The 9th Precinct

Taiwan (2019) Dir. Wang Ding-lin

So, you think you want to join the police force. What do you think the top qualifications are – nerves of steel? An inquisitive mind? A sense of justice? This may be true but there is one crucial credential that is often overlooked – the ability to see ghosts!

Chen Chia-Hao (Roy Chiu) is an idealistic young police officer assigned to traffic duty excels at all the physical and mental requirements, but what stops him from a higher post is his distracting behaviour, stemming from a childhood curse which allows him to see ghosts. One night on duty, a serial killer murders Chen’s partner but Chen is saved by the interference of a female ghost, although nobody believes his story.

Nobody except gruff Detective Chang (Peng Cha Cha) that is. He sequesters Chen and takes him to the HQ of the 9th Precinct, a special secret division of the police deigned to help ghosts pass over to the other side. Chen gets his big break teaming up with private investigator Ju Hsin (Eugenie Liu) to look into the disappearances of young women in the area.

There may be a reason why Taiwan doesn’t have the most prolific supernatural/horror and fantasy output, likely found in this ambitious but messy outing. The 9th Precinct is an example of somebody having a decent idea for a film but feels the need to cram as much as possible into it without giving a thought to how this will affect the story.

First, it would appear director Ding-Lin Wang and co-writer Kuo-Li Chang finally saw Men In Black and decided to do something similar but with ghosts instead of aliens. In fact, in the mid-end credits scene, they lampoon MIB by way of silencing those of us who made this immediate comparison, which isn’t difficult as it smacks you right in the face almost immediately.

However, nobody is going to mistake the two leads here for Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Chen is not cocky but a decent kid, plagued since childhood for his uncanny ability which saw him ostracised because he could still see his dead mum (Heaven Hai). Consequently, Chen looks a fool diving in front of cars to save jaywalking spirits nobody else can see, at least until Chang shows up

Among his new colleagues is Hsueh (Chen-Ling Wen), a hardnosed detective possessed by a spirit that can only be controlled by quaffing alcohol. She is the early comic relief for obvious reasons but later her tragic backstory is revealed, leading to a larger role in the finale. In the meantime, 9th Precinct is like any police station, but with ghosts being held until their earthly grievances are solved to let them pass on.

By way of giving Chen an emotional awakening, he cannot hear the spirits at present, something Chang avers, “When it happens, it happens”, foreshadowing Chen reaching this point at the end of this adventure. Armed with a gun that fires sacred water pellets, Chen joins Chang on his rounds, learning the ropes, and the dos and don’ts of dealing with unhappy spirits.

It is this world building which makes the first act rather tedious and lacklustre, quite an achievement given the fertile premise. Things move a little too quickly in other areas, such as Chen’s relationship with his spectral saviour as we pivot into the main plot of the missing girls. Enter antagonist, Sun Yu-Shu (Yeo Yann Yann), CEO at Sun General Hospital where many of the girls were last seen. She has a dastardly plan brewing, and if Chen doesn’t act soon, Ju Hsin will be the next victim.

On paper it sound quite enticing, and in execution it almost meets that promise once it gets going – the problem is the script is laden with far too much content for a first time story. The actual plot isn’t that bad but really, it needed to be saved for a second film – which is teased in the end credits but has yet to materialise – as there is so much about Chen and the work of 9th Precinct that needs to be established first.  

Just like Chen, we are thrown in the deep end, but where he has an off-screen induction period, we are supposed to accept everything and go with the flow, leaving us with more questions. Backstories are thrown in to flesh out some of the characters but three in one film is excessive, only serving to dilute the impression Chen is supposed to make on the audience as the lead player.

Wang also can’t decide if this is meant to be a comedy or a supernatural action thriller, the opening scenes imply this much, the rest of the film shows a difference in opinion. Intent on imparting a message about the relationship between the dead and the living, obviously a comic tone couldn’t dominate, but it does leave the cast with personalities that are often inconsistent.

Roy Chiu has the pretty boy looks and likeability to make Chen a watchable protagonist and foil for Peng Cha Cha’s grumpy senior Chang, a man whose humours side could have been explored further. Eugenie Liu and Chen-Ling Wen both play strong, charismatic women that don’t feel fully rounded, whilst Yeo Yann Yann is pure pantomime ham as the villainous Madame Sun.

Visual effects range from commendable to competent, largely due to the ghosts being rendered monochrome against the colourful living world exposing the overlays. It’s not enough to be off-putting, and thankfully, it is well shot and the committed cast keep the energy levels up to stop this sinking in the mire.

Maybe it is fortuitous a sequel to The 9th Precinct hasn’t surfaced yet as there are many kinks that require ironing out, that may not have been needed if Wang had presented a more judiciously structured and focused effort here. Not the worst film in this genre, but a sad and palpable case of potential unfulfilled.