There was a brief period from the late ’90s through the early ’00s that saw horror cinema dominated by films from Japan (The Ring, The Grudge), South Korea (A Tale of Two Sisters), Thailand (Shutter), and Hong Kong (The Eye). The success of these and others led to a deluge of similarly-minded but less worthwhile efforts, and while Asian filmmakers continued to deliver horror movies the good ones became the minority amid a sea of cloned ideas and copycat visuals.
There have been 214 films since 2005 featuring a ghostly girl with long black hair obscuring her face. (You don’t need to verify that. I promise that it’s probably true.)
Recent films like Hollow (from Vietnam) and Hide and Seek (South Korea) teased a return to form with smart writing and serious chills, and now two more are adding to the trend. My review of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Creepy will be up soon, but first out of the gate is the equally creepy (but less direct in its titling) Taiwanese feature, The Tag-Along.
Opening text introduces viewers to the concept of the “Mosien,” a forest spirit that takes the form of a child or monkey before taking advantage of any guilt a person has buried deep within their mind. An old woman disappears, but while Grandma (Liu Yin-shang) worries about her friend her bigger concern is her grandson, He Zhi-wei (River Huang), who works too hard to appreciate the world around him. He’s pressuring his girlfriend, Shen Yi-chun (Hsu Wei-ning), to get married, but the personal reasons she has for holding off lead to a rift between them.
A bigger problem rears its head when the old woman reappears and apologizes to He just before Grandma disappears in her place. Her disappearance wracks him with guilt knowing that he took her for granted for far too long, and as he begins seeing her where he knows she isn’t a terrifying, child-like figure gnaws at his sanity. When Grandma’s finally found wandering the streets surrounding a nearby forest her discovery is met with He’s own disappearance – and soon Shen is seeing visions of her own.
Director Cheng Wei-hao and writer Jian Shi-geng have taken a popular Taiwanese urban legend – a small, spectral child dressed in red who follows forest visitors and steals their souls – and shaped it into a chilling tale of grief and ghosts. Numerous jolts and effective emotional beats share the screen with a steadily building atmosphere as the characters descend deeper into the nightmare.
The malevolent spirit at the center of the story makes its home in the woods, but in a fun twist on news items about bear or cougar attacks, it’s surmised that the entity was forced to venture into town for humans to corrupt after losing too much of its habitat to deforestation. It seems trees have souls too, and legend has it that the mosien is intent on replanting the woods with people.
The creepiness is on point with sequences that deliver thrills and chills through restrained camerawork and in-our-face visuals. Cheng isn’t above jump scares, but while some work better than others they rarely feel cheap – he sets the stage and sometimes even shows us the threat before letting it dart towards us while making an equally terrifying sound.
The character work goes a long way towards amplifying the horror as both the script and performances make them worthwhile recipients of our fear and concern. Hsu in particular carries much of the emotional weight with a character whose guilt, both past and present, threatens to damn her soul.
The Tag-Along out-forests The Forest when it comes to supernatural thrills fueled by emotional suffering and trees, and it does so while spending far less time in the woods. This is effective, hair-raising filmmaking that will leave you worried about what’s behind you but too afraid to find out.
NYAFF 2016 runs June 22nd through July 9th