It’s late at night and you muster the courage to take a shortcut home through the forest, when you hear faint whispers from behind. Your heart races and you quicken your pace — just in time to reach your front steps. Relieved, you turn around only to see an unnerving sight: a strange, bloodied little girl, face muddied and hair frazzled, who brings a terrifying message — that you and your entire family will die by the next full moon.
That is how the 2020 Malaysian sleeper hit Roh (which means “soul”) begins.
Set during wartime Malaya and directed by local filmmaker Emir Ezwan, Roh delves heavily into the supernatural and even goes so far as to explore the role of the devil in the context of Malaysian religious and spiritual society.
“The central text of major religions is not that different when it comes to the devil, an evil being which corrupts the minds of men,” Emir told VICE. “Roh recounts biblical narratives that aren’t estranged from what we already know and I wanted to highlight this fragility in one’s last moments of contemplation.”
“The central text of major religions is not that different when it comes to the devil.”
He also makes reference to the Southeast Asian myth of orang bunian, supernatural human-like elves believed to live deep in forests or high up on mountains, and also elaborates on the mysterious appearance of a blind hunter, whose storyline serves as a prelude to the retelling of an ancient Malaysian myth about a man cursed to hunt for prey in the forest forever.
“The tale of his inevitable and inherited fate to curse and roam the forest is somewhat parallel with the downfall of Iblis (a figure in the Quran), who is cursed and bound to this earth to lead men astray,” Emir said.
The spiritual forest folklores depicted in Roh resonated strongly with many in Malaysia, who to this day still turn to superstitions to explain random disappearances and unsolved mysteries.
The film was Malaysia’s official entry to the 2021 Oscars.
Nominees will be announced on Monday, March 15, but with or without an Oscar nod, local horror fans, as well as those in neighboring Singapore and Brunei, say the story is still worth watching for its take on spiritual folklore, dreamlike visuals, and the simplicity of its quiet storytelling of unseen horrors that lurk within our midst.
The film was produced by Kuman Pictures, which is known for low-budget horror films and thrillers. On the indie masterpiece, the company’s Director Amir Muhammad, said: “I want Roh to make viewers so scared that they won’t be able to walk [home] alone after watching it in the cinema.”
Roh is now streaming on the arthouse cinema platform Mubi.