There’s something in the way that cultural history and folklore tie into themes and tropes in the horror stories of their respective countries that’s just fascinating to me. So, naturally, I was thrilled to learn about HBO Asia’s new horror anthology series, Folklore, which offers an exploration of how myths and legends lend themselves to the horror genre so perfectly.
For Folklore, showrunner Eric Khoo has teamed up with five other filmmakers from across Asia to develop six tales of terror. Each one-hour episode is born from the deeply-rooted folklore of their respective countries and nourished by their storytelling skills.
Eric Khoo awakens a tale of the Pontianak, a vengeful ghost from Singapore; Joko Anwar teases audiences with a Wewe Gombel from Indonesia; Takumi Saitoh weaves a story about a Japanese Tatami; Pen-Ek Ratanaruang introduces Pob, a Thai ghost; Ho Yuhang shares the secrets of a Toyol from Malaysia; and Lee Sang Woo conjures a Mongdal from Korea.
Each story has a scare-filled signature crafted from each culture’s supernatural beings and occult beliefs. Tonally, they’re played with pinpoint precision — the hour-long episodes carry all the weight and drama of a feature film (not to mention the incredible production value).
One episode that stood part from the others, tonally, is Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Pob. In my enlightening interview with Eric Khoo and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, I learned that – in Ratanaruang’s Pob segment – he chose to incorporate the longstanding tradition of comedic moments in Thai horror with a socially relevant feeling of inadequacy towards Westerners. This context creates a brilliant take on a ghost story that captures this cultural fingerprint in a wonderful way.
Fans of Asian horror will appreciate how the series pushes boundaries that Western cinema will typically adhere to. English-language remakes of Asian horror are rarely able to capture the same spirit and tone of their Eastern points of origin.
Ho Yuhang’s Toyol, for example, tells the story of a Malaysian Member of Parliament who turns to a shaman that gains her powers from a ritual using a dead infant. In Lee Sang Woo’s Mondal, a sorrowful spirit demands a virgin bride to join him in the afterlife. Eric Khoo’s Nobody sees a rage-filled Pontianak seeking revenge on those who left her as a brutalized, traumatized corpse.
All this is to say that the series has some wonderfully dark points of inspiration.
As a whole, Folklore wisely delves into some lesser-known mythology from under-represented countries. It’s a benefit for the audience – as we bear witness to fresh new terrors – and for the directors, who have the opportunity to shine a light on some of their favorite lore and legends that don’t often make their way to the silver screen.
Each segment is a strong offering; well written with some powerful performances and cinematography. Sparse yet effective design elements build the world of the story while keeping it as straightforward as possible.
Takumi Saitoh’s Tatami is an excellent example of the show’s conscious design choices. The set design has a dramatic start that builds a chilling atmosphere to set the audience on edge in an otherwise safe environment. But when the action begins to unfold, it does so in a very sparse, simple space that puts the whole focus on the traumatic events. It’s a stunning balance that effectively holds tension throughout the episode.
Similarly, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Pob is filmed entirely in black-and-white. The segment turns the rather innocuous location of a middle-aged American man’s home into an absurdist comedy of errors, and a hospital reveals the creepiest bathroom you’ll encounter outside of Silent Hill. Nothing is quite what it seems in this episode, and it works.
Each segment is packed with frightening and horrific moments, but they’re also rich with turbulent emotion, often built on familial relationships. Push-and-pull connections take several different forms across the series. It’s a relatable concept that can easily be made grotesque.
For example, Joko Anwar’s A Mother’s Loveshows a young mother who makes a shocking discovery in the attic of a home she’s caring for. As a result, her relationship with her son takes a strange turn. Trust and sanity are constantly questioned and manipulated, testing their bond.
For anyone that has a soft spot for Asian horror and anthologies, or an interest in cultural legends and superstition, Folklore is a must-see series.
I sincerely hope that there is a second season that will continue to explore these cultural legends from across Asia. That said, it would be fantastic to see a female director join the ranks (perhaps Dearest Sister’s Mattie Do?).
It’s a phenomenal concept for a series, and an excellent opportunity to bring diverse stories and superstitions within Asian horror to a wider audience.
Folklore premieres Friday, February 1st on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, and partners’ streaming platforms. You can watch HBO Asia’s trailer below.