A spiritual horror-thriller about a psychopath who claims demonic possession, Taiwanese helmer Chung Mong-hong’s “Soul” wavers between gory genre territory and arthouse ambitions, uneasily melding the mordant humor of 2008’s “Parking” with the thematic vagueness of 2010’s “The Fourth Portrait.” But supernatural musings and psychobabble aside, Chung’s unraveling of the twisted bond between a father and son is bone-chilling yet strangely moving. Essentially a festival item, the film will alienate audiences looking for straight answers with its distractingly beautiful lensing and eerie ambiguity, although action veteran Jimmy Wong’s performance might spur specialty Asian interest.
Although Ringo Lam’s “Victim” (1999) serves as “Soul’s” closest Chinese precursor, thematically the film is an extension of Chung’s 2006 debut feature, “Doctor,” a documentary that investigated the inexplicable suicide of a Chinese-American boy. Chung is again exploring hidden motives, mental breakdown, a troubled father-son relationship and the inscrutability of the human heart here, but with a supernatural dimension that adds a shot of noirish suspense to the mix.
A-chuan (Joseph Chang, “Girlfriend Boyfried”), the introverted sous chef of a Japanese restaurant in Taipei, passes out and is taken to the hospital, where the doctor suspects he has depression. He is sent home to rural Taichung to stay with his father, Wang (Wong). When Wang’s daughter Yun (Tsai Ming-liang favorite Chen Shiang-chyi), who happens to be visiting from Taipei, alerts him that little brother is “weird,” she is reproached for being unsisterly. By the time Wang realizes A-chuan is seriously out to lunch, something dreadful has already happened. Suddenly snapping out of his inertia, the young man calmly says, “I saw this body was empty, so I moved in…” Without pausing to grieve or ponder the spooky implications of these words, the old man springs into cover-up mode.
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A-chuan spends the rest of the story locked in a shed next to Wang’s orchid garden, high in the Lishan mountains. Despite this claustrophobic setup, the film brings audiences into his mind — a vast interior continent animated by fluttering moths, swirling clouds and conversations with various people, including his absconded soul. Full of philosophical conundrums and replete with absurdity and fatalism, these exchanges prove both intriguing and baffling as fantasy and reality overlap. On one occasion, Wang takes his son to the local doctor (helmer-comedian Chen Yu-hsun, in a wickedly deadpan cameo), who explains that a patient with mental illness is like a soul that’s adrift, which explains the Chinese-language title, “Lost Soul,” which also has the double meaning of being “absent-minded” or “distracted.”
When folks start poking around the vicinity, like A-chuan’s classmate-turned-policeman Wu (Liang He-chun), Wang’s son-in-law (Leon Dai), a messenger (King Shih-chieh) and local sheriff Yang (Tou Chung-hwa), Wang’s methods of curbing their curiosity suggest he may be more unhinged than A-chuan. His transformation, which Wong ominously captures through facial twitches and razor-sharp sarcasm, keeps one on edge. But the moment of true horror arrives when A-chuan lets some of his skeletons out of the closet, which makes one wonder if he could be a chip off the old block.
While the film often lurches into scenes of extreme violence and bloodshed, it’s so over-the-top and grotesquely funny that audiences are likely to feel by turns horrified and tickled. The other characters feel so off-key that they could blend into the cast of “Twin Peaks,” intensifying the film’s surreal nature. Even the coda culminates in a Sphinx-like question, suggesting the father-son relationship is either unconditionally loving or disturbingly conspiratorial.
As a shabby farmer from the sticks, Wong, who recently recovered from a stroke, looks so beguilingly ordinary that there’s no trace of his heroic “One-Armed Swordsman,” but gradually his character’s menacing presence insinuates itself. And Chang gives a haunting performance here; while he subverts his image as a gentle, inarticulate romantic lead, he also emphasizes A-chuan’s repression and pain rather than his maniacal side.
Craft contributions are polished, especially Chung’s lensing under the pseudonym Nagao Nakashima, which conjures a feverish, dreamlike atmosphere with deep, saturated colors and shadowy lighting. Lishan’s misty landscape is rendered with unearthly beauty, but lingering shots verge on arty pretension. Music and sound are equally subtle.