Malaysia, 2020, 83’, Malay
Directed by: Emir Ezwan
Script: Emir Ezwan, from a story by Emir Ezwan, Nazri M. Annuar, Amir Hafizi
Photography (color): Saifuddin Musa
Editing: Safwan Salleh
Production Design: Taufiq Kamal Abd Rahman
Music: Reinchez Ng
Producers: Elise Shick, Shizreen Saleh, Amir Muhammad
Cast: Farah Ahmad (the mother), Mhia Farhana (Along), Harith Haziq (Angah), June Lojong (Tok), Namron (the hunter), Putri Qaseh (the little girl)
Date of First Release in Territory: March 19th, 2020
Premiere status: European Premiere
A traditional Malay house in the middle of the forest. A family that lives far from everything and everyone, a mother and two young children, a girl and a boy. Set in an indeterminate period, suspended in an archaic past, it could also be an unusual present far from the trappings of modernity. One morning, the two children, while inspecting an animal trap, come across a mysterious, disturbing sign that seems to anything but natural. What to do? Then the appearance of a little girl in rags, all blackened, following them home.
This is how the story opens, getting right to the point of a terrifying mystery that it is best not to unravel: Soul (Roh), the first film directed by Emir Ezwan. And we are faced with an authentic revelation. If, in fact, the horror genre is very much at home in Malaysia and Indonesia (or more generally speaking, in Southeast Asia), thanks to a folklore reservoir of frightening creatures and chilling tales, rarely has such a refined filmic distillate flowed from this basin. Working in purely pared back style both in means and storytelling, Emir Ezwan has directed a debut that maximises his technical and artistic resources. And this without ever weighing on his limited budget; indeed, by playing the card of essentiality, he makes a virtue out of necessity.
Only 83 minutes long, Soul masterfully handles the tension and, above all, the ambiguity: who is this little girl? Why did she do what she did, making that terrible prophecy? Who are old Tok and the hunter? Whose side are good and evil on? Expertly dispersed questions that instil doubt and stir up the tension to the max. But above all, will the protagonists be able to elude the tremendous prophecy?
Working with only six characters, all of them beautifully performed (which is anything but predictable in Malay genre production), by the children Mhia Farhana, Harith Haziq (the brothers Along and Angah) and Putri Qaseh (the cursed girl) and the adults Farah Ahmad, June Lojong and Namron (already at FEFF 2018 as director of Crossroads: One Two Jaga) and by using the spaces in the house and the surrounding nature, at once lush and threatening, Emir Ezwan sets up an archetypal narrative.
Yet the skilful and careful execution, in the staging, composition, editing and excellent photography, elevates the story to a level of contemporary cinema that places Soul in a different category from any of its Malaysian contemporaries seen for years.
In this sense, it is not only the discovery of a major directing talent, but also a gamble that has payed off for the production model launched by Kuman Pictures, the emerging production company behind the film. With Soul Kuman Pictures candidly demonstrates that topoi and traditions can be skilfully blended on a limited budget without having to resort to trivial waste and hackneyed formulas, focusing on increasing the tension rather than on gratuitous twists and turns. Soul, in short, demonstrates that the quality of writing, staging and acting are not necessarily correlated with the budget of a film. We hope that Malaysian audiences will soon be able to enjoy this film in theatres once the Covid-19 emergency, which postponed its release, is over. And we warmly invite the FEFF audience to experience the best Malay horror film presented so far at the festival!
Soul is Emir Ezwan’s first feature film. He had previously directed the short film RM10 (2016) and supervised the special effects for Namron’s Crossroads: One Two Jaga (2018), which had its world premiere at the Udine Far East Film Festival.
2016 – RM10 (short)
2020 – Soul