tower left incomplete by the ’97 crisis to which Boum reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Boum’s daughter Bell (Apichaya Thongkham) is about to turn 15 – the same age as she was when she agreed to die with Ib, and has recently started sleepwalking in ominous fashion.

Sophon Sakdaphisit neatly compares and contrasts the teenagers of 20 years ago and those of today and finds them not altogether different. In 1997, Boum and Ib keep in touch with pagers and visit photo sticker booths in the mall, splitting earphones to listen to a Discman while they take solitary refuge at the top of a half completed tower. In 2017, Bell never sees her friend in person but keeps in touch via video messaging, posting photos on instagram, and sending each other songs over instant messenger. Yet Bell, in an ominous touch, still graffitis walls to make her presence felt just as her mother had done even if she fetishises the retro tech of her mother’s youth, picking up an abandoned pager just because it looks “cool”.

In 2017, the now widowed Boum appears to have no close friends though her relationship with her daughter is tight and loving. A “modern” woman, Boum dismisses the idea that a malevolent spirit could be behind her daughter’s increasingly strange behaviour but finds it hard to argue with the CCTV footage which seems almost filled with the invisible presence of something dark and angry. Realising that the circumstances have converged to bring her teenage trauma back to haunt her – Ib’s suicide, the tower, her daughter’s impending birthday, Boum is terrified that Ib has come back to claim what she was promised and plans to take her daughter in her place in revenge for her betrayal all those years ago.

Bell is made to pay the price for her mother’s mistakes, as she and Ib were made to pay for their fathers’. Motivated by intense maternal love, Boum nevertheless is quick to bring other people’s children into the chain of suffering when she forces a terrified little boy who has the ability to see ghosts to help her locate the frightening vision of her late friend as she darts all over the dank and spooky tower block, threatening the financial security of his family all of whom work for her company and are dependent on her for their livelihoods.

In order to move forward, Boum needs to address her longstanding feelings of guilt regarding her broken promise – the suicide was, after all, her idea even if she was never really serious and after witnessing her friend die in such a violent way, she simply ran away and left her there all alone and bleeding. Yet rather than attempting to keep her original promise Boum makes a new one with her imperilled daughter – that she will keep on living, no matter what. The slightly clumsy message being that commitment to forward motion is the only way to leave the past behind, accepting your feelings of guilt and regret but learning to let them go and the ghosts dissipate. Sophon Sakdaphisit makes use of the notorious, believed haunted Bangkok tower to create an eerie, supernaturally charged atmosphere of malevolence but the ghosts are in a sense very real, recalling the turbulence of two decades past in which fear and hysteria ruled and young lives were cut short by a nihilistic despair that even friendship could not ease.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)