The Medium (ร่างทรง, Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)

A young woman finds herself caught between the contradictions of the modern Thailand in Banjong Pisanthanakun’s eerie forest-bound supernatural folk horror, The Medium (ร่างทรง). Produced by The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin and based on his original story, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s shamanistic drama is in many ways an exploration of the vagaries of faith but also of the price to be paid for abandoning the traditions of your nation and the slowly mounting karmic debt that visits itself solely on the young. 

A documentary film crew exploring indigenous religious practice has settled on shamaness Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) as a subject, getting her to provide a brief explanation of the area’s animist beliefs. According to her, there are good spirits and bad, those who protect and those intent on causing harm. As a conduit of the goddess Ba Yan, the local protective deity, she is able to intervene when the villagers need her help though only, she is keen to point out, where the problem stems from something “unseen”. She takes no money for her services, though sometimes people bring gifts, and is clear that she cannot treat conventional illnesses such as cancer only those a direct result of supernatural manipulation. 

Nim had not originally wanted to become a shamaness and at one point attempted to take her own life in order to escape it, but claims that after deciding to accept Ba Yan everything changed for the better and she’s since grown to like it because it allows her to help people as well as affording her a special status in the village. A maternal deity, Ba Yan only seeks female hosts and the original target had been Nim’s older sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) who went so far as to convert to Christianity in order to reject her. According to older brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn), the sisters have never got on, a degree of animosity between them obvious on attending the funeral of Noi’s husband Wiroj (Prapruttam Khumchat). Wiroj, however, a had traumatic family history of his own, his ancestors apparently having committed a terrible crime, while his grandfather was stoned to death by his employees, and his father burned his factory down for the insurance money later taking his own life. The couple’s son Mac (Poon Mitpakdee) was also tragically killed in a motorcycle accident some time previously.  

All of this might explain why Nim’s 20-something niece Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) seems to be behaving strangely at the funeral, having too much to drink and kicking off at an uncle for supposedly insulting her. Witnessing other strange events, Nim starts to suspect that Mink is beginning to awaken as a shamaness and that Ba Yan is looking to move on, but whatever it is that’s troubling Mink may not be as benevolent as the protective deity. The clash between the sisters comes to represent a clash between tradition and modernity, ritualistic animist religion and Western Christianity, as mediated through the body of Mink a young urbanised woman working at a recruitment centre who thinks all this shaman stuff is backward and superstitious. Interviewed by the documentary crew she rolls her eyes and recalls a story of a so-called Doraemon Shaman who is compelled to sing the theme tune to the famous children’s cartoon about a blue robot cat from the future on entering a trance. 

As the film progresses, a series of questions arises in relation to the dubious ethics of the documentary film crew particularly in their decision to continue following Mink as her mental health deteriorates. Later events imply they did not edit this footage themselves, but the decision to film the aftermath of a suicide attempt seems unjustifiable as does the inclusion of CCTV footage featuring clearly recognisable people engaging in acts of intimacy even if admittedly in public places. 

In any case, the central question is how much faith you can have in things you can’t see, Noi ironically asking Nim how she knows Ba Yan is with her if they’ve never “met” while simultaneously refusing to ask herself the same question in regards to her Christian faith. Then again, we can’t be sure if Noi’s faith is “genuine” or solely a way of rejecting her traditional beliefs in order to shrug off the burden of shamanism. Even Nim finally admits that she no longer feels certain that she really is possessed by Ba Yan and not the victim of localised hysteria. Her final conclusion is that Mink’s illness is a result of Noi’s rejection of shamanism and only by convincing her to finally accept the goddess can they gain her assistance in freeing Mink from the ancestral curse and bad karma that have apparently made her a magnet for evil spirits. 

Having originally believed the spiritual pollution lay firmly in the present generation with the suggestion of an uncomfortable taboo, Nim later realises she’s been tricked and the problems lie far in the distant past if exacerbated by the karmic debts accrued by Wiroj’s immediate forbears. Noi’s reluctance to listen to her guidance, however, eventually leads to a series of escalating consequences, further bearing out the message that it was her own betrayal of her traditional beliefs that laid a spiritual trap for her daughter. Capturing a sense of eeriness in the Thai forests,  Banjong Pisanthanakun leans heavily into a sense of spiritual confusion and existential dread asking some key questions about the nature of faith, the costs of sophistication, and effects of failing to deal with the legacies of historical trauma while raising a sense of palpable evil in its demonic trickery. 


The Medium screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and will stream exclusively on Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from Oct. 14.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng, 2020)

The first in a potential franchise, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng’s chilling anthology 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, 76-Hào Kǒngbù Shūdiàn zhī Kǒngjù Guàntou) adapts four short stories from the online novel series of the same name. Somewhat interconnected and featuring some of the same cast, the four episodes each present a different kind of horror but all featuring a rather grisly spin from the secrets contained in the grim apartment building of the first instalment to the heartbreaking familial drama of the last as a collection of contemporary lost souls attempt to make sense of life, death, and that which exists somewhere in between. 

Titled “Rent”, the first chapter sees single mother Miss Ho (Esther Huang) leave her young son behind to travel to Taipei hoping to earn money through sex work in order to buy a house in which they can live together. Unfortunately, however, her city existence is even grimmer than expected, inhabiting a rundown apartment block overseen by an extremely creepy landlord (Lai Hao-Zhe) who informs her that the previous tenant, whose belongings are still in the room, abruptly disappeared without trace. “When your son grows up, he’ll be able to protect you” the landlord adds in rather sexist fashion finally getting round to fixing the lock on her door while singing unsettling nursery rhymes about slow rats getting eaten alive. Gradually Miss Ho becomes aware that the building is home to a dark secret connected with the sad fate of one particular family who apparently attempted to resist the urban renewal programme but ironically finds that her own victory lies in a sense with complicity. 

Meanwhile, in Hunger a convict (Joe Chang Shu-Wei) wakes up on the outside after a traumatic episode only to discover that in this version of reality food has been declared illegal. The clerk at a convenience store (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) reacts to his polite request for sustenance with shear horror as if he’d just asked him where he might be able to find the weapons grade plutonium or high grade explosives. A strangely dressed man hanging round outside explains that there’s no more food for another 76 days, but he can supply him with some tins for a small fee. Gesturing at the sign inside the store which is currently counting down to a ghost festival might have clued the man in on where he might be if only he had his thinking cap on, but sure enough he finds himself trapped in a purgatorial hellscape and eventually faced with an ironic confrontation as he resolutely fails to take the opportunity to overcome his baser instincts. 

Shifting into teen supernatural romance, Hide and Seek takes a less grisly though no less cruel turn as a bunch of kids head out on an adventure to celebrate the 18th birthday of Xiaoqi (Eric Lin Hui-Ming). Best friend Shaohua (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) has organised a camping trip to a supposedly haunted former dormitory yet the conflict here is of a more ordinary kind in that both the boys had unwittingly intended to declare their love to the same girl. Nevertheless, as the haunted house adventure proceeds Xiaoqi begins to to wonder who is haunting who, unwittingly forced into a delayed confession of his repressed emotion. 

Something similar befalls Hsin-chieh (Annie Ting-ni), the 30-something heroine of final instalment Taxi who has recently discovered she is pregnant and is subsequently consumed with maternal anxiety that reflects the loss of each of her parents in very different circumstances along with a possible sacrifice of independence and individual identity. Nagged by the aunt who raised her and seemingly cajoled by her perfectly pleasant, vaguely supportive boyfriend Ah-Shu (Wang Wei), Hsin-chieh leans towards an abortion, ending the relationship and getting a flat of her own but soon finds herself haunted by a creepy little girl and a host of other strange goings on until finally forced to face the legacy of abandonment in order to make peace with the traumatic past, ending a painful cycle of guilt and retribution in a bloody confluence of death and rebirth. Filled with surreal and nightmarish imagery, Taxi is at heart all about forgiveness and moving forward, a fitting end these four gloomy tales of supernatural harassment and guilty consciences finding at least a ray of hope in new life unburdened by fear or shame.


No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear streams in the US March 27 – 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982)

Until fairly recently, the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi had been largely unappreciated in the Anglosphere where he is associated most closely with his debut film House which was itself somewhat grudgingly respected as a “crazy” midnight movie. He was however surprisingly prolific and especially so for a director working through the difficult 1980s in a 60-year career which ended only with his death after a protracted illness itself ironically announced on the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, should have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for television in the same year as I am You You Are Me, Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Kawaii Akuma) is among those which Obayashi did not script for himself but is penned by Machiko Nasu and apparently inspired by The Bad Seed though Obayashi later revised the script to remove traces of the original work unwilling to create a simple homage. 

Similar in tone to Obayashi’s later The Deserted City, Lovely Devils is at heart a twisted gothic romance cautioning against the dangers of an excessive thirst for love. In ‘70s Japan, a wedding takes place at small church during which 5-year-old Alice, niece to Koji (Hiroyuki Watanabe) the groom, becomes overly attached to the veil of the bride, Fuyuko (Nao Asuka), and in the manner of entitled small children everywhere demands to be given it. Fuyuko tries to explain that she plans to hang on to the veil for the rest of her life as a keepsake and is sure that Alice will have an even prettier one of her own someday, but Alice creepily asks if that means she can have it when Fuyuko dies and, wanting to bring an end to the matter, she unwisely agrees. While everyone is busy assembling for the wedding photos in the garden, Fuyuko violently tumbles out of an upstairs window, her broken body landing on the patio below only to be met by Alice excited about collecting her veil. 

Meanwhile, at the same time in Vienna, Fuyuko’s exchange student sister Ryoko (Kumiko Akiyoshi) is in the middle of a difficult breakup with her local boyfriend Johann in which she, perhaps understandably, tells him to go die only to see him get hit by a car on his way out of her apartment. Overcome with guilt and grief in believing that she somehow killed Johann by wishing for his death, Ryoko goes quietly mad until her landlady contacts Koji who comes to bring her home and places her into a mental institution run by a convent in which the resident psychologist, Dr. Tsukahara (Toru Minegishi), is also a priest. After three years, Ryoko seems to be sufficiently recovered and so Koji asks his sister Keiko (Miyoko Akaza) to take her in as a governess to the now eight-year-old Alice (Tina Jackson). 

The central irony is that Ryoko is almost certainly not guilty of psychically killing Johann just someone who bitterly regrets saying something unkind in anger and having fate ironically follow through, where as Alice is definitely “demonic” and, as is later pointed out, a child who cannot discern right from wrong. In the liner notes for a later release for the film, Obayashi likened the figure of Alice who commits a series of murders with no conceptual understanding that it’s morally wrong to kill to that of himself as a thoroughly militarist boy in wartime who thought that Japan was just and everything outside Japan “bad”. Alice sees something she wants and has to have it. If someone else has it and won’t give it to her, they have to go (sometimes in quite elaborate ways). Ryoko’s battle is against the commonly held belief that eight-year-old girls are innocent angels, no one in their right mind (Ryoko has just been released from a psychiatric institution following a breakdown after all) would believe Alice capable of violent murder and especially not on the grounds that she simply wanted something trivial like a veil or a doll and was unable to accept that she could not have it. 

Later, Alice’s fragile, chain-smoking, dipsomaniac mother Keiko who always suspected there was something not quite right with her little girl attributes this extreme possessiveness to having discovered the body of her father after he unexpectedly hanged himself in their family home (it does not seem to occur to Keiko that perhaps he is merely the first victim, his ornate quill pen one of Alice’s favourite trophies). She thinks that lack of paternal love has made her seek attachment and permanence in objects but also dangerously in her uncle Koji whom she sees both as a surrogate paternal figure and as an incestuous love interest. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the actress playing Alice and the character herself is half-Japanese playing into an uncomfortable stereotype in gothic horror that posits these demonic qualities and romantic perversions as essentially an extension of foreignness, but in any case Obayashi leans in deep with the wedding imagery as Koji returns to rescue Ryoko in the white suit from his wedding firstly on her release from the hospital on which she too wears a white lace dress, and then subsequently with the still eight-year-old Alice who is dressed much the same only with the addition of an Edwardian-style sun hat to complete the look.  

It’s this final juxtaposition which pushes Ryoko towards accepting her imprisonment as a “criminal of love”, seeing herself and Alice as two of the same as if she really had caused Johann’s death through an excessive desire for a love he had but refused to give her in the same way Alice kills “out of a longing and thirst for love” sublimated into the acquisition of objects. Conjuring an intense and heady atmosphere of gothic unease with the remote country mansion and wandering ghostly brides, Obayashi once again plays with psychedelic surrealism with his romantic painted backdrops and characteristic use of colourplay particularly in flashback as Keiko recalls a sepia-tinged memory of the time they were “almost too happy”. Boasting high production values despite its TV movie genesis, Lovely Devils is defiantly an Obayashi production filled with his wistful sense of loss and nostalgia but also a deep darkness in its mildly disturbing, unconventional conclusion. 


The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, Kimo Stamboel, 2019)

“I’m not here just to punish you, I’m here to create hell” the vengeful tormentor at the centre of Kimo Stamboel’s contemporary remake of the 1981 classic The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) cooly intones. Reminding her victims that not to know is also a sin, the shadowy villainess has come she says to create hell on Earth because she is uncertain that mortal transgressions will be suitably punished after death and means to ensure those who have sinned suffer accordingly. Quite literally trapped in the space of their trauma, the heroes attempt to find a way out of their guilt and shame but are perhaps confronted as much by themselves as by a witch hellbent on justice as they try to find escape from the traumatic past. 

Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) have foregone their planned holiday to Bali to visit the man who ran the orphanage where Hanif spent much of his childhood who is now apparently close to death. This comes as a surprise to their three children who hadn’t realised their father was adopted or really ever thought about kids who don’t have parents, and though they are perhaps annoyed to have missed out on their holiday they are also a little excited to be going somewhere so unusual. Unfortunately however, the family’s cheerful mood is broken when they hit what they assume is a deer on their way to the orphanage casting an air of foreboding over their journey. 

Though it appears Hanif has been “open” with his wife about his past, the same is not necessarily true for his “brothers” Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan) who have also brought their partners to meet Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), Jefri’s wife Lina (Salvita Decorte) complaining that she knew nothing about any of this until they were already in the car on their way over. Far from a happy reunion, however, the brief sojourn at the orphanage begins to highlight the strain on each of the familial relationships, Lina apparently experiencing a kind of body dysmorphia and preoccupied with her weight while Anton’s wife Eva (Imelda Therinne) is constantly applying moisturiser to guard against a mysterious rash she was convinced was down to flesh eating bacteria but others feel is simply “dry skin”. These will however be the least of their worries as the men vaguely hint on voicing their anxiety that Mr. Bandi’s biological children may sell the estate to developers unsure of “what they’ll uncover”.

This perhaps implies that the now grown up men know more than they’re willing to admit about the dark secrets the orphanage hides, something which Hanif has in any case not shared with his wife who has only a rosy picture of his childhood with Mr. Bandi who eyes her with nervous suspicion even on his death bed. Nevertheless, the men have each been drawn back to the source of their trauma and now find themselves unable to escape without a reckoning, recalling a similar occasion that they tried to run only to find themselves mysteriously brought back as if by some supernatural force. There are indeed dark, other worldly forces in play but also a healthy dose of patriarchal violence, entrenched misogyny, abuse of power, and as the villainess had hinted a wilful tendency not to see especially when it comes protecting the most vulnerable members of society, children without parents who are easily manipulated in the knowledge that, as Hanif originally puts it, they would otherwise die abandoned. 

Justifying a particularly ironic part of her revenge plan, the witch reveals that the orphans may in fact be better off dead than raised by a man like Bandi, something which Hanif himself echoes if not quite with the same intent. Creating her hell, she forces her prey to harm themselves and each other with a variety of weapons ranging from kitchen knives, scythes, and comparatively more modern projectile weapons to insects literally choking the guilty from the inside. The orphanage itself is a place out of time, frozen as it was during Hanif’s childhood, one of the two orphans to have remained behind as mystified by Hanif’s inquisitive son Haqi’s (Muzakki Ramdhan) references to such things as “the internet”, “wi-fi” and “streaming” as he is by the “scary” VHS tape she shows him featuring actual footage of his father and a mysterious figure of legend. Yet even in realising they have allowed themselves to serve poor masters, deceived by a man they trusted, there is a sense the men at least, absent from the final frames, may never be able to free themselves from their guilt, forever haunted by the spectre of those they have unwittingly harmed. An eerie, gory, dread-propelled voyage through human cruelty to supernatural retribution, Queen of Black Magic positions the evil that men do ahead of that performed by vengeful witches looking for spiritual justice as its misused heroes attempt to find accommodation at least with the traumatic past.  


The Queen of Black Magic is available to stream via Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from 28th January.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Closet (클로젯, Kim Kwang-bin, 2020)

Parents in Korean horror films are often uniquely flawed but go to great lengths to redeem themselves through saving their children from supernatural peril. This much is true for the narcissistic hero of Kim Kwang-bin’s grief-stricken ghost story, The Closet (클로젯). The title, perhaps in contrast to its first implications, has a poignant quality as it represents in one sense a place of safety for children trying to protect themselves from the things that frighten them but of course it is no safe place and only leaves them trapped, vulnerable, and traumatised by a world of adult cruelty they are far too innocent to understand. 

Architect Sang-won (Ha Jung-woo) lost his wife in a car accident in which he was driving. He has just bought a large house in the country where it’s quiet and the air is clean to help his young daughter Ina (Heo Yool) recover from her trauma, but his decision is causing trouble in his professional life because his firm prefer their architects to be onsite during in builds and Sang-won obviously needs to be with Ina until he can find a nanny. Ina is generally avoidant around her father, something which probably isn’t helped by her overhearing him blame all his problems on her while arguing with work on the phone, but her personality undergoes an abrupt change after she opens the closet door in her new bedroom, rendering her suddenly cheerful while carrying around a strange doll. 

Sang-won’s first concern is the manky old toy which irritates him because he’d gone to trouble to buy Ina a fancy limited edition doll as a present which she hasn’t played with. Ina is probably ageing out of dolls, and doubtless not that impressed with the supposed pedigree of her father’s gift seeing as neither is she old enough to appreciate a purely decorative present, but in any case Sang-won’s gesture was largely for himself as he proves flagging up how much trouble he went to to get it without, it seems, thinking about what Ina might actually like. When the accident happened, Sang-won was having a minor argument with his wife because he hadn’t made it to Ina’s school concert. He was faintly dismissive, superficially apologetic but clearly unrepentant in choosing his career over his family. Still traumatised over his role in the accident, Sang-won fails to connect with his daughter out of a mix of emotional unavailability, guilt, and intense resentment.

Facing potential humiliation at work on learning he’s been “paired” with a younger architect, Sang-won gets a random local woman to watch Ina, telling her he’ll be away for two months but will visit at weekends. With all of the craziness in the house the “nanny” quits and Ina goes mysteriously missing soon after. Sang-won goes to the police and then the media, but once they catch sight of his medication and mental health profile, he all but becomes a suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, some thinking he killed her and is covering it up and others pitying him as a madman who simply doesn’t remember having harmed his child. An exorcist (Kim Nam-gil), however, has another explanation and Sang-won, though originally sceptical, is forced to trust him because he is the only one who doesn’t think him guilty of murdering his little girl. 

As might be expected, Sang-won’s paternal failures are the root of all his problems. Not only did he neglect his family before the accident, but continues to reject his paternity while rendered a single parent, hoping to palm his daughter off on a nanny so he can go back to concentrating on his career. Questioned by the well-meaning but insensitive exorcist, Sang-won is forced to realise he knows nothing about his little girl. He has no idea if she likes K-pop or if she has any friends. Faced with her continued indifference, he was planning to send her away to an art therapy camp, throwing his hands up in the air and declaring fatherhood too difficult. As the exorcist points out, kids are smart and they know when they aren’t wanted. It’s precisely this feeling of insecurity which has invited in the supernatural. Sang-won will have to prove his paternal love if he truly wants to bring his daughter home. 

The grudge-bearing ghost, it seems, is trying to provide a refuge for all those other children bullied, mistreated, or neglected by the adults who were supposed to protect them, but all Sang-won can do is apologise on behalf of failed fathers everywhere which is, it has to be said, not much of a victory even if refocuses our attention on the true villainy which is sadly much more societal than it is supernatural. In any case, Sang-won doesn’t seem to have changed very much even if he’s had something of a humbling and been superficially restored as a “good” father rededicating himself to raising his daughter. The final sting, however, is perhaps a little on the flippant side even as it reminds us of the evils still lurking in the dark corners of our societies. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

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)