FILM REVIEW: 'The Missing Body Episode 1' and the Future of Taiwanese VR Cinema

FILM REVIEW: 'The Missing Body Episode 1' and the Future of Taiwanese VR Cinema
Photo Courtesy of Huang Hsin-Chien, Director of The Missing Body Episode 1

What you need to know

A review of the VR film The Missing Body Episode 1, featured in the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Go to Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall (中山堂) and take the elevator to the fourth floor. At the head of the adjacent staircase are two tented booths, each about the size of a freight elevator. Point to the booth showing the film of your choice and give your ticket to the attendant, who will seat you in the 360-degree swivel chair bolted into the floor at the center of the booth.

The attendant then fits a virtual reality headset in front of your eyes, closes the strap behind your head, and flips down the earphones. The score of the standby screen drowns out the attendant’s continued instructions.

Taking a controller in each hand – they’re not very ergonomic, especially in the placement of the triggers – you are faced with a dead body lying facedown in a prison cell, and the outside world is quickly forgotten.

Photo Courtesy of Huang Hsin-Chien
The Missing Body Episode 1

Director Huang Hsin-Chien (黃心健) says that his newest VR film, The Missing Body Episode 1 (失身記-上集), is about personal memories, Taiwanese culture, and the Martial Law Period, according to the Taipei Film Festival program synopsis. But you may not be aware of these themes simply by watching the film alone.

The only exposition in this approximately 15-minute experience is an opening title card explaining that Ghost Month (鬼月) is traditionally when ghosts leave the underworld to visit their family. From the program synopsis and the title card, the viewer infers that the imprisoned body in the first scene is dead, that the earthy apartment complex is his home in the underworld, and that the ship in flames is the traditional Burning of the King’s Boat (燒王船).

This short film is only the first episode of The Missing Body. Its sixth and last scene is a free-floating re-creation of a juancun (眷村), a settlement neighborhood for retreating mainland soldiers and their families; only with this final scene does the film begin to explore personal memories, hinting at more to come.

What the film sacrifices in narrative clarity it gains in mood and world-building. The atmospheric score by Taiwanese rock musician Lim Giong (林強) keeps viewers on their toes and envelopes the experience in spectral fantasy. Most scenes allow the viewer to “fly” around, in the form of two disembodied hands, and explore without a linear layout or clear destination, so I can only assume that the subsequent transition segments are triggered by a timer.

The open-world construction features detailed design, and each scene is as finely crafted as can be expected of a still-maturing technology: The jail cell has intricately crafted small insects hovering near the light, and there are clothes hung out to dry in the juancun.

Photo Courtesy of Huang Hsin-Chien

The controls, however, could be better calibrated. There appears to be a wide acceptable range of movement with blunt scrolling sensitivity, which means you have to really move to “fly” anywhere; this poses no problem when going up, left, or right, but given the chair in which the viewer sits, going downward is a bit more difficult. The official instructions do note that you can stand and walk but, again – the chair, an impediment that cannot be removed.

Talks of world-building and controls make this sound like a video game review, which raises the question: What is VR cinema, anyway? The simplest answer is that it is an audiovisual narrative imparted through an immersive interactive medium – which could also be the definition of a narrative art video game.

Without delving into the debate over whether video games are or can be art, I would like to consider whether VR cinema is closer to film or video game, and note in passing that the debate over whether film is art has long been settled.

What separates film apart from video game is two kinds of interactivity. Film requires passive interactivity, where viewers themselves have to make sense of filmic traits such as montages; in contrast, video game requires active interactivity, where players have to take control and make decisions on their own initiative. (This division largely sidesteps the question of narrative malleability, which is a futile point in any case because every possible player decision in a video game is preprogrammed.)

Photo Courtesy of Huang Hsin-Chien

The interactivity in The Missing Body is, paradoxically, passive, despite the physical use of controllers to guide the camera - there are no decisions to make to control the narrative. No matter where you go or what you see, the scene transitions regardless. The difference is in how much the viewer gets out of it, and so deciding not to move around is more akin to skimming through a book than refusing to play a game.

In a medium that features interactivity, a world open to exploration is justifiably prioritized over the ineluctably progressing narrative.

The film itself is savvy to this idea, using the first, non-interactive scene to teach the viewer how to experience the film. In the jail cell, the smallest of all the worlds on offer, the camera pushes, pulls, arcs, and cranes, modeling every possible movement open to the viewer in subsequent scenes.

In the same way, The Missing Body Episode 1 models for future VR filmmakers on how to make the best use of this new medium’s unique strength. Here’s to many more worlds to come.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)