Asian horror is making its comeback. The early noughties was a proud time for the genre—flicks like Japan’s Ju-On (2002), Thailand’s Shutter (2004), and even Singapore’s own The Maid (2005) put Asia on the map for a new brand of horror that could care less about poltergeists and exorcists. Asian horror movies reached into the depths of the human psyche to expose what we feared most—retribution, betrayal; a guilty conscience. What followed then was a sluggish few years for the industry, where Western directors started taking notes and imbuing their works with the same kind of personal, psychological fear; that and producing new-age intelligent horror hits like Get Out.
But fast-forward a decade, and we’re seeing a renewed interest in Asian horror, from the fresh wave of movies hitting cinemas to reinvent the genre, to Halloween Horror Nights 8 stepping up to pay homage; four of its five haunted houses center around Asian horror myths (think betrayed Japanese wives, Pontianaks, and even underground Chinese vampires). And with Singapore’s first horror film festival Scream Asia—primarily featuring local and regional flicks—set to debut in the later half of October, the air seems ripe for a revival.
Enter an all-new television series, where Asian horror and all its terrifying tropes take centerstage. Folklore is HBO Asia’s first horror anthology original series, made up of six hour-long episodes that each focus on a specific Asian country’s deep-rooted supernatural myths and folklore. There’s the maternal female spirit Wewe Gombel of Indonesia (A Mother’s Love), the bottled baby ghost toyol of Malaysia (Toyol), Thai ghosts (Pob), and other haunting stories from Japan and Korea. Putting it all together is local filmmaker Eric Khoo, who directed the Singapore episode Nobody about our iconic Pontianak. Debuting at major international film festivals like TIFF, each episode, which was filmed in the local language of the country it was based in, seeks to modernize or update Asian horror as we know it.
It’s apparent that Khoo, who is also responsible for Scream Asia, has a certain soft spot for the genre. We had a chat with the busy filmmaker on this brilliant niche in horror, ahead of Folklore’s anticipated exclusie release on HBO on Oct 7.
What did you want to bring to the fore about Asian horror?
In Asia, we are diverse but I think one thing we have in common is that we believe in the spirit world. We have such a rich cache of stories about ghosts and spirits in each country. For Folklore, I wanted to bring across the humanity in these ghosts stories. That they are not just cautionary tales told to scare children.
How did you choose the various folk tales to focus on?
As I have great respect for the directors that I roped in for the series I left it to them to decide.
Has Asian horror been misrepresented in any way?
I feel that it is unfortunate that many remakes of good Asian horror films by the West have become psychological in nature rather than the fear of a spiritual being. In Asia, we truly believe that whatever is haunting you exists, it may not have a physical presence but you know it’s there. But when it becomes psychological, it becomes an illness and you are only scaring yourself.
What is the scariest thing about horror based on folklore? As opposed to other types of Asian horror?
You can make a horror film about a wig but when you base your story on something that’s been passed down hundreds of years—now that’s scary!
Many consider the early 2000s as the peak of the Asian horror genre. Are we in a renaissance?
We definitely are with wonderful films like Satan’s Slaves and Train to Busan.
How has Asian horror evolved from then to now?
You have a different perspective especially from the emerging markets. In the internet age, as the audiences become more exposed, the horror films have also become more sophisticated. You can’t just depend on scary makeup or sudden loud sound effects anymore.
How do you update the Pontianak tale? Is it feasible to extricate her from a kampung setting and into modern day?
But of course. And we wanted a new take on her—a young teenager rather than a child-bearing adult.
For something as specific as Folklore, does showing at international film festivals risk orientalizing the Asian horror genre?
I don’t think it does. I feel that though the stories are set in this part of the world, the themes in the stories are very international. It’s to our advantage to platform at important festivals to highlight the talents that we have here in Asia—that ultimately it will generate more interest in this genre that I love!
What is one horror folk tale you grew up with that used to terrify you?
I’ve always been kind of freaked out by the Toyol—a baby ghost.
Folklore premieres exclusively on HBO (Starhub TV Ch 601) on Oct 7, 10pm, with new episodes debuting every Sunday.