She could be considered Taiwan’s version of the Slender Man. Purported internet videos of the so-called “Little Girl in Red” silently following hiking parties and reports of her leading stragglers astray have built her into a potent urban legend. She makes the forest a scary place, but she finally starts trekking into the city in Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
When a senior citizen goes missing, it might be Red Riding Hood’s fault—at least partially. She is most likely a “mosien” or forest ghost that often takes the form of a child or monkey (we are told), but she might really just be a cog in a larger supernatural wheel. Regardless, workaholic real estate agent He Zhi-wei and his adult contempo radio DJ girlfriend Shen Yi-jun are initially happily oblivious to viral ghost girls and elemental spirits. They work hard, but take their relationship slow, which suits her better than him. In fact, his growing impatience causes fissures between them, but they will put it all aside when He’s grandmother mysteriously disappears.
It seems she vanishes in much the same way her friend did—and eventually reappears in similar fashion. Unfortunately, He soon disappears in like manner, only to haunt Shen’s dreams and waking visions as a macabre insect-gorging specter. To find him, Shen will face things going bump in the night and follow his cold trail into a forest that radiates malevolence, in the Aokigahara tradition.
The film’s basis in urban legend/internet meme is admittedly pretty creepy, so it is rather disappointing when screenwriter Jian Shi-geng opens the story up to less-defined cosmically woo-woo-ish paranormal agencies. In fact, the intimate focus on personal relationships is what elevates Tag-Along. Otherwise, it would be a rather standard evil forest horror film.
In fact, Shen and He’s relationship feels credibly “lived-in.” Likewise, He’s guilt over taking his missing grandmother for granted is rather quite poignant. Yet, Cheng and Jian really crank up the emotional resonance when they reveal the reason for Shen’s commitment phobia. However, the source of her guilt probably guarantees Tag-Along will not get picked up for American distribution, for fear of converting viewers to social conservatism.
Regardless, lead Hsu Wei-ning (of Italian-Taiwanese heritage) is poised to break-out huge, because Tag-Along did boffo business in Taiwan and Shen is indeed the proactive protag. River Huang is more or less adequate as He, but established veterans Liu Yin-shang and Zhang Bo-zhou really deliver for Cheng as the grandmother and the security guard who assists Shen’s investigation. The latter seems to have an inexhaustible supply of firecrackers (they scare the spirits), which is good prepping on his part.
Without question, Tag-Along works better when it operates in an urban setting. Cheng makes Taipei 101 look like a Tolkienesque tower an insidiously builds the tension in the pre-war, gentrifying apartment spaces. However, there is a lot of tromping through mossing trails when he takes the action into the woods. Arguably, the film starts out vibing like Juno Mak’s eerie Rigor Mortis, but morphs into something closely akin to the okay but not exceptional The Forest. Still, if you enjoy a good Blumhouse, Cheng uncorks enough to be worth your while. Recommended for rabid horror fans, The Tag-Along screens tomorrow (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.