The Tag-Along screens 6.30pm, 4th April 2019 at Curzon Soho as part of London’s inaugural Taiwan Film Festival
According to an urban legend in Taiwan, in 1998 a family looked back over a video that they had made while out hiking in the mountains, and discovered in the footage a little girl in a red dress tailing their party, even though none could recall having seen her at the time. According to the legend, this girl was a mosien, a small demon resembling a child or monkey, who uses people’s guilt against them to eat their minds and abduct them to the mountains.
This legend is the starting point of Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along, whose original title, Hong yi xiao nu hai, means literally ‘the little girl in red’, and whose plotting includes a party of elderly hikers with just such a girl incongruously making up their rear – unnoticed until someone checks out the video of it. The video was shot by Auntie Shui (Pai Ming-hua), who has since gone missing – and property agent Wei mysteriously receives Shui’s video camera at work shortly after Shui rematerialises and Shui’s friend Shu-fang (Liu Yin-shang) – who is also Wei’s grandmother – similarly vanishes. When Grandma Shu-fang returns, Wei himself will disappear, leaving his girlfriend of five years Yi-chun (Hsu Wei-ning), an independence-loving DJ who offers relationship advice on the radio, to set out on a path to find him and bring him back home to her.
Cheng’s film is supernatural horror, drawing on local superstition and mythology to tell a contemporary tale of relationship breakdown. And if the mosien feed on guilt, there is plenty of it here to go around: Wei takes his grandmother Shu-fang for granted while secretly exploiting her; despite doting on Wei, Shu-fang values her own life over his; and Yi-chun has for years refused to marry Wei and is – for reasons that will only gradually become apparent – very touchy about the idea of having a child with him. These are all very ordinary problems – indeed, precisely the kind that Yi-chun addresses on her radio programme – but they have, if left to fester and rot, the capacity to ruin these characters and to tear them apart from each other, with or without the intervention from malevolent forest spirits. So while The Tag-Along is replete with ghostly intrusions, hallucinatory nightmares and a climax of woodland pandemonium, it is also taking the psychological pulse of a nation haunted by the seeds – already long sown, and firmly rooted in everyday angst and anxiety – of its own destruction.
Meanwhile Cheng knows how to craft both short, sharp shocks and a more lingering sense of dread, balancing the spectacle of horrifying make-up and computer-generated creature effects against precisely what, in the dark, we do not see. The girl in red herself is not just a Taiwan-exclusive legend, but part of a long horror tradition in which children become an uncanny vehicle of fright – and like the kodama of Princess Mononoke (1997) but with added malice, the arboreal mosien are terrifying entities, fierce and rapacious despite their diminutive size. All paths here lead to their natural territory in the wooded mountains, but more importantly the modern urban spaces of Taipei are here made to collapse into more primordial terrains, marking us still as prey, for all the trappings of our modern, civilised lives, to the most atavistic of urges and emotions. For no matter where we are, or how far we travel, these vulnerabilities will always tag along with us.
© Anton Bitel