AUGUST 9 — It may be idiosyncratic to consume anything from the horror genre this year when 2020 itself seems like horror fiction come to life with a virus that brought the whole world to a standstill and claimed nearly three-quarters of a million dead already.

There is also civil unrest in various countries, military escalation on several fronts, and just last week a deadly explosion in Lebanon that killed over 100 people.

And yet, here I was going to the cinema for the first time since Malaysia’s lockdown... for a horror film.

My pick? Emir Ezwan’s Roh, the first Malaysian film to hit cinemas as soon as they were allowed to reopen with strict SOPs.

Produced by Amir Muhammad’s Kuman Pictures which specialises in low-budget horror and thrillers, Roh punches well above its weight with a budget of merely RM360,000 (for comparison, the highest grossing local film, also from the horror genre, 2018’s Munafik 2 had a budget of RM2.5 million, seven times more). Roh is Kuman’s second film after James Lee’s Two Sisters last year.

Perhaps due to — or rather in spite of — its meagre budget, Roh kept things narratively tight. 

It revolves around a single mother, simply addressed as Mak (Malay for “mother”, with Farah Ahmad commanding the screen with her presence), and her two children Along (Malay nickname for first-borns, played by Farah’s real-life daughter Mhia Farhana) and Angah (ditto for second child, Harith Haziq), living at the edge of the jungle.

One day, the family finds a small girl, Adik (you probably have guessed it by now, this means little child in Malay; here played by Putri Syahidah Nurqaseh). And their lives are never the same afterwards, as two more characters enter their lives: the mysterious shaman Tok (Junainah M. Lojong) and an unnamed spear-wielding hunter (the always reliable Nam Ron).

Slow-burning Roh is not too big on story and scares, and this may be its biggest hurdle for commercial success. But where it excels is in painting a mood: right off the bat, every frame seems calculated to instill a feeling of dread and futility, which ramps up as soon as the pivotal bloody scene comes in.

A foreboding sense that there is always something much more awful waiting on the horizon makes viewers embrace the fact that things are hopeless and there is nothing they can do to save the family on the screen.

Roh starts with a Quranic verse, 7:12: “[Allah] said, ‘What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?’ [Iblis] said, I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.’”

Even if you are not religiously-inclined, do not let that put you off.

Beyond that verse, it has zero overt reference to any theology, and yet it manages to present a religious message perhaps far more hard-hitting than many preachy, Islamic-themed Malay horror films.

I commend Roh for presenting the Malays in a time before the community becomes synonymous with Islam. Everyone is clad in kain batik and kain pelekat, there is little concern in covering oneself for the sake of others, Mak smokes rokok daun, and when all is lost, Tok does not invoke help from above but from within and around her.

But that Quranic verse is important in appreciating the visual of Roh. Fire and clay are prevalent themes, from burning trees to gas lanterns, the charcoal that becomes the family’s subsistence, and smoke that seems ever-present.

The bare feet of the characters are always caked with mud, the compound of the family’s hut, a field of earth with a clay oven. The brown of dirt mixes with the dusky, drab green of Malaya’s secondary jungle (rather than the verdant green of rainforests), making a colour palette that dominates the film and matching with the run-of-the-mill batik worn by the characters.

Tying both fire and clay together is blood, mankind’s lifeline and the physical symbol of existence on this plane of life. And Roh provides that by the buckets, painting the film with calculated splashes of red.

The significance of the verse would only be revealed at the end of the film, serving as a punchline but ultimately may leave viewers unsatisfied. 

The reason why the family stays far away from civilisation, deep in the woods is never explained. Nor why the father is not around.

Viewers also only have a vague idea of when the story is set, which has to be ascertained by examining the detailed props: a certain type of lantern here, a classic pair of iron scissors there, a lovingly crafted hairpin.

Mak makes a brief mention of a time of strife outside in the world, hinting at the various times when the Malays ran to the jungle away from wars: from the many invasions of Dutch, Portuguese and British colonials, to the Emergency and World War II. Take your pick, it does not really matter here.

Roh had its world premiere at the Singapore Film Festival in November last year, but its local release in the time of Covid-19 seems serendipitous.

When many were sequestered at home during the movement control order (MCO), hearing whispers of what happened outside to other people through the din of social media or the National Security Council’s relentless text messages, Mak and her family’s isolation seems relatable.

Just like when Malaysians were restricted to travelling within a 10 kilometre radius from their homes and migrants were trapped in lockdown without food supplies, Mak is surrounded by wilderness with little choice to ask for help.

A shocking hostile lamentation by Along against Mak in an especially harrowing scene brought things into focus: “When will you ‘sujud’ to ask for help? Shall I ‘sujud’ on your behalf?”

The word “sujud” here can mean going down on one’s knees, to beg for help. But one can also read it as prostrating oneself, particularly to God, humbling oneself to a higher power.

And therein lies Roh’s holy 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.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.