Soul (Chung Mong-Hong, 2013) Taiwan
Soul is an artsy spiritual thriller, with a side of gore, and touch of dark humour. It has an intriguing concept which is told in an intriguing way that will leave you thinking. It is the newest feature from up-and-coming Taiwanese director Chung Mong-Hong (Parking, The Fourth Portrait).
When the film first ended I was slightly confounded, but after a bit of reflection, I think I finally “got it”. This is my reading.
It all begins when a Sushi-Chef named A-Chuan (Joseph Chang) suddenly collapses, going seemingly comatose…or perhaps something more sinister. His friends drive him to his father’s house, out in a rural area of Taiwan where he tends an orchid garden and orchard. A-Chuan’s sister- Aya- has also returned to help assess the situation.
Though not shown, it’s implied that A-Chuan wakes up while his father is out tending his flowers- during which, at some point, for some reason, he murdered his sister.
Deceivingly, A-Chuan is not the main character though- he is a mystery. The film is more about observing the psychological transformation of his father, Mr. Wang.
When Mr. Wang returns to the image of his son looking over the dead and bloodied body of his daughter, he asks him what happened. But A-Chuan claims not to be A-Chuan at all, rather, someone else entirely- who just happened to inhabit the body of his son when he, “saw it was empty”. The mystery person that his son has become does, however, tell him that he passed A-Chuan on his way into the body…and that A-Chuan said he would be back “one day”.
Nothing is really revealed about A-Chuan’s condition-other than that he was seen bashing his head against the wall shortly before it happened. I suppose what you perceive has happened to him depends on your specific reading of it, which can go one of two ways: he’s suffering from some sort of extreme mental psychosis, or he’s out there somewhere having some sort of astral experience. Either way, we aren’t really left to ponder on the subject, as the violent imagery quickly grounds us back in reality.
Shortly after he returns to the grisly scene and learns that his son is not his son…there is a knock at the door…and it’s a local cop who was a childhood friend of A-Chuan- wanting to see him, having heard he was home. Mr. Wang quickly hides the body and cleans up the blood on the floor, before letting A-Chaun’s “classmate” inside. The classmate notices the blood, but humorously comes up with an alibi for Mr. Wang, asking if he had killed a chicken.
This first encounter is a pivotal moment when it comes to understanding the film, because it explains the actions that A-Chuan’s father takes throughout the rest of the story. He’s a quick wit that’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect his son’s body, with hopes that his son’s souls will one day return to habitate it’s former vessel.
To prevent any further unforeseen circumstances from occurring, Mr. Wang locks the man inside an isolated cabin (having removed anything that could be utilized as a weapon) up on the mountainside. A cabin, it turns out, where A-Chuan had witnessed his father kill his mother when he was a child.
I believe that the inclusion of this revelation is meant to inform you of the moment that A-Chuan loses his soul (as punishment for his father’s transgressions), but it also has the affect of keeping you on the fence concerning whether A-Chuan is having a psychological or spiritual experience (if there’s even any difference).
Either way, Aya’s husband shows up a few days later looking for his wife- only to find A-Chuan locked in the cabin. Not knowing what to say about the situation, and suspecting he was out having an affair (explaining why he only started to inquire about her disappearance days later), Mr. Wang opts to bludgeon him to death before burying him in the trunk of his car.
At this point the story begins to meander a little. It goes into a flashback whose purpose is to illustrate the transmigration of souls. This portrays an encounter in the forest between A-Chuan and a guy known as “The Messenger”, who is leading him. The flashback is interwoven between the other goings-on, but it shows The Messenger directing A-Chuan to a bottomless pit, which he then convinces him to jump into. Was The Messenger, in fact, some sort of demon that had tricked A-Chuan? Convincing him to jump in, so that he could take over his body?
Back in the real world, the police are starting to get suspicious after Aya’s husband’s family makes a bunch of missing persons reports. The detective investigating their case is sent up the mountain, so that he can interview Mr. Wang and A-Chuan about the disappearances. But when he approaches the man in the cabin, he is stabbed repeatedly in the neck with a Wolverine-like claw made of an old piece of fence. A-Chuan’s old friend- the local cop- witnesses this and gets a marble in the eye for it, before going on the run from the mystery lunatic.
But when he manages to catch the terrified cop, he doesn’t kill him, rather saving him instead. Does mean that A-Chuan IS still in there somewhere? Or was the mystery man just reacting to his earlier kindness?
This whole incident begins to weigh on Mr Wang, who doesn’t want to give up on his son (or at least his son’s earthly body)- considering what he put him through at a young age and all. So he concocts an elaborate story that places the blame for all the murders solely on himself. Eventually rendering him institutionalized in a mental ward.
The film concludes with a speech made to Mr Wang by the man inside of A-Chuan’s body during a visit with him in the hospital. In it, the mysterious character offers a cryptic explanation as to what really happened to A-Chuan, while ensuring him that he will keep tending the orchids.
My original impression of the ending, was that it was a tragedy for Mr Wang to have sacrificed himself for the violent crimes of a man who may or may not be his son, and end up in such a hellish place. But that was a mistake. Because Mr. Wang was actually the target in a campaign of divine vengeance, with some sort of evil force using his son against him, in order to punish him for his earlier sins- which had a traumatic effect on the psyche of A-Chuan.
The film is relatively slow-paced for a thriller, but it keeps you intrigued with just the right amount of black humour and bloody death scenes. It’s more of a thinking-man’s thriller, as opposed to one solely based on shock- but it does have it’s shocking moments. It will certainly warrant a couple of viewings and/or bit of reflection in order to fully appreciate it. But, in the end, it’s an interesting film that will definitely leave you pondering.
This article was first posted on September 15, 2013