Your primer to ‘Folklore,’ HBO’s new Asian horror series

Paolo Abad
Your primer to ‘Folklore,’ HBO’s new Asian horror series
HBO’s newest original series places the spotlight on Asia’s rich tradition of scary tales. Read about your newest binge watch – including some fun facts.

SINGAPORE – Asia has such a distinct flair for fantastic terrors in its cinema. This is something that Folklore, one of HBO Asia’s newest original series, turns the spotlight on by retelling myths and superstitions from this part of the globe for the modern era.

As an anthology of horror films, Folklore’s first season comprises of 40-50 minute episodes from Indonesia (“A Mother’s Love,” directed by Joko Anwar), Japan (“Tatami,” directed by Takumi Saitô), Singapore (“Nobody,” directed by showrunner Eric Khoo) Thailand (“Pob,” directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang), Malaysia (“Toyol,” directed by Ho Yuhang), and South Korea (“Mongdal,” directed by Lee Sang-woo).

The series is helmed by Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo as its creator and showrunner, with HBO Asia as the producing studio in partnership with Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

In a sense, the show is also a celebration of Asia’s homegrown stories and storytellers.

“For one thing, it shows the breadth of the talents in Asia – the top directors who have their own unique brands of horror,” said Jessica Kam-Engle, HBO Asia’s Senior Vice President (SVP) for Original Productions, introducing the show to the press attending the launch event in Singapore.

Mongdal director Lee Sang-woo and actress Lee Chae-yeon, Tatami actor Kazuki Kitamura, and Pob director Pen-ek Ratanaruang were also present for the press conference and roundtable interviews.

Kam-Engle added, “But at the same time, it digs deep into some of the societal dysfunctions of the different countries – based on their very rich folklore, based on their very rich myths and superstitions.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

The series spans the continent, so it’s a given that each episode would reflect the filmmakers’ different perspectives. Above this, each country has its own rich mythos and cultural quirks, and while there are glaring differences, the common threads that bind the stories together can be uncovered.

“I think the nice thing about this series is that it digs very deep into some societal issues that are very specific to certain societies, to certain countries, but also resonate around the region,” said Kam-Engle.

Recounting that the series was pitched to her shortly after joining the company, the HBO Asia executive also said, “One of the things I want to focus on is the stories that Asians are good in telling, and horror is always one of those that Asians are very strong in. And [Eric Khoo] also presented six very, very strong directors that I can’t say ‘No’ to.”

As only three of the films – Tatami, Pob, and Mongdal – were represented by their directors and stars at the launch, these are the ones that will be discussed at length here:

Mongdal

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

Lee Sang-woo’s “Mongdal,” the sixth and final episode of season 1, revolves around a mother, Ok-bin (Lee Chae-yeon), and her teenage son, Dong-joo (Jung Yun-seok). 

Dong-joo is very eccentric, and as it seems, slightly psychopathic. His mother is the steel-cold and imperious school principal, and he doesn’t exactly fit in with any of his peers and is even ostracized by them.

Ok-bin is always on edge trying to appease her unwieldy son, who becomes deeply obsessed with a new girl who has just arrived in town. While appearing to be icy and distant, she deeply loves her son and is ready to do anything – no matter how extreme – for him in the mortal realm… and beyond.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

The Korean-language episode is based on an eponymous ghost and belief that a man who dies miserably unmarried will return as a mongdal ghost, restless for not being able to find a “better half” in his mortal life.

Lee Sang-woo shared with the members of the press that he initially named the episode “A Mother’s Love,” just like the Indonesian episode. 

“Even though it’s about the boy, and he’s crazy. It’s mainly about mom’s crazy love,” the experienced indie film director said about his new foray into television, adding that most of his previous films have tackled family issues.

He also chose mongdal as a subject for the reason that it’s different from the “typical Korean ghost” that looks like a lady wraith with long, jet-black hair and a white gown. 

“They are lonely creatures, they knock on the door and just ask their mom, ‘Mom, I’m so lonely, I need my better half.’ That’s what happens,” he described mongdal, mentioning that there’s even an occult practice to appease these unsettled spirits: soul marriages. 

“Sometimes their parents will find their better half even though they are [dead],” Lee said.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

When asked if they see a place for such superstitions in the modern world, actress and singer Lee Chae-yeon replied through a translator, “The subject itself, the mongdal, is very new to foreign audiences, I believe. Even in Korea, this subject of mongdal is not very commonly used as a theme in horror stories.”

Director Lee, meanwhile, considered such a superstition as a sort of scapegoat: “In Korea, people are just so obsessed with superstitions. That’s because they are so weak, so they have to find somebody to rely on – something to be believed.”

Lee Chae-yeon, who stars in the film as Ok-bin, discussed the challenges of portraying the complex role. It was her first time playing a mother.

“I think the public image and the impression of people have of me, generally, as an artist is very different from what was portrayed through this Mongdal episode,” the actress mused.

Lee said, “The kind of emotions Ok-bin had to portray in the role was very different, and the emotions are so intense.”

“It’s very different from – compared to, let’s say, you’re quarrelling or fighting with your lover… This kind of emotion that Ok-bin had to portray to the son was whenever she’s upset with the son, with Dong-joo, was – I would say – rather controlled emotions: very angry and very frustrated and upset, and yet, you need to keep yourself under control.”

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

The “Mongdal” star added, “To portray… that character was a real difficult task, and also that’s the reason why there were a bit of NG’s [production lingo to describe takes as ‘no good’] here and there, and director Lee would tell me and say, ‘Again, again.’”

Yet Lee said she took on the role precisely because it could be the role of a lifetime, “It was a very different, unique, refreshing role, which I may never have a chance again to play.”

“I had to go through the process of emptying my thoughts,” she described her technique. “I tried to empty myself as much as possible and forget everything – all the roles I have taken both as artist and actress so far.” 

“Every time, before going to the shoot, I would tell myself, ‘I’m Ok-bin, I’m Ok-bin. I’m this character. I’m a principal. I’m a mother of a 15 year-old boy.’ So I think I did a lot of that to get myself really immersed in the character Ok-bin, and also got a lot of help from director Lee to play along.”

Given that the mother role is not an ordinary one, as there’s the added layer of Dong-joo being somewhat psychopathic, Lee said that her co-star Jung Yun-seok is a seasoned young actor who had helped her throughout filming “Mongdal”: “He’s more experienced than I am when it comes to acting. I received a lot of help from him, too, during the shoot, and a lot of guidance.”

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

The actress also shared that she watched a lot of Korean movies with mother characters similar to Ok-bin, taking notes and learning “the tone of their voices and acting.” She said that she also gets to prepare – in general – for any role through her many travels: “Whenever I go some place and other countries, I talk to them, and just listen to what they say.”

During the shoot, she also tried to distance herself “from anything too cheerful” to help her not break character. In spite of this, director Lee Sang-woo’s merry disposition brightened what could be an completely grim movie set, said the actress: “He’s very bubbly and he’s very cheerful, so because of his character, it kind of kept the mood and entire ambience quite light.”

The filmmaker interjected, “Even though I’m making a horror film, I’m a happy camper. I’m always happy. I don’t have any problems… Making films is the happiest thing [in] my life.”

Tatami

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

The Japanese people believe that their thoughts and feelings dwell in the traditional straw mats found in their rooms, tatami. As time passes, all these sentiments – either positive or negative, such as a grudge – can accumulate, sink deeper through the porous straw, and live on in there.

Directed by actor-filmmaker Takumi Saitô, the series’ second episode conveys this specific belief. However, grudge isn’t a subject new to Japanese horror. Ultimately, this is at its core.

“Ever since the olden days – traditionally – for Japanese horror stories, it’s all about grudge: the feeling of grudge and people’s negative thoughts about you,” Kazuki Kitamura (known for playing one of the Crazy 88 in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1), the star of “Tatami,” said through a translator. 

“We consider people’s feelings or grudge as the scariest thing that you can ever find,” he added, describing Japanese horror as a “very quiet” kind. 

“There’s a sense of serenity in Japanese horror stories,” said Kitamura, explaining that a feeling like grudge “keeps haunting you quietly,” and this is expressed in the episode.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

Makoto Kishi, the central character he plays, is an investigative journalist working on murder cases. He also happens to be deaf-mute.

In his latest case, he is taken closer to home – figuratively and literally – back to his family’s house as his father has died. Upon his return, he experiences recurring enigmatic visions of a child as well as flashbacks of the past. 

Ever the curious reporter, he digs deep into the mystery. He uncovers a painful, horrific truth about his family and a history of greed and treachery – shaking and turning the world he has known thus far upside-down.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

For Kitamura, taking on the role of Makoto entailed specific preparations, including talking to a friend who is hearing-impaired. 

“But the question was am I going to just focus mainly on the fact that my character cannot hear and he is mute,” said the actor, arguing that because of this fact, the character can be more attuned to some other things. “It’s because of [this] there are things that you can sense and feel because you can’t hear.”

Though he’s a character with a reserved disposition, Makoto is actually “reactive,” driven by circumstances, Kitamura claimed. “Depending on what other people say to him or what happens around him, his surroundings, he is the one to react,” the actor said.

Admitting that he “didn’t really relate to the character a lot,” the Tatami actor thus banked on his “tendency to look at the production with a bird’s eye.” 

He said that it was a “progressive process of building” the character even before filming – sitting with the director and the written script, and even from this early point, he observed this “reactive” trait from Makoto.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

While he generally prepares for his roles as a “case-by-case thing… [depending] on the genre and what type of character he’s acting,” the prolific Japanese actor said that for Tatami, he “wanted to make sure that [Makoto’s] love for his mother is expressed in the story because I think a love for your parent is something very deep and very special for everyone of us.”

Kitamura added, “At the same time, because the love towards his mother is so deep that he wants to actually solve the mystery that keeps [on] haunting him, [and] he sees some spirit or ghost every now and then, but he doesn’t know what it is.”

To avoid the plunge into spoiler territory, Makoto’s mother, Yoshiko (Misuzu Kanno), can be said – in the broadest sense – to harbor a sense of grudge, but she is also deeply loving toward her son.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

“The thing is that love and grudge, there’s only a thin line between these two,” Kitamura reflected. “When the love is too deep, it might turn into grudge, vice-versa. It really is on opposite sides of a coin.”

The actors, given that they were filming in such sinister-looking movie sets, were asked about how they dealt with being immersed in spooky environments.

Both Kitamura and Lee from Mongdal said that they sprinkle salt in the air around them, as if to purify and rid themselves of curses. The Korean actress even mentioned a custom she dutifully follows – similar to the Filipino concept of pagpag – that if she feels “something’s gonna follow [her] back, [she] will make a stop at another place before [she] goes home, to drop off the spirit.”

Pob

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

“Pob” is named after Phi Pob, a Thai ghost that feeds on human entrails. It is said that one could strike a “deal of a lifetime” with Pob, where he can – for instance – save the life of a loved one or reveal winning lottery numbers in exchange for an act that would honor his memory.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s (who directed some of Thailand’s official submissions to the Academy Awards such as 6ixtynin9, Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe, and Headshot) version of this distinctly Thai character transplants it from the northeastern part of country, where it is well-known, to the affluent area of Sukhumvit in the capital of Bangkok.

Pob confesses to the murder of an American big boss at some multinational firm, narrating his story to a cash-strapped online reporter, Manop.

Unable to speak or understand English, he complains about how the uncouth American did not acknowledge or respect him as the ghoulish terror that he is for quite some time – even making him act like the invisible, subservient human that he once was.

While admitting that Pob’s story is great fodder for an entertaining article, Manop is incredulous. In need of money and with a critically ill mother in the hospital, he seizes the opportunity to strike a deal with Pob. The ghost, in his previous mortal life, was as inconspicuous as can be, and he now has the chance to be internet-famous.

A horror-comedy by most standards, “Pob” offers the most uproarious laughs of the bunch. In a Variety interview, Ratanaruang even described his film, the fourth episode of Folklore’s initial season, as part sitcom, part Interview with a Vampire, and part “role reversal.”

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

“I knew for sure that our episode is going to be funny,” said Ratanaruang in a roundtable interview with the Asian entertainment press. “Because when you lock up a ghost [in] a room [or in] a kitchen, with an American guy, it’s going to be funny.”

“Within five minutes, he’s gonna tell you how many divorces he’s had, [or where] his kids go to school. I’ve been in that situation – even though I’m not a ghost, but I’ve sat in planes next to some American guy, who within five minutes, I know his life story.”

Ratanaruang shot “Pob” in black and white and used practical visual effects, likening the optical tricks to those used in the 1920s such as in FW Murnau’s Nosferatu – with very minimal computer-generated imagery (CGI).

“I remember when I wrote the script, I only saw it in black and white,” explained the director. “And when you see the film – the entire film, you will agree with me… One thing good about black and white film, it makes you so focused on the story and the characters.”

He explained that while the plot leaned towards comedy, he wanted to work on the atmosphere: “What we really had to work hard on – because I’m not really good at it – is actually is the scary department. It’s the scary part of the film that I was not sure I have the talent to do. So we worked very hard on that. That’s why we tried everything.”

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

Two of his three principal cast members also made their acting debut in “Pob.” Ratanaruang said that casting of these non-professional actors proved to be the better option “because they don’t know how to act,” than casting professional actors, whose experience is mostly in soap operas where acting can be “five stops over.”

“But you have to do the casting right,” he posed a caveat. “You have to cast someone who’s so close to the character – as close as possible, and then you can tell them, ‘Don’t act.’”

Calling this process a “gamble,” the filmmaker also cautioned that while an audition on tape could turn out well, it’s different on set: “Because he’s never been on a movie set before, he could do really well when he’s doing the casting because it’s only him and the casting person, right? But when you get on the set, it’s so overwhelming.”

While “Pob” is uniquely Thai, he said that the believes that the episode could still be relatable, “I have to say that my episode is quite human. The ghost is not being recognized. It [has] happened to all of us.”

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

The ghost story in “Pob,” its director and screenwriter Ratanaruang also said, can be a “commentary on many, many things.” 

It expresses viewpoints about “American domination,” as he said, “They go anywhere in the world and they are so confident, you know. Without having to understand the culture or anything, they can be really confident.”

On the other hand, it also holds a mirror to Thai society – such that it comments on how the locals may feel inferior to Westerners: “Thai people always feel that we are not good enough. We are so uneducated.”

Ratanaruang illustrated this point, “There’s one line in the film that the journalist asks the ghost that, ‘Were you scared of white guys when you were alive?’ And then the ghost said, ‘Of course, I was because I couldn’t understand them! But I didn’t know I would have the same problem after I’m dead!’”

The following descriptions for the remaining episodes are based on press releases and other materials provided by HBO:

A Mother’s Love

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

Based on the Indonesian myth of the Wewe Gombel, a restless female spirit with a deep longing to be a mother, Joko Anwar’s “A Mother’s Love” tells parallel stories of two mother figures: that of the aforementioned figure and of Murni (Marissa Anita).

Murni faces almost insurmountable challenges to provide for Jodi (Muzakki Ramdhan), her son, and the time comes that they are no longer able to stay in their rented house as they are kicked out by their landlord. So, she packs up and takes her son with her to live in a old and desolate mansion she has just been hired to clean. 

Just settling in, they are disturbed by eerie noises coming from the hallways, and Murni’s search leads her to discover several emaciated children living in the attic. Distressed by this, she reports to the authorities, and the kids are returned to their families.

Not all is well, though, as unbeknownst to her, she actually incurred the wrath of the children’s “adoptive” mother, Wewe Gombel.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

Indonesian tradition portrays the Wewe Gombel as a vengeful figure who takes abused, neglected, or unattended children – even just those still playing outside after sunset.

Although not really a benevolent spirit, Wewe Gombel is extremely protective of these children, and now, Murni has to deal with Wewe’s anger becauses she stole her adopted – or rather, kidnapped – children.

“Wewe plays in the minds of Indonesians, definitely, because we grew up listening to mystical stories,” actress Marissa Anita described her in a behind-the-scenes featurette.

While Wewe is the central subject, it’s parental love that’s at the heart of the story. Isabelle Patrice, the episode’s costume designer, called it “a love story between a mother and child. I think it’s a sweet story. I mean, it’s not only horror.”

Thankfully, solid performances and chemistry anchor this, as Anwar, the episode’s director, had to say: “The chemistry between Marissa and Muzakki was dynamite. [They were] like real mother and son. I mean, the chemistry was so believable. They added so much to [their characters] to make the film even more interesting.”

Nobody

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

The third episode of Folklore’s premiere series is helmed by the showrunner itself, Eric Khoo.

A Singaporean production, “Nobody” begins when a mummified body of a dead girl is found at a construction site of a condominium.

Fearing public reprisal from this ill omen of sorts, the construction company owner, Kang (Louis Wu), orders his foreman, Lim (Maguire Jian), and Peng (Li Wen Qiang), a rather timid laborer from mainland China, to burn the body.

Instead of burning the body, Peng actually buries her again without Lim’s knowledge. While doing this, he notices a nail thrust into her nape and pulls it out.

But legends indicate that he has actually awakened a pontianak, the vampire-esque spirit of Malay lore, starting a series of unfortunate events that would befall his co-workers.

Toyol

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

“Toyol,” from Malaysian filmmaker Ho Yuhang, takes place in a fishing town where an economic catastrophe falls when all the fish are inexplicably found dead. 

The unnamed Member of Parliament (Bront Palarae) representing the town tries to help his constituents by hiring a shaman. But he enlisted the help of a fraud, and the politician finds himself embroiled in a scandal because of this swindler.

In the midst of his troubles, he turns to a woman with mysterious, shaman-like powers, and she miraculously is able to fix everything.

Photo courtesy of HBO Asia

They eventually fall in love, but she keeps a dark secret that can destroy everything.

The episode is named after the toyol, the spirit of an unborn baby found in Malay folklore. It manifests as a newborn baby-like creature, with blood-red eyes and sharp teeth. 

Summoned through black magic, it is often used to serve the bidding of its owner – no matter how selfish or petty, and later on, the owner can even sabotage or murder enemies with the toyol.

Horror’s appeal

What makes a good horror film? What makes a tale so terrifying that it crawls under your skin and sears itself into your mind for days on end?

At the press conference, filmmakers Ratanaruang and Lee Sang-woo responded to this question with their own countries’ specific context in mind.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang turned to what he sees as a tradition of humor in Thai horror cinema. “The humor in Thai horror film is very essential. It’s kind of unique,” he said. 

He elaborated, “My guess is that because these horror films in the old days, it has to appeal to such a big crowd… from adults to children, from highly educated people and [to] some who [are] little educated.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

In a more intimate roundtable interview, he also said, “To normal people in Asia, cinema is pure entertainment, and I think horror is a great genre to entertain without having to be so clever. There are some clever horror films made in Asia, but speaking in general… it entertains you very easily.” 

Ratanaruang said that even horror films may be peppered with recurrent gags and funny scenes. “It’s not subtle,” he described the humor. “Like, 10 monks running away from one ghost and all the monks jammed into this big bus. And then they all disappear. It’s that kind of really stupid, stupid joke. And that’s what we try to do as well.”

Lee, meanwhile, joked about his singlehood and quipped that it’s his beloved mother who is the “real horror.” 

LEE SANG-WOO AND LEE CHAE-YEON. The director and lead actress of the Korean episode ‘Mongdal’ attended the press launch in Singapore. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

“Because I’m still single, my mom is always telling me, ‘do you want to end up being mongdal?’ She keeps telling me this! All the time! ‘Your luck is not complete if you don’t get married!’”

On this subject of moms, Kam-Engle pointed out that most of the films have a mother figure in a prominent or supporting capacity. “I was surprised to see out of 6 episodes, 4 or 5 of them have a very powerful mother – a very possessive mother,” she said. “That may be telling us something about Asian tiger moms, right?”

The HBO Asia SVP said that such examples are “things that we could relate to but at the same time fascinated by, seeing what’s happening in those countries.”

“Tatami” star Kitamura, asked about comparisons made between Western and Asian horror films in a separate interview, observed how on the other side of the planet, tales about the undead – zombies, vampires, etc. – are more common. He personally believes that these aren’t as scary as Asian horror stories, which he argued to be more “eerie on a psychological level.”

KAZUKI KITAMURA. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

On the other hand, the actors present focused on people’s common experiences from watching horror films.

Kitamura also defined a good horror film by how fear grips you. He said, “A good horror film is one that when you’re [on] the bed at night or when you’re alone in the room at the night, the story just doesn’t leave your heart. It refuses to leave your heart and makes you [unable] to fall asleep or have a good night’s sleep.”

Singer-actress Lee Chae-yeon, who plays a lead role in “Mongdal,” highlighted universality: “Maybe the theme or the story behind the show is something that everyone can resonate with – you know – [something] close to us, something that can occur to anyone and everyone at any time.”

In a roundtable interview, Pob director Ratanaruang sounded off on what makes a horror film relatable. 

“I think one thing that I never liked about horror films is that the filmmakers who make horror films, they always try to make stories so complicated – with twists, and they have to mislead the audience that way so that to scare them here,” he explained, saying that his Folklore episode avoids this. 

“It just goes from one level to another, to another. In that sense, I think it makes it very easy to relate to because you’re not trying to fool the audience so much.”

In an Aeon essay on Japanese ghost stories, cultural historian Christopher Harding wrote about distinguishing good scary tales from the mediocre: a good one will not be too detached from reality.

“Bad ones are ‘so conventional; you lose that vivid sense of reality.’ Good ones point us towards a well-founded anxiety about the stability of our own existence,” he discussed.

“These do not necessarily induce a fear of being close to death or of our existence coming imminently to an end, but rather indicate something suspiciously thin or fragile or insubstantial about that existence to begin with.”

Malaysian director Ho Yuhang, in a behind-the-scenes video, somewhat echoes this: “I sometimes think that real horrors are in everyday life.”

Touching on his episode, Toyol, he said, “This whole ‘black magic’ thing centers not just on the practice. It’s really about human desire.’

Up next: Philippines?

“The presented countries are those that are well-known for horror films and the filmmakers happen to be all esteemed storytellers in their respective countries,” said the big boss of HBO Asia Originals Jessica Kam-Engle in a follow-up interview via email. 

“We are happy that they explored different brands of horror that gives our audience a glimpse of the diversity of Asian horror, but this list of talents is by no means exhaustive,” she added about the six-part first season.

JESSICA KAM-ENGLE. The Senior Vice President for HBO Asia Original Productions introduced the company’s latest offering. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Should a second season be green-lit, Kam-Engle said that the studio would still go with the anthology format. 

If you’re wondering why there isn’t a Filipino episode, she said, “If there were a subsequent season, which may or may not be of the same theme, we will make sure there is one from the Philippines.”

Folklore premieres on HBO Asia on October 7, Sunday at 10pm in Manila, and new episodes air every Sunday at the same time. The show will also stream on HBO GO and be available on HBO On Demand. 

In the meantime, check out this 360° virtual reality (VR) trailer:

– Rappler.com

Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.