Screens at CIFF: 10/21 & 10/22 & 10/23
World premiere: 28 June, 2013, Taipei Film Festival

The most unsettling moment in Soul - a movie in which unsettling things are not rare - comes when a young man, Wang A-Chuan (Joseph Chang), having already demonstrated his crazy-bastard bona fides to us is confronted by his father (Jimmy Wang). "I saw this body was empty, so I moved in", says A-Chuan with the level tones that you explain an interesting fact about a plant, or point out an interesting structure along the side of the road, and what creeps me the fuck out isn't the identity of "I" in that sentence, but his contention that the boy was empty before. Whether he ultimately proves to be possessed by a paranormal entity or not, the intimation of psychological emptiness as an explanation for the evils done in the film is the more terrifying, because it is so much more realistic and so blandly expressed.

The degree to which Soul deserves filing in the "horror film" basket is debatable, though, for we're clearly working with a rulebook that functions differently from how it would in a Western genre movie. The film is not, and this cannot be stressed enough, a movie about a possession. It is ultimately a movie about the difficult relationship between a father and son, made far more difficult because of the various mental fractures going on between both of them, and how they are only able to reconnect in any meaningful way after the son's identity has been largely destroyed - by a malevolent spirit or schizophrenia, it doesn't really matter one way or the other. But let me not get ahead of the film.

Soul opens, a bit overweeningly, with the first of a handful of scenes edited with a series of fade-in, fade-out shots cut like the rhythm of breathing, or blinking - I'll admit to not entirely understanding why this choice has been made, when the thing it seems primarily to do is to make the film more lugubrious and capital-A Artistic than it is otherwise interested in being, though it's surely arresting - that depict A-Chuan, a chef, preparing a still-living fish and having an attack right in the middle of it (I am not so respectful or grown up that I could avoid hoping that the fish's soul would end up being the one to take over A-Chuan's body). He's hospitalised and taken to the old family property at a mountainside orchard, a real terrific location, all trees and fog, accessible only by a small trolley; and when he revives, there's something not quite right with him. The first person to notice this is his sister, who ends up dead in startlingly short order for her pains; when the elder Wang finds this out, his response immediately seals the course of the film to come: he hides the body and locks his son in a shed - whether to keep the world safe from the young man or the other way around is very much up for grabs at this point.

From this moment onward, the film is all at once murder mystery, psycho horror, and family drama, as the Wangs play out a tragedy of guilt and misplaced loyalty, with the father attempting to atone for his mistakes as a parent in the most ill-advised way possible, compounding the violence and death done in easily-avoidable ways. Jimmy Wang is nothing less than great in the role, full of hope and self-loathing and fear, and an opaque core that remains unknowable even through the very end of the film - his motivations might seem cut and dried, but there's too much complicated emotion underpinning the character for it to be as simple as "dad wants to protect his estranged son", and Wang plays up the nuances of the part far more enthusiastically than the broad strokes.

It should be mentioned that while all this is going on, Soul is absolutely beautiful, with even the most horrifying moments and images (the dead sister crammed under a bed, for example, dripping blood) rendered by director Chung Mong-hong and his crew with painterly artfulness, and the woodland surrounding A-Chuan's DIY prison lit with a glowing aura of filtered sunlight through leaves and mist. It's primarily through these self-consciously poetic, at times even abstract images, that Soul really explores its title; this is a spiritual story as much as it is a human one, though not in the uplifiting, religious sense of the world "spiritual". More that it is a story that takes place in a more heightened register than a strictly physical one, its characters moved by more than just their immediate selves. The imagery, far more than the sordid plot, never lets us forget the possibility of otherwordly and paranormal dimensions to this drama, not endorsing the idea that A-Chuan is possessed, necessarily, but keeping us aware that, whatever the case, there is more going on than just murder begetting murder. It's a weird movie in the most rewarding possible way, and in many ways the things that are most moving are also the most disturbing; but it is moving, and for a film with as much depravity as this, that's quite a coup altogether.