WOW FILM FESTIVAL: HORROR ROUNDUP | REVIEW
Having spent two decades consistently programming top quality examples of world cinema, once again the Wales One World Film Festival knocked their horror selection out of the park, reports Tom Morgan.
Featuring a ‘Strange Films For Strange Days’ category as well as a collection chosen by local stalwarts Abertoir, this year’s online edition of the WOW Film Festival provided some weird and wonderful delights for the adventurous fan of horror cinema. Of the horror films that played at this year’s WOW, I caught five, missing only the sci-fi-tinged Les Saignantes [reviewed here] and Bhutanese oddity The Red Phallus. With settings ranging from Mexico to Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, the films (four narrative and one documentary) I saw are all deeply indebted to both the physical and psychological landscapes of their respective countries of origin.
Combining elements of magical realism and traditional folklore, none of these films neatly fall into the category of traditional ‘horror’. Rather, their generic identities are fluid, slippery and tonally off-kilter in comparison to our conventional, western understandings of the genre. Make no mistake, however, for these films contain true terrors. From jungle demons to patriarchal dystopias to all-too-real sociopolitical nightmares, each has something complicated and disturbing to tell us about the world we live in: a trait shared by the finest works of this incredible and varied genre.
First up is Joshua Gil’s Sanctorum. A disarming mix of cartel thriller and ghostly fantasy, the film follows a downward spiral of misfortunate that befalls a remote Mexican mountain village. At 83 minutes, its brief narrative follows an ensemble of characters as their lives become irreversibly altered by the ever-present violence of the war on drugs. Its breathtaking setting juxtaposes harsh scrubland against lush, rainforest-strewn mountains, using shots filmed above the clouds as if placing the lives of its characters in some netherland between this world and the next.
This dreamlike yet elemental imagery recalls 2019’s visceral Monos, yet in its more gentle moments – a character talking with a loved one who, at the end of their conversation, we learn to be a spirit – Sanctorum also shares similarities with 2010’s Palme D’or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The film is fascinated by its characters’ perception of the boundary between the physical and metaphysical, and how this way of life interacts with the violent and, by association, modern way of life of the cartel members who have taken over the village.
As it approaches an ominous and possibly apocalyptic climax, a child wanders through the jungle, crying out for his deceased mother, the victim of a horrific massacre. The pain of this final stretch is almost too much to bear; a disturbing reminder that the horror of ghosts and spirits can be nothing when compared to the capacity humans have to inflict suffering upon one another.
Emir Ezwan’s Roh (English translation: Soul) takes no such view. In this spare and precise Malaysian folk horror, the ghosts have not come to talk, rather they are here with malevolent, murderous intentions. Set deep in the jungle, a mother and her two children meet a mysterious young girl caked in clay bearing an ominous prediction. With a formal approach characterised by an air of slow, creeping dread, similar to the ‘elevated horror’ films that have become so popular over the last couple of years, Roh makes effective use of certain tropes popularised by these films (family conflicts, fires, dead animals and a truly horrifying scene involving a head and a knife), all of which will be familiar to fans of Hereditary, The Witch and It Comes At Night.
However, what makes Roh stand out is its elemental and eerie direction. Ewzan’s camera is so calm and spare that its very stasis becomes itself a threat. We learn early on in the film that there are ghosts walking through the trees, so whenever a shot lingers on the dense foliage it plays on some innate survival instinct and we start scanning the leaves and branches for shapes or movement. Most of the time there’s nothing there, making the moments when something does appear truly shocking.
Narratively, there’s very little scene-setting before the story begins, meaning it peaks a little early and loses a bit of steam about two-thirds in. However, its final twist is savagely effective, ending the film on a dark and enjoyably mean-spirited note. The performances are also uniformly excellent – special mention going to Farah Ahmed as Mak, the tough mother trying in vain to ward off the encroaching evil, and Junainah M. Lojong, the mysterious old lady.
Talking of brilliant performances, my personal highlight of this year’s WOW is Mattie Do’s The Long Walk [pictured, below]. Best described as a melancholic ghost story, it tells the story of an old man, played with effortless precision by Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, who has spent 50 years being haunted by a woman whose death he witnessed as a child. When he discovers that the ghost can alter time, he starts using her to visit his younger self. This complicated and layered narrative is told with note-perfect accuracy, expertly balancing the jumps in time along with its tonal and generic shifts.
This tightrope is walked along so effectively that there’s essentially four films playing simultaneously. The futuristic setting gives it a sci-fi backdrop; the flashback parts work as a searing family drama, a storyline set in the present adds a murder mystery/occult detective element; then there’s the main ghost story thread about the old man and his lifelong companion. Do moves through these disparate elements with the confidence of a master filmmaker, maintaining a steady hand as the film’s tone shifts through its surprising narrative and complicated emotions.
Holding all of it together is Chanthalungsy. His hangdog expression speaks of a man who has spent his life haunted, both literally and metaphorically. His face does so much with so little, even as his character has to run through the full gamut of emotions. Also deserving of a mention is the young Por Silatsa, who plays the younger version of Chanthalungsy’s unnamed lead character. Like his older self, he has to land some pretty devastating emotional moments, and he nails them all with the confidence of a veteran pro.
The film moves towards a final stretch that exudes a palpable sense of existential horror. Without spoiling anything, there’s a Christmas Carol-like element to the movement of the narrative, meaning this last section comes loaded with philosophical questions that weigh heavy on the heart and soul. To say any more would spoil the film’s pleasures, just beware that this final stretch is quietly devastating in its questioning of life and how we experience its movement.
Following my three powerful, yet rather intense WOW watches thus far, ‘Murder, Decay & Mayhem: Searching For Meaning Through The Madness Of Italian Cinema’ made for a delightful palette cleanser. A lecture by Dr. Russ Hunter, professor of film studies at Northumbria University, it chronicles the history of Italian genre cinema, specifically focusing on how these styles of film rose to prominence in relation to the socio-political events that rocked the country during the 1960s and 70s.
Essentially a Powerpoint presentation, Hunter’s engaging delivery and unique approach to analysing some of the key films and genres that arose during this time period make the lecture a hugely engrossing 82 minutes. Highlights include entertaining clips from Caliber 9, Nightmare City and Troll 2, an intriguing theory about how the zombie genre is rife with ecological subtext, and some fascinating tidbits about post-war cinema culture in Italy. I really hope Hunter’s lecture resurfaces at some point, as I could have listened to him talk for at least double its runtime.
My final watch of WOW 2021 was Shahad Ameen’s Scales [pictured, top]. Another fascinating genre mashup, it tells the story of a young woman named Hayat, who rebels against the traditions of her dystopian island home. Its society is dominated by a ruthless patriarchy, who demand that all first-born daughters are sacrificed to the monstrous mermaids lurking in the surrounding sea. A deeply allegorical film, and one also highly personal to its director, Scales works on multiple metaphorical levels. There’s stuff in there about the onset of womanhood, the failures of patriarchal societies as well as elements of Arabic folklore.
Ameen’s cinematography impressively evokes a stale world bereft of life or new ideas: the island is barren, no birds flying in its skies nor plants growing on its rocky cliffs. The black and white cinematography adds to this harsh, scorched feel, as if all the colour has also disappeared from this miserable world. The humanity of the film comes from Basima Hajjar, nothing short of brilliant as Hayat. She maintains a steely-eyed focus even as she endures countless hardships, remaining headstrong throughout a narrative that becomes more fantastical and strange as we learn more about where her destiny may lie.
The grubby, grim mise en scene gives the world Scales occupies a vivid, full-bodied quality, despite the fact that it’s a very quiet movie – dialogue used sparingly and only when necessary. Clues about its world are deliberately obfuscated, perhaps to suggest a timelessness, that these sorts of societies exist throughout all time periods. It’s an oblique film, but one bolstered by a strong moral conscience and sharp, evocative direction.
All the films discussed were showing as part of the 2021 edition of WOW Film Festival. Info: www.wowfilmfestival.com
words TOM MORGAN