What you need to know
Two recent horror flicks suggest that Taiwanese directors are finally willing to break some longstanding taboos, with promising results.
When it comes to the horror genre, Asian movies are legendary. Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Hong Kong boast prolific industries and some of the scariest movies of the last decades. Whether it is the 1998 Japanese cult classic Ringu (The Ring), the Korean family drama "Tale of Two Sisters" (2003) or Hong Kong's spine-chilling ghost film "The Eye" (2002), Asian movies usually hold a special place in the hearts of horror movie fans. They are known for their distinct, heavy atmosphere and minimalist setting, as well as the singular appearance of ghosts — usually white figures with flowing black hair — who have returned with a vengeance.
Compared to its neighbors, Taiwan's horror movies are both scarce and relatively unknown. You will seldom find one on the lists of best Asian horror movies periodically released by sites like horror-extreme.com. Not only that, they are not considered to be particularly scary. As one report on Asian horror movies stated, Taiwanese thrillers ''aren't scary at all (...) they have mediocre make-up and special effects.''
Nevertheless, a few exceptions have managed to fly under the radar.
"Double vision" (雙瞳, 2002), "The Heirloom" (宅變, 2005), "Silk" (詭絲, 2006), for example, didn't fare very well with critics, but they were a success at the box-office and praised for incorporating Taiwanese folklore and Chinese mythology. In a less traditional vein, let us not forget the gory "Invitation Only" (絕命派對, 2009), which was dubbed Taiwan’s “first-ever slasher horror.”
Why are there so few Taiwanese horror movies? It could stem from a taboo surrounding death and ghosts in "Chinese" culture: mentioning these subjects could potentially attract bad luck or evil spirits, and show disrespect toward the elderly. As it happens, China also has produced very few thrillers.
But things are changing. In 2015, two horror movies were released at close intervals: "The Bride" (屍憶) by Lingo Hsieh (謝聽菡) and "The Tag-along" (紅衣小女孩) by Cheng Wei-hao (程偉豪). Both gained financial and critical success in Taiwan, and draw on Taiwanese folklore.
"The Tag-along" — the original title means “the little girl in red” — was created by executive producer Tseng Han-Hsien (曾瀚賢). Tseng wanted to make more than just a movie; his goal was to boost the horror genre in Taiwan and develop a more creative and prolific industry.
“I'm well aware there aren't many Taiwanese horror movies, but if no one wants to start, aren't we going to be stuck forever?” Tseng told The News Lens, following the release of the film in November 2015. “Taiwanese are too afraid of failure, and a movie not working out is enough to shake people's confidence.”
This is apparently the biggest issue in the Taiwanese film industry. Following the release of "Cape No. 7" in 2008 (the highest-grossing domestic film to date), Taiwanese films have gained a wider local audience, but blockbusters have mostly been romantic dramas or comedies. Other genres have had trouble breaking through.
But Tseng is determined to make a change. “We want to be pioneers,” he said.
A new era of terror
Tseng and Cheng Wei-hao (director) certainly took the job seriously. The film took two years to complete and most of the crew had no experience producing a horror film. Regular discussions were held and Tseng also had Thai post-production company Kantana, which has extensive experience making horror movies, send people over to coach the team.
"The Tag-along" is based on Taiwan's most famous urban legend: the little girl in red. In 1998, a family went hiking in the mountains and made an amateur film. When watching the video a year later, they discovered someone had been following them the whole time: a little girl in a red dress who no one remembers seeing. It is believed that the little girl is none other than Moshenzi (魔神仔), a mountain demon who abducts people, mainly children and the elderly.
According to Tseng, if ghost stories reveal the collective fears of society, then Moshenzi represents the fears Taiwanese have of the mountains — mysterious, unfathomable, and sometimes deadly.
There is a set of traditions Taiwanese will follow when hiking in the mountains to avoid attracting malevolent spirits like Moshenzi: people should never call another's name, tap on one’s shoulder, or look at their own feet. "The Tag-along" thus appeals to the collective psyche by creating a chilling atmosphere that echoes the taboos of Taiwanese society.
Like "The Tag-along," "The Bride" incorporates local myths and symbolism to create an authentic Taiwanese feel — something that deeply resonates with the audience. Director Lingo Hsieh and Takashige Ichise (director of "Ringu") chose to make a movie about ''ghost marriages'' (冥婚), a Chinese and Taiwanese custom in which one marries a deceased person. The movie was released in August, the day before the start of “ghost month” or “ghost festival.” It is believed that during “ghost month,” the souls of the deceased return to visit their descendants.
"The Tag-along" and "The Bride" were immediate box-office hits, with the former grossing NT$30 million (approximately US$910,000) on its opening weekend and smashing the record for most profitable Taiwanese horror movie to-date. "The Bride" made significantly less, more than NT$10 million nationwide on its first weekend, but was still deemed a box-office success, exceeding American-Australian psychological thriller "The Gift" (NT$880,000) as well as the sequel to "Sinister" (NT$850,000).
Both films have obviously appealed to a sizable Taiwanese audience, relegating several competing foreign films in the background. It would seem, as Tseng hopes, that Taiwanese society is ready for its ghosts to come out of the closet, and Taiwanese cinema is ready to enter a new era of terror.
First Editor: Olivia Yang