Ma opens with patient dolly shots gliding over a green canopy and through the lush foliage of a forest, eventually coming to rest on the center-framed image of a young boy working at something unseen. The camera cuts to show his concentrated efforts at digging a pencil into the innards of a decomposing raven (an on-the-nose aviary choice). This tonal slackness – the suggestion of eerie, natural solitude displaced by the immediate macabre intrusion of a small child’s morbid fiddling with a dead, maggot-covered animal – proves a consistent strain on Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s debut feature. The convergent narrative threads of Ma involve the paranormal encounter that a young boy, Samuel (Kyle Espiritu), has with a sentient, talking tree inside a cave that he stumbles upon; and the progressing pregnancy of a local woman (Anna Luna) whose husband has just committed suicide after discovering her infidelity.
The film cursorily explores themes such as guilt and the cost of holding onto the past, while its rural setting allows Dagatan to demonstrate his formal instinct for horror compositions: dimpled and lantern-lit cave walls have a visual fire-and-ice effect, the dread of the deep grays upset by the washes of orange that here frequently portend the sinister. But Dagatan also liberally indulges in cheap horror shocks, such as the family cat lapping up blood sputum or graphic dream sequences that exist more to enact the director’s desire for genre iconicism than to meaningfully develop character or psychology. At only seventy minutes, Ma betrays its unhurried opening sequence, and instead proceeds with haste to its intended carnage. With restraint, Dagatam perhaps could have reconciled his antipodal instincts by allowing a crescendo to build through his two, emotionally-tortured principals. Instead, he attempts to short-cut through all requisite development of meaning, leaving us with a toothless exercise in gore that is only barely recognizable as the loose fusion of J/K-horror and New French Extremism that it wants to be.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2019.