A Taiwanese horror film called incantation have you TikTok so spooked outthat folks are challenging each other to watch the movie without pausing or stopping altogether. As a horror movie fan, I know how difficult it is to find horror movies that are actually worth the watch. And so, in the name of journalism, I decided to partake in the challenge and find out if incantation is truly as scary as TikTok describes. I determined that incantationwith elements of folklore and possession, is a slow-burn horror film that continues to scorch long after your screen fades to black.
Directed by Kevin Ko, incantation is now the highest-grossing film in Taiwan in 2022, and the highest-grossing horror film in Taiwan of all time. The movie follows Li Ronan (Tsai Hsuan-yen), a mother who tries to save her six-year-old daughter from a curse — one that Ronan herself ignited six years ago by breaking a religious taboo. Throughout the film, Incantations are dispersed, and Ronan encourages viewers to chant with her to break the curse. Using a found footage technique, Ko makes incantation an intimate viewing experience: it feels as though Ronan is a YouTube vlogger going about her day, indulging us — her audience — in her thoughts and fears.
Although the film is about a fictional religious group that worships a deity named Mother-Buddha, the props, incantations, and symbolic hand gestures feel incredibly realistic, enough to make one question whether or not they’re truly fictional. The religion is inspired by Buddhism and ancient Brahmic scripts, which is why the hand gestures (also known as mudras) and badges feel so familiar. The incantation (“Hou-ho-xiu-yi, si-sei-wu-ma”) sounds similar to many Buddhist mantras used during meditation, and the statues of Mother-Buddha placed throughout the village look very similar to real-life statues of Buddha.
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We’re introduced to the religion in old footage of Ronan and her fellow “ghostbusters” Dom, and Yuan, visiting a rural Chinese village, where her cohorts have family. Seeking sensationally spooky material for their online channel, Ronan and her crew de ella film a once-in-a-decade ritual but disrespect the clan’s sacred spaces by breaking into a tunnel that holds a shrine devoted to Mother-Buddha. Unbeknownst to them, this space was constructed to confine the power of Mother-Buddha, which they released by trespassing and vandalizing the shrine. For their trespasses, Dom and Yuan are killed by unseen forces, while Ronan narrowly escapes. She’s left traumatized and unstable, and so ella surrenders Dodo, her daughter de ella, to foster care. Six years later when they reunite, the curse hurts Ronan by attacking her daughter de ella.
Does incantation live up to the hype?
When one imagines horror movies, it’s almost impossible to not associate them with jump scares, monsters, or slashers. incantation does not rely on any of those typical horror movie factors, so it’s not really “scary” in the traditional sense. Instead, Ko manages to terrify us using suspense and dread, built on the intimacy and psychological terror of the heroine. He plays on our deepest fears to scare us, incorporating elements of gore, trypophobia, and the eeriness of the unknown, that something evil is always lurking in the background. Ko also masterfully sets up the suspension of disbelief, which begins innocently before growing more sinister as the film progresses. Gradually, the insignia begin to mean something to you, and the chants seem to sound deeper and more threatening. By the end of the film, it’s difficult not to feel cursed yourself – which is why incantation is worth the watch.
There are no monsters and no shadowy figures, no demonic voices or exorcism scenes that one expects in a possession movie. Rather, unseen forces pester Ronan and young Dodo, who begins to act extremely creepy. She starts seeing what she calls a “faceless baddie” on the ceiling, talks to an entity that no one else could see, and, under the instructions of said entity, jumps off a rooftop only to climb back up unscathed. (There’s just something about possessed children that makes them inherently scarier than possessed adults.) Despite her proximity to her to evil, Dodo maintains her innocence and believes everything to be a game. It’s especially heartbreaking to watch the gross effects of the curse, such as malnutrition and putrefaction, manifest on the six-year-old child.
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The last third of incantation is when the suspense finally hits its breaking point, and things start to go wrong look and quickly. Desperate to cure her dying daughter, Ronan returns to the village to find the shrine of Mother-Buddha. We don’t actually know what Mother-Buddha looks or sounds like until the final scene of the movie. Then, the veil covering her face on the statue is lifted just for a floating second, enough for us to feel the stark inhumanness of the deity. Ko captures the feeling of pure dread on a single frame, making for a quite satisfying monster reveal. Rather than a jump-scare, it’s an absolute gut punch.
incantation may not be particularly scary or exciting. But that lingering doubt – am I cursed now? – is enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned horror movie fan.
incantation is now streaming on Netflix.