Taiwan is a country whose local cinema consistently punches above its weight, and the latest gem to emerge from the island is a truly outstanding piece of folk horror. Directed by Kevin Ko, Incantation is not just a commercial success but a critical hit too: how rare is it for a horror film to receive 14 Golden Horse nominations including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress? It deserves the acclaim. This is far and away the best horror feature in what has been an excellent year.
Li Ruo-nan (Tsai Hsuan-yen) and her friends visit a remote religious commune, documenting their visit as they go. When they break a religious taboo they are cursed for their transgressions. Six years later, Ruo-nan leaves psychiatric care and reclaims her abandoned daughter – only to discover that the curse may have been passed onto her as well.
If you want a quick, easy comparison to Incantation, think of it as Ring crossed with The Blair Witch Project. The film is presented as found footage, apparently edited together by Ruo-nan to explain her predicament and to beg for the audience’s help. It is a clever narrative choice on Ko’s part – he also wrote the film with Chang Che-wei – because it avoids the most consistent shortfall of the found footage format. Usually it is unclear where the found footage has come from, story-wise, or who edited it all together. Here there is a reason, and a smart one, delivered upfront to the viewers and making all of them complicit in the film’s events. It is a hell of a way to drive audience engagement.
Found footage can be a tremendous gift for horror cinema, because it provides an easy method of restricting the viewer’s perspective to match that of the protagonists. The viewer only sees what the characters see. There is no omniscient point of view, and by limiting what the viewer experiences the horror can be enhanced. Ko uses the opportunities well. Fans of jump scares will find a lot to enjoy, almost as much as fans of rising dread. This is a tense, frightening picture.
The use of Chinese religion and folklore lends a sense of authenticity. The cult which Ruo-nan visits purports to be from Yunnan province in China, and worships a so-called Mother-Buddha. While clearly fictional, the cult echoes enough real-life imagery and mysticism to feel worryingly believable. It shifts the film into a similar bracket to the wealth of Catholic-inspired exorcism films that are released each year, but it also embraces its own ethnicity. Much like Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring (and Hideo Nakata’s film adaptation), it uses modern-day technology and culture to explore something very old and folkloric. It is classic old-school horror fare, but exploits the technology of cinema to make it both immediate and visceral.
Tsai Hsuan-yen is excellent in the lead role. In flashbacks she is a well-adjusted, skeptical women. In present-day sequences she is almost hollowed-out by her experiences, presenting a character that is well past the point of exhaustion or indeed sanity. Huang Sin-ting gives a strong performance as Ruo-nan’s six-year-old daughter Dodo, and despite her young age shows a strong hand in playing a creepy possessed child. Further good performances come from the supporting cast, including Kao Ying-hsuan as Ming – manager of a foster care home – and Sean Lin and Wen Ching-yu as Yuan and Dom – the two men who originally accompanied Ruo-nan to the commune.
Any viewer with an interest in horror will be rewarded by this film. It is creatively inventive, ominous and shocking, and profoundly and impressively effective. Among a growing collection of Taiwanese screen horrors, including Detention, The Tag Along, The Sadness, and Get the Hell Out, Incantation is honestly the best of them I have ever seen.
Incantation is available internationally on Netflix.