Incantation is the most recent film from Taiwan to attempt a synthesis of classical Taiwanese and modern horror (other recent examples include 2019 hit Detention). With its massive box office performance, the film has surpassed all others in 2022 to become the highest-grossing Taiwanese film ever.
The film’s distributors are proud to claim that it earned 23 million NT in its first three days in theatres, making it the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time. So, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that Netflix plans to release Incantation all over the world.
Although, in the end, Incantation is shown to be a defective piece of writing. The film’s horror components are mostly recycled and rely on shock rather than the nuanced and subtle sense of dread that would have made it scarier.
Mother and daughter duo Ruo-nan and Duo-duo are followed throughout Incantation. Duo-duo exhibits a wide range of symptoms consistent with possession, including hearing voices and acting in unusual ways. Trouble for Ruo-nan and her daughter began when she and her boyfriend uploaded a video to YouTube about a religious ceremony practised by her boyfriend’s family several years earlier. As punishment for breaking the rules of the ritual, Ruo-partner nan’s tragically passed away. Even though Ruo-nan gave birth and had a healthy baby, she and her child were doomed to a life of cursed suffering.
The first-person perspective is frequently used in Incantation, either permanently or temporarily switching to the point of view of a character or using what is framed as video camera footage to depict scenes intended to instil fear. You can count on these moments to really hit home.
The picture, unfortunately, relies too heavily on violence for its intended effect. The result, while potentially frightening on screen, can seem schlocky. The film’s horror components, likewise, are inspired by the conventions of modern horror such as discovered footage, possessed children, and the like.
The film’s complex relationship between Ruo-nan and her daughter is meant to be its emotional centre. The mother figure, Ruo-nan, is shown as disturbed and perhaps destructive. As a result of the curse, Ruo-nan has gained a reputation as a cruel mother and father. While the film has the opportunity to provide further character development by expanding on this aspect, it instead acts as a clumsy plot device.
Characters like Ruo-boyfriend nan’s and his family are glossed over. There aren’t many character development moments for the audience to get attached to any of the characters before they’re all caught up in a chain of unnatural events they can’t stop. The couple’s YouTube channel has gone viral, but it’s unclear why they’re willing to break religious norms to do so.
Horror movies from Taiwan have, in recent years, emphasised supernatural aspects with roots in either ancient lore or modern urban folklore. Especially following the success of the Tag-Along series, which drew from both, this has been the case.
This is also true of the practise of Incantation. The film claims to be based on a true story of a religious possession that occurred recently in Kaohsiung, where six people were possessed by different gods and had to live for a month on nothing but water laced with ashes. Despite the marketing, the movie has very little in common with the book it’s based on. Only the usage of Buddhist iconography and chants, some of which are sung in Taiwanese Hokkien, stands out as particularly striking or unusual among the elements culled from traditional Taiwanese religion.
In spite of its flaws, Incantation does have some redeeming qualities. What makes this picture stand out is how it opens, with the protagonist directly addressing the audience and having them memorise a holy symbol while being instructed to recite a charm. This plot point is brought back towards the end of the film in a clever way that breaks the fourth wall.
Paradoxically, the picture is easily forgotten since it makes excessive use of stock motifs from the horror genre. It has all the makings of a memorable and maybe groundbreaking horror film, but the pieces just don’t fit together. Even though there are a few scenes in Incantation that are technically well-executed, the film generally doesn’t need more than one viewing, while it may appeal to fans of modern Taiwanese horror.
Taiwanese incantation (in Chinese: ). Chinese (Mandarin) and Taiwanese Hokkien (spoken) dialogue. Ke Mengrong is the director. Initially published on March 18th, 2022. Completed in 1 hour and 51 minutes. It features Tsai Hsuan-yen, Huang Sin-ting, Kao Ying-hsuan, and Sean Lin in lead roles.
Netflix now has Incantation available for streaming.
As part of our coverage of the 2022 Neuchâtel International Fantastic Picture Festival, Cinema Escapist offered a review of this film.
You may also find this piece in No Man Is an Island, another online magazine that explores the links between politics and daily life. The folks at New Bloom Magazine are responsible for this wonderful anthology called No Man Is an Island.
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