I’ve been suspicious of myths that aren’t at least a little grim since Disney’s Hercules took away all the things the Greeks loved about their screwed-up Heracles. Though he accidentally murdered folks almost as often as his Animorphed dad seduced women, Heracles was still the greatest of the Greek heroes, and even Disney couldn’t entirely G-rate his legacy: At the the climax of the movie, he pulls his dead girlfriend’s soul out of hell. The macabre makes the story universal. We may not all be super-strong, but we’re all going to die.
Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm knew that it’s hard for myths to matter, or maintain their longevity, without some primal elements to ground them. Just read the original version of almost any fairy tale adapted by Disney to find the dead kids, tortured villains, and intense monsters. HBO’s new series, Folklore—recently brought Stateside from HBO Asia—puts these elements at the forefront, digging into various myths as if they were all horror stories.
Created by Singaporean director Eric Khoo, the anthology of hour-and-under movies plucked from the festival circuit has terrifying fables from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and South Korea. Approaching it as a unified pan-Asian collection is both problematic, in its erasure of cultural differences, and unproductive, since the grouping of these specific stories speaks to an elemental morbidity that links not only their unique mythologies, but also those world-over. The fairy tale may not quite be universal—arguing that requires way more anthropological work than you can put in just by watching a few scary stories—but navigating how these six bouts with the unreal fit into that classical framework makes the case that the stories that get passed down often, if not always, have their roots in death, fear, and the unknown.
Just as The Lure brought mercreatures back to their murderous roots or Guillermo del Toro refuses to coat his fantasies in sugar, the campfire stories that comprise Folklore approach their morality tales with the same punitive pedagogy as Aesop: Nobody learns unless they suffer. That’s the immediate lesson when things kick off with Indonesian Wewe story “A Mother’s Love,” which depicts a brand of maternal anxiety common in horror around the globe. The single mother uncovers an attic full of children kidnapped by Wewe, the spirit of a woman who took her own life, and things, as you might imagine, only get worse from there. Australia’s The Babadook, Iran’s Under the Shadow, and The Curse of La Llorona have brought unruly spirits into every geographic corner of motherhood just in the last half-decade. “A Mother’s Love” shows Wewe to be a similar figure, working her own scared-straight (or dead) campaign against negligent parenthood, while “Mongdal” makes its single mom way too hands-on. Parenthood is even worse for the main character of “Toyol,” who gets Rumpelstiltskinned in a major way—this time by a shaman he quickly falls for and impregnates.
The anthology’s fear of overbearing women will be familiar to viewers better-versed in the Western fairy tale tradition, which also finds the mythical and dangerous in femininity. (How many evil stepmothers, jealous queens, spiteful goddesses, and ambitious witches can you name? Go!) Yet, lessons must be taught. Even with the weirdo sequences in “Toyol,” in which a bloody, demonic version of the Ally McBeal baby chases people, there’s still a standard moral at its center: Don’t take shortcuts, especially if they’re offered by someone who’s supernatural. The prevalence of babies in this story of deals with various devils won’t be lost on anyone who knows the end of Rumpelstiltskin, or indeed most fairy tales that deal with witches or gods. Sacrifice is a matter of respect. Just ask Abraham.
Learning respect is also the subject of the other three entries in Folklore. A journalist whose voyeuristic investigation—into tahani mats’ mythical ability to maintain memories in their straw core—only leads to macabre family drama being dug up in “Tatami.” (I’ll give you one guess as to which parent is most involved.) A more-tongue-in-cheek journalism story, “Pob,” is about a Thai ghost that loses his ghostness. When the episode’s reporter protagonist shows him some respect, “unlike that white dickhead” whose murder he’s been covering, Pob is pleased and the moral is clear. Khoo’s own story, “Nobody,” is another about paying the deceased the respect they deserve… because they might just come back and demand it.
When these morbid adventures conclude through supernatural means, everyone (well, everyone who survives) learns a harsh lesson about the deference the dead command. Without that, these stories argue, the living—like the main characters’ families—are in danger. And some family threat is always involved in these stories. Nobody becomes part of a fable or a myth when everything goes right.
“Nobody” uses the language of horror—unseen entities revealed by mirrors, a hero stalked by a ghost, a soundtrack punctuated by shrieks—to tell the story of construction workers mistreated by their abusive bosses. And in fairy tales, given the genre’s special blend of instruction and entertainment, poverty is almost as relatable as mortality: Someone’s always dead or dead broke. That a murdered soul—a child-turned-pontianak, or vampiric ghost—provides a distasteful allegory for this set-up makes even the series’ worst entry fit into the fairy tale’s classical form, when terrible things happened to children all the time.
Still, the best entry in Folklore, and the one that features its most successful hero, is also its most self-aware. “Pob” loves jabbing at white people who’ve abandoned their myths and legends to Disney’s fate. Without any respect for (or fear of) the fantastical, they’ve closed themselves off to the lessons of the dead. “It’s no wonder the world hates Americans,” Pob rants, explaining that the “godless prick” expatriate just chatted with this ghost (about himself) as if he were simply one more exotic “Asian.” The reporter, however, listens patiently, keeps his wits, and pays just the right amount of attention to superstition—like any good fairy-tale hero who finagles a successful deal with the supernatural.
Folkore is now streaming on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and HBO On Demand.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.