A ghost finds his “ghostiness” fading away in an episode of Folklore, a six-part, pan-Asian horror anthology produced by HBO Asia and now available on HBO streaming services. The spirit walks into doors he thought he would float through, and he can’t scare his next intended victim, an American expat in Thailand who babbles on about naming his kids Harry and Sally—yes, after the movie characters—and the dainty silence of Asian women. We haven’t even arrived at the apparition’s greatest humiliation: sitting in front of a snack platter of butter that smells like farts (it’s actually cheese), forced to think about how inadequate his English is because it never occurs to the chatty American that the Thai man next to him doesn’t speak his language. Later, a doctor faints when he realizes that the patient in front of him, the ghost, has no pulse or heartbeat. But the American makes the dead man feel like an out-of-place curiosity for all the wrong reasons.
Titled “Pob” and written and directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe), that wry-sad installment is one of two standouts in Folklore, in which filmmakers from across Asia reintroduce folk myths to modern contexts. Even when the hour-long episodes falter in narrative appeal or believable effects, they often offer a fascinating window into the social issues concerning the stories’ country of origin. Several episodes are haunted by anxieties about the changing role of girls and women. The Singaporean installment, “Nobody,” is set amid labor disputes between a multi-ethnic coalition of migrant construction workers and the foppish, vampire-skinned employer who can’t see them as fellow human beings. Directed by series creator Eric Khoo, that revenge tale wonders if the laborers should have left their families at all, even while expressing sympathy for their working conditions.
Ghost stories are often tales of injustice. Folklore is better at delineating conflicts than at resolving them, and the episodes’ endings frequently feel messy or unsatisfying. Still, with perhaps the exception of the Japanese installment “Tatami” (directed by Takumi Saitoh), the series maintains a consistent eeriness of tone as drama succumbs to horror. The more successful episodes make it deliciously difficult to guess who the real bad guy is, and why. The final tale, from South Korea’s Lee Sang Woo, is particularly successful at this mystery-building. The friendless, wordless, creepy-smiling boy who talks to a bewigged mannequin head in his closet seems like an obvious villain. But the crush he develops on a classmate is enabled by a disturbed protector whose ideas about comportment and behavior are even more twisted than the boy’s, and arguably worse for perpetuating the subordination of girls’ needs for male desires.
No other installment subverts expectations as often or as skillfully as Folklore’s debut hour, “A Mother’s Love,” written and directed by Joko Anwar. A sympathetic portrait of the maternal exhaustion and guilt felt by a single mother who can’t afford to send her energetic young son to school, the episode features the series’ biggest scares, most polished look, most well-rounded character, and best lead performance (by Marissa Anita). “A Mother’s Love” begins as a haunted-house tale, when a recently evicted, unnamed mom hired to clean an abandoned home, decides to move in for the duration of her gig. She makes a shocking discovery in the attic, one that completely upends our sense of the story we thought we were watching, but plays with the original narrative themes in unexpected new ways. If it’s difficult to get a sense of the fears that initially inspired tales of the toyol or the pontianak, Folklore reminds us that ancient fears don’t necessarily have modern solutions.