Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 12, 2020 5:12 pm 
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Horror at jungle's edge

Emir Ezwan's Malaysian art house horror film explores folkloric ideas of invasion, possession and witches in a remote edge-of-the-jungle village setting whose beauty in itself well compensates for the low budget - though some will find the action a little too low-key. (The low budget style is the trademark method of the Malaysian-based Kuman Pictures, who had an international success with James Lee's film Two Sister last year.) Limitations are also offset by the beautiful droning-rising score by Reunchez Ng, which is the first thing that greets the viewer as the film begins. Lovely cinematography by Ahmad Saifudd does justice to every leaf of the rich jungle growth and the dark spaces under the green canapy. The horror fan who looks for something low-keyed and original should be the best audience for Soul. Those in search of a complex narrative will come up short. This is above all a gloomy, foreboding mood piece. It's no coincidence that it's dominated by the unchanging but satisfyingly enveloping score.

You have to be into the trip Ezwan takes you on. If not, the quiet, relaxed pace and absence of the usual horror-film shocks might make the action seem to lack energy and drive. I have to admit that while I appreciate the film's beauty (even the closing credits are a marvel of elegance and precision a bigger budged film would admire), it failed to engage me fully. My opinion may parallel that of Letterboxd contributor Colin McEvoy. He gives Soul three stars after a NYAFF 2020 viewing and describes it as "Atmospheric and creepy," saying financial and artistic restrictions gives it "a distinct sort of charm." But he concludes he can "not honestly say" it held his interest all the way through.

This is the story of a mother, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her son , Angah (Harith Haziq) and daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) living remote from anything. The film takes them through states of increasing dread. The brother and sister bring home a strange girl, Adik (Putri Syahadah Nurqaseh) they find in the woods. They should have known better. There mother warns them of a slain deer they find hanging from a tree, in effect, "What happens in the jungle stays in the jungle." Next day the girl warns this family they'll all soon die. Troubles begin from there. The girl kills herself and bleeds out. A gray-looking woman called Tok (Junainah M. Lojong) then comes, said to be a local healer, also warning, and offering to help. Guess what? (Spoiler alert!) Tok is only the ticking clock of doom. She is not there to help the little family, who know they should flee, but don't get around to it in time.

More obviously sinister is Pemboru (Namrom), a strange man in tightly-wrapped clothes who comes looking for a mysterious girl. And there is also a spear-wielding hunter (Nam Ron). By this time Mak and her two children are aware that where they are is indeed an area where evil hovers. Strange, scary rituals are going on, animal are being mysteriously slaughtered. It's a curse, it's bad magic - or someone is after their souls. Perhaps one may come around to the view that where folkloric superstitions reign, people start to get what they wish for.

The writer for theMalay Mail. Zurairi AR, recounts his astonishment that the first feature he'd go to see when cinemas reopened after the Coronavirus lockdown would be a horror movie. Zurairi AR is learned and helpful and has provided an exceptionally fine analysis and explanation of this film that I wish I'd read before watching it. He points out the rudimentary tenor of the cast names: "Mak" is Malay for "mother," "Along" for "first born," "Angah," "second born, "Adik," "little child, and so on. He directs our attention to the film's epigraph from the Qur'an, referring to Iblis (as associate of Satan) who warns that he is made from fire, and ordinary men from clay - two elements that thread through the film. Blood is another key, linking element. But he points out that this film isn't overtly Muslim like many Malaysian horror films but refers more to a pre-Muslim time in Malaysia and hence has characters who must find help within themselves and not from above, making this "more hard-hitting than many preachy, Islamic-themed Malay horror films." On the other hand, in Zurairi AR's analysis, is that this film does have an ultimately Islmic, healing message: that "one should not isolate oneself when facing great evil and trying to save one’s soul. Help is just one prostration away, one submission away to the divine."

The Malay word for "soul," "roh," is also the Arabic word. However, knowing Arabic, I could not recognize one word of the Malay dialogue.

Soul / Roh,, 82 mins., debuted at Singapore and the Indonesia Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival in November 2019. It was screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept 12).

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