While it may not enjoy the same international cachet as its Japanese and Southeast Asian cousins, Taiwan horror has experienced notable recent success with its homegrown audience. Big credit goes to The Tag-Along (2015), which played FEFF 18 after making waves at the Taiwan box office. The film mined Taiwan folklore for its story about a creepy little girl dressed in red who “tags along” with an old woman returning from the mountains. Possession, jump scares, and grimy production design followed, and local audiences lapped it up. An even more successful sequel followed in 2017, detailing the aftermath of the little girl’s haunting, as well as her origins.
Now there’s The Devil Fish (2018), which is called a “spinoff” of the Tag-Along films, but is pretty much a prequel and even a sequel. That makes a viewing of The Devil Fish sound daunting if you haven’t seen the Tag-Alongs. But The Devil Fish is watchable in its own right, as it largely departs from the “tag along” girl to deal with other Taiwan horror stories. The film focuses primarily on an urban legend of a fish that spawned a human face, while tying it to a real-life multiple murder and Taoist guardian spirit Huye a.k.a. Master Tiger (who played a role in Tag-Along 2).
The film takes place years before the events in The Tag-Along, and follows multiple protagonists and plotlines. After a gangster catches a fish that grows a human face, he becomes possessed and murders his family. Taoist priest Cheng (Rexen Cheng) is called in to perform an exorcism, which is caught on video by Chia-hao (Wu Zhi-xuan), a young boy trying to win a video competition. However, the fish’s curse begins to spread, affecting the boy’s mother Ya-hui (Vivian Hsu), who already suffers mentally and emotionally from her broken marriage. Eventually, Chia-hao asks Cheng to save his mother, but Chih-cheng has his own secrets that could render him unable to help.
Like its predecessors, The Devil Fish maintains common signifiers of Asian horror, from deliberate pacing to desaturated colors to themes of regret and revenge. This is a commercial horror film, so suspension of disbelief is required; some plot leaps are far-fetched and characters sometimes behave inexplicably. However, the film is anchored effectively by human emotions – a mother’s love, a husband’s sorrow, etc. – and finds decent affect when it pulls all its elements together for a forest-set finale. The climax also allows the CGI artists and action choreographers to contribute, as Cheng channels Master Tiger to fight off numerous foes. The Devil Fish is first and foremost a horror film but it dabbles in other genres – thriller, action, true crime and drama, among others. It’s basically everything but a comedy.
Throughout The Devil Fish, the filmmakers sprinkle elements linking it to previous Tag-Along films, but do so in an unobtrusive manner. You’ll get the references if you saw the films, but if not, you’ll be none the wiser – a generous move that rewards fans without punishing the uninitiated. However, that generosity disappears during the mid-credits sequence, when events are shown that only make sense if you saw the first Tag-Along. So much for 100% accessibility – but to be fair, modern film narratives have grown increasingly interlinked, now reaching the point where sometimes the most important thing about a movie is how it connects to other movies. The Devil Fish is essentially an entry in the “Tag-Along Cinematic Universe,” and even features another credits stinger teasing Tag-Along 4 – which will again be drawn from Taiwan folklore. As long as audiences show up, folk legends – and movie sequels – will be in endless supply.