The Tag-Along (Hong yi xiao nu hai)

Taiwan (2015) Dir. Cheng Wei-hao

Asian horror cinema has created a niche of its own over the last two decades though Taiwan hasn’t embraced this genre as much as its neighbours have. Better late than never, they join the fray, and like many of its Asian contemporaries, the inspiration for the plots are found in traditional folklore.

Wei (River Huang) is an overworked real estate agent living with his elderly grandmother Shu-fang (Liu Yin-shang) who does everything for him. Wei also has a girlfriend of five years, radio DJ Yi-chun (Hsu Wei-ning), who is happy without marriage or the family Wei wants. Meanwhile, Shu-fang’s friend Shui (Pai Ming-hua) who had recently disappeared suddenly reappears, just as Shu-fang mysteriously vanishes.

Oddly, daily routines of Wei’s lunch being made and the house cleaned continue despite Shu-fang’s absence. Wei then receives Shui’s camera in the post with a video clip of her family on a hiking trip, with the image of a little girl bringing up the rear. Shu-fang then returns home as if nothing happened but shortly after both she and Wei then disappear, sending Yi-Chun on a dangerous journey to find them.

The urban legend at the centre of the story is based on the real events of 1998, when a family played back the footage of their hiking holiday in the mountains and saw a little girl in a red coat following them that nobody recalls seeing there. According to folklore, this girl is in fact a mosien, a demon that looks like a small child or monkey and east human minds by using their guilt against them, then drags them off to the mountains.

Naturally, such fanciful stories belong in the past so the idea that people would still be inclined to believe them in today’s world is clearly a cultural thing, which is why Asian horror films can get away with such hokum. It certainly worked for the people of Taiwan, as The Tag-Along is the highest grossing domestically made horror film of all time and spawned two sequels.

I imagine the success of this film was due to the Taiwanese having their own version of Ringu or Ju-On, with elements from both traceable in its DNA, like many others. But let’s not write it off just yet. The first thing noticeable about the story is how it appears this is about Wei when Yi-Chun ends up as the central protagonist, wrong footing us about how the objective of the mosien fits in with the domestic drama.

For the first part of the film, we are teased with the idea that Yi-Chun is another facet of Wei’s life that is already brimming with pressure. Wei is obviously besotted with Yi-Chun and even puts down a deposit on a luxury apartment, but Yi-Chun spits the dummy, insisting marriage isn’t part of her plan – the kicker is on Yi-Chun’s radio show she gives out relationship advice!

We are forced to wait until the climax before we understand what is behind Yi-Chun’s reluctance. Before then, Yi-Chun comes across as bit of selfish madam who doesn’t know how good she has it but that soon changes. Upon investigating Wei’s disappearance, a piece of CCTV footage shows Shu-fang being accompanied by a little girl, introducing the urban legend to the story for the first time.

Riffing on Ringu, Yi-Chun now turn detective reading up on the history of this mythology and recent cases, also making some important discoveries when looking through Wei’s things that make her rethink her attitude. Meanwhile, people close to the scene, like a security guard who tried an exorcism, are visited by a ghoulish dirt covered (long haired natch) girl with murderous intentions for the odd jump scare.

Those directly involved get a more intimate visit as she infiltrates their dreams and takes them into a hyperreal nightmare world where an impending bloody doom is the order of the day. Whilst the scenes themselves are effectively chilling and gruesome, it becomes an overused motif that can be seen coming a mile off, like a homage to the exploits of Freddy Krueger.

Suffusing the main premise with Taiwanese culture and folklore gives the film a unique touch that carries over to the final act set in the mountains, making a change from the usual suburban setting. For Yi-Chun, this means nowhere to run or hide with only her survival gear to ward off this supernatural aggressor, creating a cogent tie-in of the natural surroundings with the mosien’s feeding on a natural human emotion of guilt.

Making his debut here, Cheng Wei-hao has learned well how and when to shock and fill a scene with dread, holding back on the gratuitous gore and violence, leaving the horror to our imaginations. These moments work well in punctuating the silence but the problem is that this is quite a slow film, even for 93 minutes, often slipping into dull mode as it tries to build tension and suspense.

One obvious difference between this film and its forerunners is the creepy antagonist is a mix of physical performance and CGI, the latter, whilst decidedly unsettling, exposes the genius of the dexterity and presence of Rie Ino and Takako Fuji who made Sadako and Kayako respectively naturally scary through their body movements. But kudos to Cheng for trying something different.

With such flawed characters to portray, the cast are in the unenviable position of getting the audience to warm to them, especially Hsu Wei-ning as Yi-Chung but she does indeed turn a corner, having been forced to confront her repressed issues. River Huang admittedly looks a bit young to make Wei appear right for Yi-Chu and lacks the same presence but this doesn’t deter him from trying his best.

Look beneath the superstition and spooky principle, The Tag-Along works quite well as a morality tale about the burden of long held dark secrets and taking responsibility for the actions behind them. As a genre flick, it does its job but is no game changer.