Incantation: Asian Cults Are Scary
Dir. Kevin Ko (2022)
A woman is cursed after breaking a religious taboo, and she documents her struggles to break her daughter free from the curse in hopes that the strangers who watch her video may help.
Man, Asian horror really hits different, doesn’t it? There are a lot of pieces of Asian horror, and J-Horror specifically, that don’t always resonate with American viewers, largely because the cultures are so different. It always feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity when you watch an Asian horror film that doesn’t completely connect due to the culture differences, because there are so many horror films that involve cults, rituals, and tons of different things that aren’t part of our everyday lives, and they often translate just fine (Midsommar being a great example). It’s a weird dichotomy between appreciation of film that does not revolve around our own culture and still somehow feeling “other,” or that you’re not a part of it. Maybe it’s because of the influence that American culture has around the world, because our movies do tend to resonate with those in other countries (or at least box office receipts would indicate that they do.) Either way, it takes a special kind of Asian film to truly break through the barriers of Americanism and feel as impactful to Americans as they do in their home countries. Incantation, I’m happy to say, is one of those films, because boy does it hit home.
Is this Bloods or Crips? I can never remember.
The film is about a mother, Li Ruo-nan (Hsuan-yen Tsai), who used to be institutionalized, and we learn that her past is largely a result of things that she and her friends did while she was pregnant. They ran a video blog that they call “Ghostbusters,” and they go around the country visiting places and trying to dispel the myths and superstitions of the locals. Unfortunately, they come across one that actually is real, and this brings a whole lot of trouble. The mother is just now getting her child back after coming out of the institution, and she is making the film in order to attempt to save her daughter from the evil presence that has been haunting her life.
The story is told exceptionally well, and the found footage device used in the film is incredibly effective. There are plenty of scares spread throughout, so much so that this could very well be the scariest film I’ve seen all year. Where this film hits the mark differently from other Asian horror films is that it portrays the strange cultural practices as just as foreign to the other folks within the film, so it comes across in much the same way The Wicker Man comes across to people who live in Scotland: yeah, it happened there, but that ain’t how the Scots do things on a regular basis. This focus on the “otherness” of the religious practices at the heart of the film doesn’t alienate the viewers from another country in much the same way that other Asian horror films do. This isn’t normal for them either. The other thing that this film does incredibly well is build the mythology within the story itself. The incantations within, as well as the creepy symbology that continually appears in the film, is shared with the viewer so that it very well may affect those who view the film as well, much the way that The Ring curse is spread to anyone who watches the film. In Incantation, you don’t even have to speak the language: just thinking the words behind the curse is enough to spread it to you.
The entire film is creepy as fuck, and it’s paranormal horror done to almost perfection. The story is a bit disjointed at times, traversing back and forth between the part of the story that explains the events and present day where the fallout continues to plague Li Ruo-nan. I don’t know that the story could’ve been adequately told in a linear fashion, so while it is at times hard to keep up with, it’s probably best told in the order in which the filmmakers decided to lay out their story. The rituals are bizarre and disconcerting, and the random chanting throughout the film, often coupled with the first-person found footage walk through terrifyingly dark rooms, is very anxiety-inducing. It’s an incredibly tense film, and the audience feels as terrified for what’s coming next as the characters within. It would be easier to count the scenes that didn’t cause some sort of fear.
It's also an emotional story, and even though there are plenty of scares, there’s also a whole lot of heart. The actors do a phenomenal job throughout, wearing their emotions on their sleeves and giving an incredible affecting performance. While it’s easy to criticize some of the earlier decisions of the characters in the film, it’s not so easy to say that any of us haven’t done stupid, insensitive things when we were younger, and it’s even harder to feel that the characters are deserving of any of the punishment they receive. Everyone here seems to be at least a relatively good person, which makes their trials even more heartbreaking. It feels ludicrous to find ourselves so emotionally invested in a terrifying horror film, but there’s so much involved here its impossible to feel otherwise.
Pineapple, bunny, dog. Pineapple, bunny, dog.
Who this movie is for: Asian horror fans; Lovers of paranormal scares;
Bottom line: It's an incredibly bizarre film, one that will be difficult to get out of your head once you’ve seen it. It’s also abjectly terrifying, and genuinely may be the scariest film of the year. It connects in a way that Asian horror usually does not, and it’s a harrowing experience to watch. It’s not often that you come across a film like this, that executes its premise and technique almost perfectly. Incantation is a blast to watch for those who haven’t been scared in a while, and I highly recommend you give it a shot on Netflix