ROH (aka SOUL, 2020)
Directed and written by Emir Ezwan.
Starring Farah Ahmad, Mhia Farhana, Harith Haziq, Nam Ron, Junainah M. Lojong, Putri Syahadah Nurqaseh
Find out more about this film here!
When a young girl wanders near the wicker home of Mak (played by Farah Ahmad) and her two children Along (played by Mhia Farhana) and Angah (played by Harith Haziq), they take her in and feed her. But the strange, almost feral girl speaks of a dark curse onto the small family. Soon after her foreboding words, horrible things begin to happen. Coming to the family’s aid is a local shaman named Tok (played by June Lojong) and soon after they are visited by a hunter (played by Nam Ron). While both offer to help the family, it is unclear which Mak can trust and the fate of her family hangs in the balance.
ROH, which means SOUL in Malasian, is a slow and meticulous little fable. While I’ve seen many compare it to THE VVITCH, I feel it is much more like the more arthousey and soulful HAGAZUSSA: A HEATHEN’S CURSE, which was released the same year as THE VVITCH. Yes, all three films are slow burns about superstition with hints of magic and evil forces, but while THE VVITCH still had a Hollywood-esque feel to it, especially in regards to the pacing, structure, and ending, HAGAZUSSA and now ROH take a much more meditative method to telling the story. ROH really allows you to absorb the poverty Mak and her family live in and the dangers of the jungle that surrounds them. It doesn’t have long discourse about beliefs. It’s more of a simple, experiential sort of film that requires much more patience. There are some shocking scenes involving suicide, danger to children, and the death of a few animals for sacrifice (any pigeon or chicken lovers out there might want to steer clear). But in between these arduous moments are long stints of time offered to really understand the terrible conditions this family is under.
I think my issue with ROH is that while it does immerse the viewer into the Malasian culture, full of belief in witchcraft, superstition, and basic human instincts to protect one’s family, the lack of any kind of discourse explaining these beliefs are left for the viewer to understand or not understand. I didn’t need this film to explain to me what magic meant to the family. It’s clear they’re superstitious. But at the same time, I felt the film was caught up a little too much into it’s own lore and didn’t really care if the viewer understood it or not. This made it hard for me to connect with the film. I can recognize the loss and pain felt and the fear from some of the scenes, but never felt like I fully understood the situation this family was in. There is no establishing shot as with THE VVITCH when the family left the settlement and went off on their own to life in the woods. You don’t get a moment where you understand if everyone is in poverty or if this is just the fate of this poor family. Later, we find that because of the loss of the father, the family has sort of exiled themselves from the world, but this revelation came too late for me and I think had I understood that key piece of info, I might have appreciated it more. Because this is such a small and intimate tale, I didn’t know if this family was typical or peculiar in this culture. There’s no reference and I think that’s why I wasn’t blown away or invested in it as much as I could have.
Still, there are some horrifying scenes in ROH. This is a relentless little film that isn’t afraid to break Hollywood taboos. It also has some wonderfully shot scenes of tension such as the scene where one of the kids is foraging under the house and encounters…something. Filmmaker Emir Ezwan captures the beauty and horror of the jungle that surrounds this family with an artist’s eye. If you’re looking for a film that feels more like a transcendental experience rather than a typical narrative journey, ROH is just the unconventional ghost story/possession tale for you. I appreciate the hell out of what ROH is and represents, I just couldn’t connect with it as much as I wanted to.