Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Tag-Along (2015)

Original title: 紅衣小女孩

Warning: spoilers are inevitable in this case

Real estate agent Wei (River Wong Hiu) and his talk radio DJ girlfriend Yi-Jun (Tiffany Hsu Wei-Ning) have a rather difficult relationship. She doesn’t want to marry at all while he mortgages his grandma’s house to buy a family apartment for the time after they’re married behind everyone’s backs (somehow, even his grandmother’s), which does not promise a very glorious future to anyone involved.

Things become definitely inglorious when Wei’s grandmother (Liu Yin-Shang) disappears, or rather, as the audience knows, is kidnapped by mountain forest spirits who seem to be putting human souls where once trees stood (or something of that sort), sometimes putting an evil spirit in the place of their victims. The victims can call their loved ones for help, but when those react, they are taken in their stead. It’s a bit of an awkward arrangement, if you ask me, but I’m no forest spirit. Obviously, after a handful of frightening occurrences, Wei takes the place of his grandmother, and Yi-Jun becomes our protagonist.

It falls on her shoulders to save Wei by changing her mind about marriage and children. But hey, at least it’s okay for her to work, it seems.

So yeah, it would take quite a bit of mental gymnastics to call Cheng Wei-Hao’s The Tag-Along anything else but socially conservative (as most Taiwanese films I’ve seen seem to be). Given that my own predilections lie in a rather different direction, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I still enjoyed the film. Certainly, that has a lot to do with the fact that Cheng isn’t out to punish his characters for living the “wrong” way as a lot of explicitly conservative horror is – the film is even willing to let an abortion slide which these films usually never do – but seems more interested in seeing them become happier and ghost-free through marriage and babies. The film seems to genuinely feel for its characters, and while I disagree with what it says is good for them, it does have its heart in the right place.

There’s also an only slightly more subtle aspect to the film’s subtext, in that the spirits are leaving their forest home to harvest souls in the city because the balance of things in their forest has been disturbed by people, only to come to a place where the natural order is just as out of joint. Young people not marrying! Women who don’t want children! OMG!

I…don’t seem to be selling the film very well, am I? But despite its basic message, I do think The Tag-Along is a rather fine horror film that tries to sell its message in an honest way, without being too much of an ass about it and without feeling the need to disrespect the integrity of its characters for its message. Even Yi-Jun’s change of heart when confronted with nasty spirits makes sense for her, so that I didn’t found myself manipulated – at least until the very end when the film’s laying it on much too thick (though that does feed into a kicker ending which you could see as a subversion of the whole conservative message of the film, but that I read as your standard horror movie ending being just that).

The thing is, this is a genuinely good horror movie, a film featuring some simple yet effective ghost scares, CGI that goes from silly to creepy and is charming in both ways, decent acting, as well as one of the ickier bug eating scenes in memory. It’s a film that builds mood and establishes characters and place economically and effectively, as well as one that does understand the special vulnerability you feel just after waking up from a nightmare. I also found the way the protagonist role shifts over time very elegantly realized and organic to the film while still being surprising.

So it would be pretty shabby if I’d look down on The Tag-Along just because I disagree with it on the importance of marriage and babies.

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