Review: Toyol (2019)

The familiar Southeast Asian tale of the Toyol, gets a political twist in Toyol, Malaysian filmmaker Ho Yuhang's contribution to the HBO Folklore series, also screened at the Asian Film Archive's 'Fear of Monsters' series. Ho, not accustomed to horror, pitches his attempt at the genre from an angle of greater urgency to the Malaysian psyche - politicians and their dirty laundry.

A fishing town suffers a strange phenomenon of fish going belly up in its waters, putting its local mayor-like character in the hot seat. Desperate for solutions, he entertains even the bizzare, just to keep his small town electorate appeased. In a classic dig at the incompetencies of Malaysian bureaucracy and the world’s most famous missing airplane, the mayor summoned a bomoh to perform a highly delirious pantomime of chasing away the devil.

The political allegory does not end there. In fact, it was just getting started. Claiming to take a leaf out of Rosmah Mansour’s book, it takes the bomoh-mayor ‘partnership’ to the next level. The politician meets a strange but attractive lady who claims she can end the town’s fishing woes. Speaking with an air of cold surety, we all know she comes a huge price. Of course, desperate to stay in power, he gives this shaman a try. She does not disappoint, though in the process her exorcist rituals, she spooked the daylights out of his henchmen with her punctuated disappearance and reappearance.

Halfway deep into the film, one might become more mentally invested in the power struggle than the supernatural. The film’s loose grip on spookiness is evident in the callous ways the Toyol is being introduced to the audience and the animation department’s ‘genre-bending’ sci-fi Toyol with its laser beam eyes was probably an unwise gamble. I rather it did not appear. Equally distracting were the use of a pair of midgets to embellish the sorcery behind the Toyol’s raison d'ĂȘtre. A touch with of Harry Potter added nothing to the world of Asian evil spirits, though it did have something in common with the theatrical bomoh.

Indeed the real meat of the film lies in with the Shaman’s sneaky ascent to the top of the politician's family. Beneath the black magic is an even darker person who schemes her way to the top breaking up a family and disempowering her vehicle of usurpation - the man she married. From the rather rural and shamanistic origins of the Toyol, Director Ho Yuhang has managed to spin it into a socially more complex tale that mirrors some of the more current evils happening within Malaysia’s highest politician echelons. At times, confused in its genre-direction, but mostly entertaining. Review by Jeremy Sing

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