Sunday, October 27, 2013

Soul (Shi-hun)

SOUL (Shi-hun)                       B          
Taiwan  (112 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Chung Mong-Hong           Trailer

I saw this body was empty so I moved in.      —A-Chuan (Joseph Chang)

A moody and atmospheric thriller that is beautifully photographed in saturated colors by the director himself, a film built on an editing scheme with fades to black, where the sheer look on ‘Scope far outshines most any other film seen this year.  The film has a supernatural element that remains ambiguous throughout, where story and intent are submerged beneath the veneer of the film’s beauty, where something sinister is taking place, almost like a haunting.  The story concerns A-Chuan (Joseph Chang), a sushi chef in a small Japanese restaurant, who collapses while slicing up a fish that is still flopping around, even after a large portion has been carved out.  What is taking place is a mysterious transformation, as A-Chuan is not himself afterwards, but diagnosed with depression, as he’s entirely subdued, as if on anti-depressants, while more likely his body has been inhabited by another wandering spirit.  Part of the film’s complexity are the many layers of existence built into our human comprehension, where this may also be an artfully brilliant exposé on schizophrenia, where the director intermixes layers of spiritual, supernatural, and clinical, molding a most unusual story that has a painterly beauty while exploring alternate interior realms.  Even more impressive, the story shifts at some point and becomes a supernatural karma thriller, where A-Chuan’s father, Old Wang (Jimmy Wong, martial arts veteran from the infamous Shaw Brothers Hong Kong studios) is curiously haunted by his actions in the past when he went unpunished for the killing of his wife, traumatically witnessed by his son, where now a day of atonement arrives in the form of a demonic possession that has maliciously taken control of his son.  It’s quite clever how the storyline shifts from the audience’s interest in what’s happened to the son, and suddenly a larger and more compelling universe engulfs this one, where the father’s unraveling secrets literally consume the audience’s attention. 

A-Chuan’s sister Yun (Chen Hsiang-chi) drives her brother to their rural, mountainous home near Taichung, central Taiwan, where they grew up, where he is placed in the care of their father who grows orchids in the mists of an isolated mountain.  Yun grows wary of her brother’s condition, as he doesn’t speak or eat or respond to the world around him, where after bashing his head against the wall, it soon emerges that he’s been possessed by the soul of a psychopath, as Wang returns home one day only to find his daughter lying in a pool of blood, with his son hovering over her indicating he is not A-Chuan, “He left.  I took his body.  A-Chuan will be gone for a long time,” claiming he passed A-Chuan on his way into the body, suggesting he would be back “one day.”  Wang tries to hide the body just as a police officer friend turns up at the door, eventually burying her, while drugging this aberration version of his son, locking him up as a prisoner in a storage shed in back of the house, waiting for his real son’s spirit to return, where a lone window connects him to the outside world.  Strange visions, however, start to haunt A-Chuan, providing a backstory for his family’s disturbing past, where curiously this dreamlike window to the past through flashbacks is more revealing than the shed window in the present, as it was in this building that A-Chuan witnessed his father kill his mother.  One of the more enticing scenes is a mystical character known only as The Messenger (Chin Shih-chieh), an old man with a bamboo basket that discovers a mountainous trail leading to a hidden well, somehow convincing A-Chuan to jump into a seemingly bottomless pit, which might explain his disappearance. 

A kind of tug of war persists between the inhabited son and the overly suspicious father, who must figure out how to contend with this afflicted spirit while keeping the body alive for his son’s eventual return.  The first killing, however, sets into motion a series of violent acts, where Wang, seemingly impassive to the tragedy, goes to great extremes to cover them up, each more violent than the next, becoming obsessed with protecting his son at all costs, crossing all moral boundaries, turning into an overly stylish blood splatter film.  While the film is not without humor, especially in the folksy character of local cop Little Wu (Vincent Liang), who has a history with Old Wang and respects the ways of the mountain, who seems preoccupied or easily distracted, but his perseverance throughout even after sustaining a hideous injury is impressive.  When his superior arrives, Yang (Tuo Tsung-hua), he’s more of a no nonsense character who gets right to the heart of the matter, questioning Wang about the strange disappearance of several missing people. Things soon veer out of control, as this is a film about instability, not balance, where things are not as they seem, exploring cruelty and pain in an extremely detached manner, while also examining a rather twisted father and son relationship.  Wang must cover up his son’s crimes while attempting to fathom whether his son has lost his mind or has been taken possession by a demonic spirit.  Yet the overriding constant is the lush beauty of the Alishan forest, resembling a mountainous rain forest where dew is everpresent, as is a surrounding mist, where Wang’s character is completely in tune with the rugged, unyielding nature of the mountain.  The sequence out of the mountains on a tiny rail car is nothing less than exquisite.  Not sure why so many Asian films insist upon blood-letting scenes which may taint the film’s poetic allure, but the mix of ghostlike inhabitation and murder mystery remains fascinating throughout, as it’s a beautifully directed film, meditative and disquieting, with a chilling and fascinating world of violence that at least according to Ho Yi from The Tapei Times (Movie review: Soul - Taipei Times) “are among the most gruesome and exquisite that Taiwanese cinema has seen in decades.”  

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