After the Taiwanese market opened to Western films in the 1990s, local pictures fared poorly at the box office. Consequently, there was little room for commercial film endeavors, much less genre development. If we overlook a handful of low-quality and ill-attended offerings, Zhong Menghong’s Soul (2013) can be considered Taiwan’s first and only horror film combining elements of mystery and suspense. The film’s setting is non-generic and the director studied experimental filmmaking at the famous School of the Art Institute of Chicago, thus the picture is unique, a cross between art film and genre flick.
The film’s Chinese title (失魂; literally, “lose the soul”) has a variety of meanings. The story begins when protagonist A-Chuan (Zhang Xiao), a sushi chef, faints on the job and is sent back to his family home in the mountains. A fish that’s been cut in two, its bodiless head trembling, and images of upside-down streets and roads hint that A-Chuan’s body and soul are no longer one. That is, he is like a fish that’s lost its body – A-Chuan has “lost his soul” and is no longer himself. Here the suspense begins, drawing the audience into the mystery: Who is the soul that has taken over A-Chuan’s body? And where has A-Chuan’s soul gone?
But this mystery is different from those where a “killer” is identified and captured by a process of logical deduction. In the East, an individual is believed to consist of “body” and “soul,” the two parts not necessarily united. But the soul can’t completely control the body – after A-Chuan returns home his behavior is strange and disordered. Consequently, his father discovers one day that A-Chuan has killed his older sister in a dispute over a trivial matter. The audience understands that A-Chuan’s “body” has committed the heinous act, but the bigger question is who or what is controlling his body? A-Chuan? Or an evil spirit?
At this point, most horror films would pit father against son and good versus evil. But Soul introduces an unusual theme, one vastly different from audience expectations; hence, it can’t be regarded as a commercial film.
A-Chuan tells his father: “I saw that this body was empty, so I moved in.” Rather than resisting, A-Chuan’s father seeks to protect the soul that’s taken over his son’s body and killed his daughter. Why? Here, an even more traditionally Asian concept emerges – even though the soul in the body is no longer his son’s, A-Chuan’s father must protect A-Chuan so that he can pass on the family genes.
Although his son has been possessed, A-Chuan father doesn’t fight against evil; rather he stands on evil’s side, becoming evil himself in his resistance to the entire world. Zhong Menghong has imbued natural phenomena – mountains and forests, insect-and-bird calls, clouds, mist, and sunlight – with a dark eeriness, turning nature into a symbol of the father’s depravity, the forest swallowing up any outsiders who appear on the scene.
Thus, the film’s biggest conflict is the opposition between the traditional Eastern view of body and soul and the idea that the bloodline must be carried on – the father’s choice is a victory for the latter. So, hasn’t a father who would make such a choice lost his own soul? Whose soul is truly lost? These are the questions the film asks.
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