A collection of Bangladeshi folk horror stories that is impressively creepy and original.
I’m pretty sure that I have never seen a Bangladeshi horror film before. In all honesty, I’m not sure I’ve seen any Bangladeshi movie. If I have, clearly it didn’t make enough of an impact for me to remember it. So on top of everything else, Pett Kaka Shaw ticks another box in my World Cinema bingo card.
A thought I had while watching this that has little (but also everything) to do with the film: everything looks the same now. By which I mean that once upon a time you would see a different production style in films around the world, even films from different parts of America – the sort of equipment that they had access to, the way budget and national influences combined to make a film from one country look distinct to that from another – not better or worse, just… different. Now, technically, visually, everything looks alike. Even the cheapest prosumer cameras will give you a look that equates to an expensive TV show at least. Horror films all play with the same visual aesthetic of dark moodiness. There is no visual difference between this, an American movie, a British movie and so on. I go off on this pointless tangent because watching Pett Kata Shaw made me realise that what now stands out, what now makes a film definitely of its place is not the production style but the culture. The way people dress, the buildings and roads and shop interiors, the million little things that might have once been more homogenous in the international films that we once saw that were trying to pass themselves off as American movies even if shot in Spain or Italy or wherever, but now feel very much individual for each nation. It’s probably a decent trade-off. This film does not look like anything I have seen before, even though stylistically it is exactly the same as a lot of other modern horror films. I rather like the fact that modern cinema’s technical interchangeability has made all the other differences more apparent, encouraged filmmakers to emphasise their national individuality and allowed a genuine uniqueness to shine.
Pett Kata Shaw is an anthology film based on a TV series and it explores the world of Bangladeshi folk tales. Yes, it’s folk horror time again kids, even though the redefinition of that sub-genre these days effectively co-opts most of the horror genre into it if you wish it to. I mean, even Friday 13th plays on folk legends and campfire stories, doesn’t it? This film, however, is a more authentic exploration of myths and legends, brought into the modern age but still of a world beyond. This is not the folklore that you may be familiar with if you are not of Bangladeshi origin (or even if you are) – it’s close, but comes with its own localised twist, managing that rarest achievement of the horror film by presenting something that feels absolutely fresh. It also goes less for shocks and more for a sense of unease and weirdness, taking the elements that do seem familiar and playing with them in a different way.
The version of the film that I saw does not identify each story by title in English – though they do appear on-screen. I’m not sure that this really matters but feel free to offer up translations. The first story features what might be the most familiar of the supernatural threats in the movie in the form of a Djinn, of Jinn, or a demonic spirit – perhaps even Satan himself – who appears at the door of a sweetshop and demands sweets from the forgetful owner, even though he has closed shop. While the Jinn has taken human form, there is no ambiguity here – we know immediately that he is a supernatural being and not the sort to be trusted. In exchange for the sweets, he offers the man a reward – the bad memory that plagues him is replaced with the ability to remember everything. But you know what they say about deals with the Devil – watch out for the small print. When I say he can remember everything, it’s just that – right to the point of birth, then before birth, then onwards and back to the beginning of time, slowly driving him mad. No amount of prayer can save him as the story offers its own take on the classic Faustian bargain.
The second story is where things become more eccentric and unusual as a young man returns from the fish market to find that he has been beaten home by a ‘fish-hag’ – a female monster who has already killed his flatmate and now needs to be placated with food while he figures out how to escape the flat without turning his back on her. Oddly, she’s repulsed by the smell of blood – fish blood, at least – and the story’s dark humour comes from his efforts to cook her a fish while not falling prey to her desires, which may not be entirely carnivorous. There’s a cute little coda to this tale, suggesting that opposites really do attract – and some interesting localised touches that secular Western audiences might find eccentric, like apartment buildings that women are not allowed into.
Another aside: why is it, I wonder, that audiences still tend to be surprised by horror stories from Islamic countries? Horror – at least supernatural horror – tends to be closely linked to Abrahamic religions but for some reason, Western audiences tend to be surprised when horror films emerge from nations that are either monotheistic or where Islam is the dominant religion, even though many of our fairy tales and myths have emerged from those nations to begin with. While state censorship in some countries effectively negates the possibility of horror cinema, many others have a long history of exploring the supernatural in works of fiction. That we don’t see many of them here is down to cultural snobbery about horror and populist fear of the subtitle – and probably a lack of expertise in the cinema of these nations amongst the sort of distributors that bring us Asian, European and other global cinema. A pity.
The third story is perhaps the most inventive of the tales on offer here, beginning with a young couple who are lost in the woods – ahh yes, a classic Western horror trope – and find themselves in a remote village where tourists never go. At loggerheads over text messages that hint at infidelity, the couple has little choice but to hear a series of what might in other circumstances be called tall tales from the villagers, all of which lead to familiar (in Bangladesh, at least) aphorisms. This village is, apparently, the source of all the nation’s folklore, all based on events that happened to locals – all played out in creepy puppet show flashbacks. The addition of these marionette recreations is a moment of genius, adding a sense of weirdness and otherness to the stories, and before long it seems that all the stories that we have seen in the film so far are being drawn into the tales, as are events yet to happen – after all, the couple have arrived here in a classic folk tale manner, so it is only natural that they would become part of one themselves. The finale to this story is, perhaps, the most overtly horrific and nightmarish of the entire film, an effective shock moment in a film that is otherwise rather more subtle.
The final story follows Rabab, a young man who is investigating the disappearance of street children in a coastal town and the mysterious Call of the Night – a folk legend about evil spirits who take the form of lost loved ones and tempt people to walk into the sea. Ignore them twice and you are safe – but doing so is easier said than done when memory and mourning combine. For Rabab, the haunting memories are of a girlfriend who killed herself – but as the story progresses, we discover that his memories are gilded and self-serving, and when the Call of the Night comes to him, it is as much a vengeful cry for justice and honesty as it is the temptation of the demonic. This last story is a mournful, often bleak and heartbreaking study of loss and denial, awash with slippery truths and references to the other stories in the film, suggesting a continual overspill between all the tales (it would be interesting to see how these played out as a television project and if there is more of the series out there).
As I noted in the rambling introduction, this film is a slick and stylish production – certainly up there with the best of Western horror in its look. But it’s also something more than that. There is a sense of weirdness, playful unease and cautionary warning here that is more in the authentic spirit of the folk tale than most modern folk horror manages. Much of that sub-genre plays with the established visuals and the obvious tropes of the theme – the witches, the ghosts, the demonic figure and the rural mystery. But this delves further, bringing the folk legends into the modern world and the urban setting while retaining their mythical otherness. While each story stands alone – and, as in most anthologies, each has its own strengths and weaknesses – the four together feel like a whole, as if each one is inherently a part of the others as the film goes on. It has the benefit of a single director, Nuhash Humayun, which is unusual these days when anthologies are often little more than a collection of unconnected shorts by different filmmakers. A single voice makes this film feel more like a complete work, even if it did originate as individual episodes. This feels like a beginner’s guide to Bangladeshi folk horror and in such cases, having a single guide in charge helps immeasurably.
Horror, maybe more than any other genre, is the great leveller. Comedy often feels very parochial in its appeal but horror can speak to everyone, even if it is exploring mythology and belief that is alien to us. There’s good and bad in this – too many horror films all begin to seem alike, exploring the same themes and same stories, offering the same shocks. It’s rare to find something that feels as genuinely fresh and of its place as this – at least for those of us in Western countries. Pett Kata Shaw might not be the scariest film you’ll ever see. But it does feel like something fresh and unexpected, and for that alone is worth seeking out. That it works on the purely instinctively weird and creepy level that the best horror taps into is just a bonus.
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