Taiwan, 2022, 110’, Mandarin and Taiwanese
Directed by: Kevin Ko
Screenplay: Chang Che-wei, Kevin Ko
Photography (color): Chen Ko-chin
Editing: Kevin Ko
Production Design: Party Art Design Studio, Otto Chen
Music: Rockid Lee
Producers: Push Yang, Kevin Ko, Chen Chun-lin
Cast: Tsai Hsuan-yen (Ruo-nan), Huang Sin-ting (Duo-duo), Kao Ying-hsuan (Chi-ming), Sean Lin (Dong), RQ (Yuan)
Date of First Release in Territory: March 18th, 2022
In 2022, Taiwan is expected to see at least eight horror movies released. That’s a significant number for a film industry that releases only about 40 to 50 films per year. Fortunately for local horror film fans, this “year of terror” (as dubbed in local media) is getting off to a flying start with Incantation. Employing the found footage style made popular by The Blair Witch Project, [REC] and Paranormal Activity, Invitation Only director Kevin Ko’s return to the genre that started his career has been hyped as the most terrifying film ever made in Taiwan since its trailer was released late last year. This claim has convinced courageous Taiwanese filmgoers to make Incantation the most commercially successful Taiwanese horror film since Detention. While I can’t confirm whether the film lives up to its hyperbolic promise, I can say that Incantation is certainly one of the scariest films this writer has seen in some time.
Part of the reason for this is Ko’s intelligence as both a filmmaker and a storyteller. It combines a simple but emotionally effective story that skilfully follows two of the horror genre’s most basic rules: 1) The fun of horror films is seeing its characters pay the price for doing what they’re not supposed to do, and 2) What can’t be seen in the dark is always more terrifying.
Like a temporal pincer movement of horror, Incantation uses two parallel narrative timelines to double the terror. In the present timeline, Ruo-nan (Tsai Hsuan-yen) is hoping to return to a normal life with her young daughter Duo-duo after undergoing years of psychiatric treatment that resulted from supposedly being cursed six years prior. However, Ruo-nan realises that normality is not meant to be when she sees signs of her daughter falling under the very curse that nearly killed her. In between sequences of Ruo-nan and her daughter being threatened by the unseen force, we see the fateful trip Ruo-nan took to the countryside six years ago and how Ruo-nan put herself in the way of pure evil.
The biggest strength of Incantation’s story is Ruo-nan’s simple, yet emotionally effective motivation. Though Ko’s alternating parallel timelines to build a scary backstory for the unseen malevolent force is a bit sloppy at times, Incantation is at its core a relatively simple story of a woman whose sole motivation is to redeem her past sins so she can protect her innocent daughter from harm. It’s a powerful motivation that makes Ruo-nan’s journey relatable and even touching at times.
Yet, Ko’s technique behind the camera is anything but simple. Ko does cheat a bit by using too many camera angles for a found footage film (and never mind the perfectly mixed audio), but he definitely knows how to instil fear in his audience. Even when viewers can tell when a jump scare is coming, Ko effectively lingers on each setup long enough to create palpable tension. Just as Ko foreshadows in the film’s creepy prologue on the power of suggestion on the mind, the film uses subjective perspective, darkness and the terror of a powerful and unseen enemy to make us experience the characters’ fears in real time. It’s hard to call something as relentlessly scary as Incantation “enjoyable” for casual viewers, but horror fans will certainly enjoy the ride and get a kick out of Ko’s bag of very scary tricks. For better or worse, Ko has set a very high bar for Taiwan’s “year of terror” and a new gold standard for the horror genre in Taiwan.
After making several acclaimed short films, Kevin Ko made his feature directorial debut with slasher thriller Invitation Only (2009). After romantic comedy Dude’s Manual (2018) and fantasy superhero romance A-Choo (2020), Ko returned to the horror genre with his fourth feature film Incantation (2022). In addition to his film work, Ko has also directed shorts for pop concerts, advertisements and music videos.
2009 – Invitation Only
2018 – Dude’s Manual
2020 – A-Choo
2022 – Incantation