Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Taiwan Film Days ’13: Soul

Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas all labored to define the soul.  Unfortunately, their scholarship will be of little practical use to Old Wang.  Rather instinctively, he protects his son A-chuan’s body, so it will be available for his soul to re-enter.  Just who or what is currently inhabiting that vessel is one of the great mysteries of Chung Mong-hong’s Soul (trailer here), which screens during this year’s edition of the San Francisco Film Society’s Taiwan Film Days.

A-chuan works as an assistant cook in a Taipei sushi restaurant—or at least he did until he passed out at work.  With the help of two co-workers, his sister Hsiao Yun shuttles him back to their father’s rustic mountain home, where the old man raises orchids and apples.  Beyond mere sickness, A-chuan does not seem to be himself.  Suspecting something is profoundly wrong, Hsiao Yun starts to raise her reservations to Old Wang, only to be murdered by A-chuan (or rather A-chuan’s body) shortly thereafter.

At this point, Old Wang springs into full cover-up mood, locking A-chuan (or whoever) into his utility shed.  Soon he and the whatever are speaking openly of the situation.  Supposedly he/it moved in when A-chuan temporarily vacated his body. He cannot really say why A-chuan left, but Old Wang eventually concludes it all has something to do with some painful family history.  Regardless, he is willing to dispatch whomever he must to keep this incident under wraps.

Is he protecting A-chuan’s bodily interests or the new soul, whom he comes to know rather well? That is one of the rich ambiguities of Soul.  It features a good deal of traditional genre trappings and a massively atmospheric setting, but it is hard to define it in pat terms. However, all cult film fans need to know is Jimmy Wong of One-Armed Swordsman fame stars as the conflicted Old Wang.

Wong perfectly matches the film’s subtly and understatement, keeping the audience completely off-balance yet totally invested in the domestic horrors his character is caught up in. Likewise, Joseph Chang’s quiet turn as A-chuan (and his possessor) stealthily sneaks up on you.  Vincent Liang also thoroughly subverts and surpasses expectations as Little Wu, A-chuan’s former schoolmate now working as put-upon patrolman.

Soul is an unflaggingly naturalistic yet unusually philosophical film.  Taut rather than terrifying, Chung maintains a pace that is patient but never pokey.  Serving as his own cinematographer under the open pseudonym of Nakashima Nagao, he captures some striking images of the dark, verdant woods, creating a vivid sense of place.

It is an accomplished film and a timely selection, given the fact Taiwan has officially chosen it as its Foreign Language Oscar submission.  On paper it does not sound like a good fit for the Academy’s tastes and preferences, but who knows?  Frankly, Soul could be thought as the sort of film Uncle Boonmee was supposed to be but fell short of.  Eerie and engrossing, Soul is recommended for fans of headier genre fare when it screens this Saturday (11/2) at the Vogue Theatre as part of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.