Incantation (Kevin Ko, 2022) – religious taboos and broken rules.

East Asian horror cinema has made its presence known in the West for a long time now, with Japanese and South Korean films trailblazing our screens and leaving a welcomed impression. Whilst we’ve only had a mere peak behind the curtain of good – and bad – horror films from that part of the world, platforms like  Netflix continue to bring new world cinema to our homes. As a fan of South Korean horror films, it’s exciting to experience even more East Asian cinema.

Ruo-nan’s (Hsuan-yen Tsai) trip with her ‘ghostbuster’ friends to an isolated cult-like village ends in a fate worse than death when a religious taboo is broken by the naive trio. Six years later, her daughter is returned to Ruo-nan’s custody after she’s deemed mentally fit enough to look after her. The bonding time is cut short, though, when the consequences of her actions all those years ago come back to haunt her.

The found footage style pushes its own boundaries, combining a lot of different tropes and themes to create a rather excitingly convoluted story centred around Motherhood. And religion. And the meaning of family. And ghosts?

There’s a lot to unpack in this 111 minute-long film. The found footage style would feel tired at this length, but the edited non-linear narrative that throws the audience back and forth, between characters and timelines and B-stories, actually keeps you attentive throughout. You’re not bought along for the ride; you’re thrown through the passenger window and expected to drive.

The incoherencies in the ‘found footage’ camera placement (where the camera breaks the fourth wall in the wrong way) match the incoherencies in the narrative. The rules were broken, likely deliberately to keep the audience involved in the atmosphere. I personally didn’t really notice these ‘incorrect’ shots; it was only when it was bought to my attention that it was obvious – you could even say it’s a testament to the other aspects of the film that I was oblivious. I was too involved in the story to think about the camera as anything other than a vessel, which actually works perfectly in conjunction with the great reveal.

The lack of jump scares was welcomed as most of the scenes did their job of building the right amount of tension and sweat-inducing fear. Unfortunately, the scenes didn’t build upon each other in a way that would create a climactic third act. Each sequence was a stand-alone, not helped by the fact that there were so many themes and ideas to follow that nothing felt conjunctional. The narrative maybe needed stripping back, as the religious iconography and lore was fascinating and terrifying, but it didn’t feel like it gave the supposedly main theme of motherhood any agency. The cultural aspects didn’t work together with the mother-daughter story, instead working parallel to each other with no unity.

I felt like there was no time to understand or connect with the characters as there was so much going on. The film has a lot of ‘pulling points’; points in which I could’ve been drawn towards the character, but there was so much else was going on that the pull wasn’t strong enough. Though it didn’t feel like there was a lack of focus, there were just too many focus points that weren’t potent.

Incantation was a box office hit in Taiwan earlier this year during its March release, and it’s understandable why. The message wasn’t totally successful but the visuals were scary, if a tiny bit tropey. The jumping perspective of the apparently-found footage was confusing, but it didn’t take away from the fun of the overall film. There were so many ideas which were each interesting in themselves; they just needed placing together in a more synergistic way.

6.9/10

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