The Maid (dir. Kelvin Tong, 2005) – A Filipino domestic worker arrives in Singapore during the seventh lunar month and soon begins to experience inexplicable sightings.
This post is part of Preamble to Halloween, an October marathon of horror features before the dawn of All Hallows’ Eve.
Those living outside of East Asia may not have heard of The Maid, not to be confused with the 2020 Thai haunted tale of the same name. This work of horror belongs to Singapore, one of the first mainstream releases of the genre in my country. It features familiar traditions and habits that are quintessentially local. But as films like Shutter and Ringu have proven, scares can transcend borders.
Set in the seventh lunar month, the film takes place during the Hungry Ghost Festival. The month signifies when the spirits of deceased ancestors return to the mortal realm. Contrary to likely first impressions, the festival has little to do with the terror of the supernatural. Rather, it is about remembrance and honouring the deceased. Even so, the alleged presence of the spirits still stokes fear to any child who spent their early years in the city state.
Most of us grew up knowing the customs and the consequences of ignoring them. Leave the burnt incense alone. Do not photograph food offerings by the roadside. Avoid sitting at the front rows of getai (elaborate stage performances for the spirits and spirited), reserved for the dead. Or else…
And never look back.
The Maid draws upon the rules of the game, echoing Hong Kong production The Eye and some urban legends of the West. But it never forgets those completely unacquainted with the Chinese traditions, allowing the story to unfold through the eyes of a foreigner. 18-year-old Rosa Dimaano (Alessandra De Rossi), originally from the Philippines, is the star. She has left her hometown for Singapore to work as a live-in domestic maid.
All seems to go well at the start. She settles comfortably into her daily routine at the old shophouse, helping the Teos with their household chores and work at the Teochew opera. The kind Teo couple (Chen Shucheng & Hong Huifang) treats her as family, while their mentally disabled son Ah Soon (Benny Soh) takes to her immediately. But having arrived on the first day of the Seventh Month, she understands very little of what she sees around her.
On her first day, she unwittingly sweeps the ashes left on the roadside, meant for the dead. The couple patiently teaches her about the rituals and asks for forgiveness from the spirits, not all of it she understands as anything more than local superstitions. She tries her best to abide. Still, there remains rules that she unknowingly breaks, allowing strange apparitions to escape her nightmares into her reality.
Singapore has its fair share of good films, but sadly few good horror films. Granted The Maid neglects to incorporate our racial diversity and multiculturalism to put the spotlight on Chinese traditions. Nevertheless, it brings out the rest of our unique traits, from language (in a spatter of English, Mandarin and dialects) to location, without falling back on farce to entertain. The rare feat takes the genre seriously and pleases the soul of this local horror fan.
Finding out that the Ghostbusters has no international hotline.
While the familiarity of the settings and norms may have more impact on Singaporeans and some East Asians, the rules are easy to follow. An international audience will find other universal reasons for fright too. Much of it takes place in the aged shophouse Rosa lives in, where the old furniture and dark-lit rooms heighten atmospheric terror.
Interestingly, not all of it takes place in darkness like most horror movies do. One of the most startling scenes involving a creepy possession occur in broad daylight and in public. As these hauntings persist day and night, Rosa’s lasting ordeal feels inescapable and suffocating.
Of shadowy corners and towering closets. Director Kelvin Tong chooses the right angles to induce fear, often leaving just enough for imagination to do the work for him. Jump scares aside, the film shines in its tense build-up and credible cast performances, never over-relying on sudden movement and sound to do the heavy lifting.
There is more to his story as well. The spirits are onto her not just because of her cultural ignorance, but a huge secret that the Teos have been holding onto for years. The twist is somewhat predictable yet still effective. Revelations build towards a memorable final act, where the darker hearts of man prove to be more malignant than the supernatural.