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Monsoon season monsters | Here are some of the best modern Southeast Asian horror movies

By Karl R. De Mesa Published Oct 25, 2021 5:40 pm

“Best” here of course refers to an incredibly subjective list. 

I have a liking for good storytelling that is ambitious, usually imperfect but obviously hungry to express a unique kind of meaning, a vision that could not have been borne but for the exceptional circumstances of location, culture, and budget—the Filipino Pito Pito movies (seven days to shoot, seven days to edit) are still a notorious process for “independent” efforts that nevertheless bloom with a cult following and influence under the monolithic shadow of studio-backed commercial projects.      

This list is limited to one movie per country. I have also only chosen movies within the last decade, the cut-off being 2011, to be worthy of the “modern” label. Most of the teens today will consider the movies from the 1990s already an Antediluvian era, although obviously there were plenty made in the grunge decade that easily stand above today’s horrors shot on digital—the Shake, Rattle, and Roll franchise got some of its best installments in the '90s. 

If you’ve ever been curious about what informs the nightmares of our ASEAN neighbors, you’d do well to start with these familiar demons. A caveat here; I don’t recommend you watch these at night.     

THAILAND - Shamanic Traditions of Possession in “THE MEDIUM” (2021)

Like the Filipino arbularyos and ispiritistas, the Thai “phram” are considered holy men who can heal and curse at the same time. They also serve as consultants for those towns that are too isolated for medical services, taking care of both the psychological and spiritual health of the community as pagan gods speak through their lips. 

Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) is one such shaman. She lives in a provincial town in the Isan region of Thailand. Her patron goddess is Ba Yan, who chose her to be a host when she was still a young girl. We get to know Nim and her family because a documentary crew is filming a series on Thai shamans and magicians in rural areas. We are soon introduced to Nim’s sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) and Noi’s daughter, Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech), who’ve just lost their husband and father, respectively. It seems that the men of the family have always fallen to mysterious and often ill-fated deaths and Nim has gone back home to pay her respects and also reconnect with her estranged family.  

While at the funeral celebration, Nim observes her niece, Mink, acting out of character, erratic and seemingly crazy. Mink’s best friend confirms she has been acting weird for a few weeks. Nim becomes suspicious that Mink may be the next one in the family to inherit the mantle of shaman, the next generation’s avatar for Ba Yan. But as Mink’s behavior turns increasingly violent, Nim investigates and discovers that darker forces are at work—forces she’s spectacularly unprepared to deal with.    

Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun, written and produced by South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-Jin, The Medium is a deliciously Thai take on demonic possession, familial drama, and cultural taboos that escalates its creepy tension until all the narrative wires break by culminating into a superb and terrifically gory zenith edging into cosmic horror. While its choice of found-footage medium can stretch credulity, sometimes getting hairy with the mockumentary feel, it’s pretty aware of this.  It actually embraces the absurdities and persuaded me to just keep watching, making me feel the reward might be worth it.  

You likely know Na Hong-Jin for his acclaimed The Wailing and you just got to trust me here that the narrative tactic is similar, but this one is just a few inches more ready and able to coax that Munchian “Scream” expression out of you. The young Mink, Narilya Gulmongkolpech, is a commanding and beautiful presence on-screen that her eventual defacement is a sight to behold, remarkably comparable to how Linda Blair killed us as Regan MacNeil. 

The Medium could also double as a cultural documentary from the verite of how the line of hosts for spirits in Thailand is matrilineal, or how the unique community space of the phram shamans make them both revered and reviled. I particularly enjoyed the rituals (eggs, lots of eggs!) and social conflicts that arose when the characters need to turn to ancient Buddhist and pagan rituals to try and cure Mink, something that inevitably flew in the face of a modern Catholic milieu.   

PHILIPPINES – Visayas Zombie Rampage in “DI INGON NATO” (2011)

Brandon Relucio and Ivan Zaldarriaga's debut feature was so low budget, the Cebuano directors had to double as one of the living dead in their own zombie flick. Yet I chose this thrilling rampage of 28 Days Later meets Joaquinesque tropical gothic above our other more polished horror films because, despite its aching need for better editing and equipment (heck, almost “better” everything), it stands as beautiful graffito against the better-funded projects of Imperial Manila. Its vision of a zombie-afflicted remote village in the Visayas is pure ambition, punk rock aesthetic, and storytelling swagger. Critics may term this kind of work “shambolic” but I enjoyed it to bits.   

I also find it very Filipino. It just makes total Pinoy sense that the prevailing conflict during a zombie apocalypse isn’t how to defend against the undead, but between the local albularyo and the barrio’s resident clinician. The latter is looking for a vector of infection and a rational cause, while the former confidently and almost immediately tags the “dimunyu” as punishment from the spirits of the mountain upon the town’s sinful. All this while Barangay Captain Lauro (played by Rez Cortez), is just trying to keep things in order and shooting everything that wants to eat good people. Even the inaccurate English translation of the Bisaya title has a hidden nuance: “Dili Ingon Nato” isn’t really “Those Not Like Us,” rather more accurately ‘Those Not from Around Here”—which brings into play a layer of meaning in how “the outsider” (the zombies) is literally a stranger from “over there,” out of town, and thus not our own people.   

This one is like a filmic middle finger and spirited benchmark to all who’d trespass on this breakneck speed of Filipino zombie movies. It’s something not even the two directors have been able to surpass in its glorious (I hope initial) detonation.   

INDONESIA - Ultra-Gore Satanic Bargains in “MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU” (2018)

Its original title is “Sebelum Iblis Menjemput” and here Timo Tjahjanto pays homage to all things Sam Raimi and ultra-gore. 

There’s an absurdly thin hanger to hang the plot on when this tale of a concord with dark powers unravels, as Alfie Wijaya (Chelsea Islan) travels to her father’s abandoned house after his mysterious illness and death. See, their clan patriarch Lesmana Wijaya rose to wealth and fame before he spiraled down to an ignominious bankruptcy and demise. After his funeral, Alfie’s investigations reveal that—you guessed it—her father made a pact with the devil. And now there’s hell to pay as the debt comes due. 

With blood spatter, jump scares, and grotesque transformations galore, Tjahjanto is not interested in subtlety or a soft touch at all in his filmmaking and that’s what makes this Indonesian horror flick interesting and enjoyable. It never shucks of its Evil Dead trappings but adds some SEA flavors to the unholy broth. A few unique cultural tidbits are scattered throughout, but other than the Indonesian names of the characters, this could just be set anywhere. 

It became such a hit that it spawned an equally robust and ridiculously gory sequel in 2020 titled May the Devil Take You Too. I kid you not. I watched that, too. There’s also news that a third sequel is already in the works. 

VIETNAM - Romancing Angry Ghosts in THE HOUSEMAID (2016)

Nope, The Housemaid doesn’t have any connection with the 1960 Korean movie or its popular 2010 remake. Rather, this Vietnamese cerebral horror movie only shares the same gorgeous aesthetic as it tells a tale of colonial history, a creepy haunted house, and some pretty tasteful softcore scenes. 

1953 was a pretty painful chapter in Vietnamese history and director Derek Nguyen uses a deft, agile hand to conjure up the French occupation rubber plantation where Sebastien (Jean-Michel Richaud), a handsome captain, rules over the property. A pretty, young orphan named Linh (Nhung Kate) comes to the plantation as the titular new maid and fast becomes the kind of alluring servant that inflames the desires of the big boss. The staff are scandalized and the local ghosts—among which are the captain’s crazy, departed but still very vocal, ex-wife and baby (whom said crazy wife killed)—are angered by this lowborn native hoochie momma who wants to love their daddy longtime sans even a by-your-leave. Much supernatural mayhem ensues but in a very spooky and beautifully Gothic way.   

While the haunting is more an escalating, symphonic creepfest of shadows and whispers, The Housemaid is also a superb collision of verite history, traditional haunting, and steamy erotica that gets the blood going in more ways than one—especially when the captain’s snobbish girlfriend arrives and finds her man engaging in relations with the hired help. 

MALAYSIA - Black Folklore of the Soul in “ROH” (2019)

In the sultry rainforests of Malaysia, you shouldn’t believe your eyes when night falls. The jungle deceives. 

Titled after the Malay word for “soul,” director Emir Ezwan conjures a slowburn stew of shamanic magic, Islamic folklore, and bargains with dark spirits set deep in a woodland area. Demonic tales with a limited budget intrigue me with how they’ll need to deal with the few special effects or CGI they can afford, but ROH pulls this off with flickering fires and shooting at night in dark caves or the woods. 

Which leaves us free as viewers to focus on the story of the nuclear family of widowed mother Mak and her two young sons, Along and Angah, who live hand-to-mouth in a shack in the jungle. The family’s lives are turned upside down after they see a dead deer hanging by its neck in a trap and a filthy young girl, with only threadbare clothes and a dull knife, follows them home. The three take her in but the next morning they all wake to discover that the girl is eating some dead birds raw. “When the moon is full, all of you will die,” the girl declares then slits her own throat. If there ever was a grim reminder to never take in strays willy-nilly then that should be the best lesson.  

A compelling and creepy mix of location horror, curses and rituals, and the suspense of dueling shamans, ROH is poor in the jump scares area but full of well-timed revelations and misdirection that even Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright was motivated to tweet: “amazing stuff.” I personally liked how rural magic, superstition, and conflicts work themselves out when far from the “rational” milieu of the cities. In this movie, common sense in the depths of the jungle, in the dark of night can be a tad bit bloody but completely sane.