Film Review: ROH (2020)


In 2019, the Malaysian horror genre saw a new player with the entry of Kuman Pictures. Inspired by Roger Corman with aspirations to be Malaysia's own Blumhouse, the film outfit of Malaysia New Waver Amir Muhammad (The Big Durian, The Last Communist) has dedicated itself into making small scaled horrors and thrillers, and only work with filmmakers who are comfortable with flexing their creativity with restraints, rather than fanciful (and sometimes wasteful) filmmaking.

It is in embracing this minimalist approach and sentiment that gives Roh its soul. Building on the axiom that less is more, Roh is built on a simple premise. A secluded family living in in the jungle finds a child wandering alone. After taking the child in and providing her with food and a roof over her head from the hidden dangers of the jungle, the child repays their generosity by prophesying that they would all die in the next full moon, before slitting her own throat. Confused and shaken, the family is soon beset by a chain of events that is further complicated by two more visitors, as the family is unable to ascertain if they are their boon or doom.

Roh is light on its plot and heavy on mood and atmosphere. The camera moves on lush backgrounds of rustling trees (shot almost as an homage to the blowing reeds to Onibaba), golden swamps and cloudy moons, but with an air of dread that traps those within its frame. Emir Ezwan's feature debut wants to impress with meticulous planning of making the parts work together, each knowing how the sum makes for a greater whole, even if that must rely on doing so little. There may be few words being shared between our enigmatic character, but the score speaks just as much, if not more, in maintaining the sense of dread. 

Although the only perceived downside to that is having a rather glacial pace, but that allows for Roh stokes on fears of not knowing what is it that we should be afraid, and the deceitful editing becomes its most potent tool to sow doubt and confusion. The motivations and the plot owe little explanation as to the reason for the events, but it pays off with the consequences of them. Like the mysteries of the jungle, it's best not to know why we must observe their taboos, but only to fear the consequences if we don't. Other than its hinted theme from the opening title card quoting the Quran on the perceived superiority of the devil over humans, it thrives on creating more questions than answers with every watch. This inadvertently sends a stronger religious message than other grades of Malaysian horror do with a blunt hammer. Sometimes, it is more imperative to be vigilant against the evil that slowly works its ways into us, rather than having the strong faith to fight against it.

Roh is an effective mood piece foremost an attempt of artistic vision and should be noted for taking a subtle approach to horror that many other local directors would easily be tempted away from. It comes from a spirit of doing low-budget horror right, and Malaysian cinema has much to look forward what Kuman Pictures is capable of bringing to the table.  

Review by KC Lee

KC Lee is a Malaysian on a journey through film's past, present, and future, local and abroad. He writes down some of it along the way, hoping someone would read them.

ROH was originally scheduled to open in 56 cinemas across Malaysia on 19 March but this has been postponed due to lockdown measures imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 virus. You can get updates on the new screenings dates by following the Kuman Pictures on their Facebook page.

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