Folklore is a new, six-episode, hour long, modernized Asian horror anthology series from HBO Asia. Each episode is helmed by a different director and based on deeply-rooted myths and superstitions across six countries in Asia.
Produced and created by award-winning Singaporean filmmaker, Eric Khoo (who also directs one of the segments), Folklore features episodes by Joko Anwar (Halfworlds, Satan’s Slaves) from Indonesia, Takumi Saitoh (Blank 13, Ramen Teh) from Japan, Lee Sang-Woo (Barbie, Fire In Hell, Dirty Romance) from Korea, Ho Yuhang (Rain Dogs, Mrs. K) from Malaysia, and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Samui Song, Last Life in the Universe) from Thailand.
As part of TIFF, I had the opportunity to sit down with two of the series’ directors – Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and showrunner/director Eric Khoo – to talk about the show’s creation, themes in Asian horror, and the classic cultural lore that feeds into our fears.
Kelly McNeely: With the popularity of horror anthologies, it’s fantastic that this will be – I understand – the first horror anthology TV series in Asia. Eric, how did you develop the idea or the concept for the series?
Eric Khoo: I’ve always been a bit fan of The Twilight Zone, and I love horror films. My mother got me into horror when I was six years old. In Asia, we love a great story. I remember Pen-Ek, we were in Patong (Thailand) together several years back, and we were joking about how we should do some horror together.
He had this crazy idea of doing a horror couch, like a couch that you would sit on and it would eat you up. And so when HBO approached us to come up with a series… [jokingly] I know a one-location that could be done for very little money [all laugh]. I pulled together these directors that I respected from Asia, and I said, you know “let’s do something together”. So it was very organic.
I talked to Pen-Ek – because I didn’t want to lose him (to scheduling conflicts) – and I was very happy that HBO Asia didn’t step in too much, like, Pen-Ek’s was all in black and white [mock annoyance, laughing]. But it was really fun, that was kind of its genesis.
The one thing I really wanted to do was not have it in English language – because it would be ridiculous, you know, having Thai speaking English, or Japanese speaking English. So they were allowed to keep it all in their mother tongue, and I think that was really good, because all the different teams from different parts of Asia came on board as a unit.
Kelly: Pen-Ek, what drew you to the project… other than Eric? [laughs]
Pen-Ek Ratanruang: He emailed me and told me he was doing this thing with HBO and he wanted me to be involved. I’ve never done horror in my life! I love horror, but I didn’t know how to do it. I asked how much time I had to give an answer and he said one week. So I said, ok, within the next few days if I have an idea, I’ll say yes, but if I don’t, I’ll say no.
I had this idea of a ghost – instead of taking on a victim, the ghost becomes the victim of the situation. And I hadn’t thought of this. So, I thought of this story and I didn’t really have an introduction or idea, you know, but just… said ok, I’ll do it.
Eric: It’s a really good ghost story. You’ve never seen anything like that before.
Kelly: It subverts the idea of your typical ghost story, and I love that! Speaking of folklore and mythologies, what stories from when you were young really scared or had an effect on you?
Eric: For me it was the Pontianak – a female vampire. She seduces men and eats those men, and she likes to eat babies too. So that sort of freaked me out. There was a banana tree that wasn’t too far away from where I was staying, and my mother told me that if you put a nail into that tree with a thread, and you put the thread under your pillow, you would dream of her. So I would take the nail away. [laughs]
And the Pontianak is very famous in Southeast Asia. So you see her called Kuntilanak, but a lot of times they’ll say Matianak, so there are a lot of different permutations, you know? The other one that kind of gets me – and this was done by (Folklore’s) Malaysian director, Ho Yuhang – is called the Toyol. A Toyol is a baby ghost. So if you have an aborted fetus, you take the fetus and you pray to it, you can make it into either a malevolent spirit or a good spirit. If it’s a good spirit, it will help you with luck. So there’s a dark one and the good one.
Kelly: Each country has their own themes in horror that are tied to cultural history and events. For example, the ghosts of Japan are tied to their folklore, whereas in America, it’s more about possessions and demons that are related to their puritanical past. Could you speak a little bit on the prominent themes in horror films from Singapore and Thailand, and perhaps where those themes or ideas came from culturally?
Eric: The thing is, in Singapore, it’s a country with a mix of immigrants. The Chinese were there about 100 years ago, but before that were the Malays. And the Malays have a lot of folklore. So the Pontianak is from the Malays. The Toyol is also from the Malays, but the Pontianak is more like a devil child. A lot of folklore from Singapore – traditional folklore – comes from Malay folklore. So there’s a lot of Malays here, and Bruneis, and Philippines here, there’s a really mixed community.
Pen-Ek: With Thailand you have a few famous ghosts, but… I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m just not scared – I’ve never met one. But we shot my episode (Pob) in a run-down, haunted hospital, and everyone in the crew – they saw something –
Eric: And you were away! [laughs]
Pen-Ek: I think drew my inspiration more from the ghost cinema, rather than real ghosts. And in Thai cinema – it’s more of a tradition that in ghost films and ghost stories – it has to have an element of comedy. Obviously it’s scary too, but, it has to have a light element. But it’s a full-on horror movie. Like the ghost is supposed to be scared of the man, for example… then the man can chase the ghost.
When you make a horror movie – a classic Thai horror film – the man will run away from the ghost, so we’d see him running away, and then a classic horror movie, they would jump into a huge vase and then they’d stick their neck out [mimes the action]… it has to have that kind of thing.
Or like, someone is really scared of the ghost so they walk backwards, and they further they walk backwards they look up and it’s like “do… do… do…!” [mimes a surprise]. So I thought, ok I could do something like… I mean not exactly like that, but I could almost treat my film like that, I could make it a comedy as well.
Kelly: Right, add a bit of levity to it.
Pen-Ek: Not a full-on comedy but, you have that tradition in Thai horror films. You have this tradition of comedy and horror.
Kelly: So that tradition of comedy and levity, where do you think that comes from? How did that get grouped in Thai horror cinema specifically?
Pen-Ek: Because horror films in Thailand are made purely for entertainment. It’s supposed to be shown to people from all over the world. In parts of the country, the level of education may not be very high, so everything needs to be broad. The comedy needs to be very broad. But I think it’s quite clever, because if you’re laughing so much and then suddenly a scary moment comes, it becomes really scary! [laughs] I remember seeing these kinds of films when I was young, I remember they were mostly comedy – but the scary parts shock you so much that you remember. You remember that shock.
Kelly: You never expect that when you’re laughing, right?
Pen-Ek: Yeah, exactly. It’s a good strategy!
Kelly: There’s a great balance with horror and comedy, the building of tension and releasing with humor… there’s this kind of ebb and flow that helps to build that reaction, that tingle of adrenaline.
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