By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 21: INCANTATION
Released the same year as this review series (2022!), Kevin Ko's Incantation is exceptionally dark Taiwanese found footage horror that may be far too much for those who can't abide anything terrible happening to young children, so, you've been warned, even if no children die in this story, but we will be condensing the plot synopsis down a bit so I can actually get these reviews out on schedule!
Incantation is narrated and supposedly all filmed by its lead character, Li Ronan (Tsai Hsuan-yen), who begins by asking viewers to memorize a symbol and a literal "incantation" intended to lift a curse on her little daughter, Dodo. These will be seen again throughout the film as we're asked to repeat the words and visualize the insignia.
As we are shown in older video clips, Ronan was once part of an independent "ghost hunter" group with her boyfriend, Dom, and his cousin Yuan, who attempted to document the obscure religious practices of Dom's distant family. The remote clan worships an ancient "Mother Buddha" deity, forgotten and unknown to much of the modern world, and is shown to ritualistically sacrifice young girls by leaving them at the entrance to a small, stone tunnel, where just a small piece of their flesh is apparently taken from them by their goddess. Dom's aunt informs Ronan that when her daughter is born, she will also have to be offered up, but this was the first Ronan heard that she was even pregnant at all, let alone with a daughter. Spying on the rituals and poking around where they aren't supposed to, the group eventually hear what sound like crying children from the tunnel, and the two men violate the clan's taboos by breaking inside.
br>What exactly happened isn't revealed just yet; Yuan runs screaming from the small cave and can't (or won't) explain what he saw, while Dom's dead body is later seen removed by the cult and carried away. Ronan keeps the camera dropped by Yuan, but the footage is damaged, and when her daughter is born she remains too traumatized by Dom's death to take care of the child all alone, relinquishing Dodo to foster care (with regular visits, at least) for six long years.
Much of the film deals with Ronan finally bringing Dodo home to live with her full time, but strange phenomenon begin almost immediately; ghost-like disturbances, invisible intruders, moved objects, the sudden manifestation of various insects - even Monarch butterfly caterpillars nowhere near any milkweed! - and Dodo herself speaking to unseen entities, as the poor little girl grows increasingly weak and sickly.
At one point, Dodo insists there's someone or something in her room that her mother needs to guide outside, which the little girl just called basically "BADDIE." Following Dodo's directions, Ronan "takes it by the hand," a hand apparently all the way up above her head. More disturbingly, Dodo keeps talking to and facing the "Baddie" so far across the room, its arm alone would have to be at least ten feet in length! She's seen a few more times speaking or playing with invisible forces throughout the film, and at one point, horrifyingly, climbing over the edge of their apartment's outdoor stairwell, where she would have fallen several stories to her death...but seems to be caught and lifted back up to safety by something we can't see.
Ronan's strange, erratic behavior and Dodo's declining health, unfortunately, call into question whether Ronan is really fit to be a mother, and her battle to keep her child is as difficult to watch her battle to save her from a supernatural curse that continues to worsen, including Dodo's adult teeth crowding in all at once and the development of nasty, red rashes full of densely clustered, black holes.
Ronan takes Dodo to a shrine to figure out the nature of her curse, and after an intense ritual, Ronan is instructed to deny Dodo all food for seven whole days. The little girl begs to be fed and wastes away quickly, developing more rashes and weird runes on her body until her mother can't bear it anymore and finally feeds her...which results in her exorcists, a priest and his wife, brutally killed by an unknown entity.
Ming, Ronan's social worker and kind-of love interest, comes to believe her about the paranormal events, helps her through some of her investigations and eventually takes it upon himself to restore the lost footage from Yuan and Dom's old camera. Doing so unfortunately causes his own health to decline, even some of his teeth to fall out, and once he sees the fully repaired video he vows not to show it to Ronan at all...but soon, a mysterious force compels him to kill himself, by slamming his own head against his own desk, and then Ronan receives the video link in her messages, over and over and over.
The tunnel footage is a lot. Pursuing those distant, ghostly child-screams, Yuan and Dom break through or displace a number of very important looking barricades, obvious mystical seals, and numerous mirrors carefully placed to face inward, towards the back of the cave. Offerings to the deity include a severed pig's head and dishes of both human hair and molars, and at the end of the tunnel we at least see the golden statue of the Mother Buddha herself, face covered over with a red veil...definitely no children, or any people at all, or anywhere for them to be hidden.
Dom seems transfixed by the statue and compelled to peek beneath its veil, at which point he appears to go completely mad, eating some of the hair and teeth before bashing his own head in a similar manner to Ming. As Yuan tries to escape, pale humanoid arms stretch out from the walls of the cave, and a possessed Dom pursues him with a warped face - nothing but random holes in place of human features.
After viewing the footage, Ronan finally admits to the audience that she's deceived everyone: the incantation she's asked us to recite is actually an agreement to carry the curse, but the more people who share it, the weaker it will be, so she hopes there will be enough of us diluting the curse that her little girl (and the rest of us) can live a normal life. To truly take on the curse however, we must see the Mother Buddha's true face, and so Ronan must return to the tunnel on live camera feed.
Ronan narrowly evades the cult and reaches the statue, asking us our names before removing the veil...
Instead of a face, the statue has a tunnel, much deeper than should be physically possible within the confines of its head, lined with the same honeycombed flesh as Dodo's rash. Ronan has now officially given every viewer of the film a tiny piece of the entity's curse, but having taken it essentially point blank, she pays the price with the same violent suicide as her last two boyfriends.
Over the end credits, we see clips of Dodo living as happy and healthy a life as she can without her mother. The dilution of the curse, it seems, worked exactly as planned.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: DAHEI FUMU
The goddess figure in "Incantation" borrows a number of elements from different spiritual figures, and the seven days of starvation necessary to break her curse are believed to reference the literal mother of Gautama Buddha, who allegedly died after giving birth but returned to life seven days later. Besides these connections, however, the deity and her cult were invented for this film, conceived of as a spiritual sect too ancient and too obscure to be known outside a single, small village.
This is our third or fourth "malevolent god" in these reviews, and maybe that's a common enough trope that it's cheating the rules, but "gods" are generally assumed to just be what we humans call something or other bigger than our brains can contain, and there's a lot making this one feel like something deeply inhuman. She is something that desires to feed on human flesh, and if not given flesh willingly, she takes it upon herself to slowly consume someone by force through her "curse," a process eventually manifesting as the honeycomb pattern of necrosis. That's not just wickedly nasty, but so much more ghoulish and bizarre than the behavior typically attributed to "gods" or "goddesses" that it's difficult to rationalize what this entity is supposed to mean to Buddhism, or what kind of forgotten influence it may have once had before its following dwindled.
The association with arms and hands is interesting, too, especially the deity's agents that we only see visible as gangly arms; once in the cave, and once in a brief, fuzzy video clip where a pair of arms reach out for Dodo. The "Baddie" scene tells us these were very very long, and we'll never even know if they came attached to a humanlike body...or any body at all, for that matter.
It's also far too often that we have an entity or object in a horror film that drives the viewer mad to even gaze on it, but must inevitably disappoint the viewer by either never being shown or never being all that interesting. I personally think that the reveal of the statue's organic tunnel-face is a fantastic compromise given how simplistic it is; clearly breaking the laws of physics, clearly something "alive" and most frightening for its emptiness than for some kind of spooky monster face.
Funny enough, I had "trypophobia" just once in my life, the first time I ever saw a photoshop combination of human flesh and lotus seedpods in my teens. It never affected me again, but I remember the bizarre, indescribable, itchy sort of horror of it, and I almost wish this movie had been my first exposure to that, so I could really experience a little taste of what it's like for the spectacle to "break your brain," no doubt exactly why this aesthetic was chosen for the entity to begin with. Of course, Dom and Ronan did not lose their minds just because of grody holes and a little spatial distortion; we simply have the protective barrier of watching from home. As they stood face to facelessness with the entity, something about that slimy, pockmarked tunnel must have meant something more; a comprehension of the goddess herself, of how ancient and terrible and vast she is compared to ourselves and a realization of her twisted intentions.
With this particular kind of horror, I always imagine it's what some tiny insect would go through if, the very moment it blundered into a spider's web, it was suddenly forced to understand a spider's entire feeding process in the level of detail and context that you and I are capable of, rather than the "ahhh! Sticky!" and "Ouch! What?!" that they more likely experience in those final moments.