Folklore is an HBO Asia Original series that taps into the rich mythology of Asian horror. Now into its second season, each episode highlights a country and features its local lore and along with a local director.
The last episode of the series is titled The Excursion, which is based in Singapore. It features Nicole Midori Woodford, whose works include For We Are Strangers (20th Busan International Film Festival) and Permanent Resident (Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2018, Busan International Film Festival and SeaShorts 2018 amongst other festivals). Woodfood’s work is characterised by her focus on the female psyche, dealing with struggles and trauma. She is also a film lecturer at NTU School of Art, Design & Media.
The Excursion not only marks Woodford’s first foray into the horror genre, it is also Mindee Ong’s (881) first project after a five-year absence. The story is centred around an all-too-familiar setting: a troubled family where the husband is always busy, a son who is having trouble adjusting in school, and a mother driven to unhealthy distraction by her son’s unusual behaviour as well as an unmentionable trauma.
The Excursion isn’t quite your typical horror flick in the sense that much of the discomfort is centred around the human condition rather than a cheap jump scare. For many of us, our inner demons are far more destructive, and The Excursion’s documentation of Mindy’s emotional journey is what makes it immensely watchable. The supernatural happenings that are referenced here will no doubt be familiar to all, but it does strike me as more of a tribute to our local ‘sightings’ than a scarefest. The category may read supernatural, but ultimately The Excursion humanises everyone involved.
We managed to get a few minutes of Woodford’s time, and she was kind enough to answer some of our questions:
Potions (P): Is this your first horror film?
Nicole Midori Woodford (NMW): Strictly horror? Yes, this is my first. I’ve done short films that have supernatural elements, but not full horror.
P: I understand that you like to examine trauma and the human condition? How did you approach The Excursion?
NMW: I used to be quite scared of horror films. And then I started watching more horror and became kind of obsessed with the feeling that horror films bring out – it’s this cathartic feeling of tension/release but also kind of going through and confronting my own trauma.
So then I thought: oh, actually this is very unique because when I do drama, or a family-coming-of-age (show), it doesn’t really have that quality to it, which I feel is very unique to horror in that sense. I wanted to portray the trauma of a family, especially this woman who is going through this terrible loss. But she is also suppressing a lot of memories.
I thought this was a great way to sort of try to show how actually trauma is seen in the horror genre.
Q: Was there a reason behind the theme?
A: I was thinking about the locations of where the episode is set in and I knew I wanted to set it on one of the beaches in Singapore.
When I was recce-ing the beaches for other projects in the past, I always felt this sense of – maybe it’s a bit depressing to say – loss, and a presence lingering on these beaches. I was thinking of who some of these people could be; who actually died at these locations and are feeling trapped and also very lonely.
When I went to one of the islands to recce, I was told that during the seventh month it was very dangerous to walk near the water because there’s a lot of spirits who are either very very much bitter, resentful and it’s not safe to go there.
But I was also thinking: what if the spirits were more lonely and the shores around our mainland and the islands around us are like a limbo of sorts – you know, a world between the afterlife and our world. So I was kind of fascinated with that. That’s why I decided to set most of the episode by the water and also around this family and the mum, who’s connected to the beach.
Q: What was your thought process and do you think it’s important to avoid tropes in horror?
A: In order to be universal, I feel that the story has to connect to emotions. I think it was quite natural that I tried to shape the character of En, who’s played by Mindee Ong, a really amazing Singaporean actress.
I felt that somehow because I focus a lot on the character; of her and her psyche, the other pieces came together. And that fit less into the horror tropes that we see. So I try to let the character lead the story, in a way, and it helped.
I wasn’t trying to put in jump scares but the scares would come naturally. She’s seeing something that makes her realise that this is the horror of what she’s not confronting. As the episode goes by, you realise that the truth is actually quite haunting.
I thought that would be ideal for such an episode where I’m trying to balance something creepy but yet quite emotional.
Q: Were there any classic horror elements that you felt you had to include?
A: I rewatched some of the horror films for scenes I remember were quite scary to me. I was trying to understand why they were frightening. Then I was trying to decide: do I want to go there, and do I need to go there? I have to make sure that when I shoot it, it shouldn’t feel forced. Most of the scenes we shot made the final cut.
I think setting the atmosphere is very important – and a lot of the sequences are linked through this nightmare the mother has, again and again. I wanted the feeling that when she wakes up from the nightmare, she goes into another nightmare, so I was trying to bridge the dream and the real horror together quite a bit and play with it. This would be the main thing that would bridge my supernatural scenes together.
This was something that was inspired by personal experience. I tend to have the same dream; the same nightmare over and over again. It would continue but the people in the dream would change. It was quite creepy because I could not stop dreaming this particular dream.
I thought, OK, this would tie very much into the whole trauma in horror idea. Because trauma is like a loop – you cannot turn it off so I think the real horror in that episode is that you cannot switch off the nightmare. That to me is very dark and very scary – the idea that you cannot wake up from that.
Q: Did anything creepy happen on set?
A: Thankfully no, because my whole team, we did the prayers, we did everything to make sure things go smoothly.
However, in post-production, we had strange sounds of children laughing in this scary scene in the swamp and it sounded like it was coming from the location. When we were shooting, no children were nearby. So the editor and I kept asking each other: did you hear that?
In the end, my sound designer said that she figured out it was from something else, but still, it was very creepy.
The Excursion streams 19 December 2021 on HBO Go.