Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Parasitic Sense of the Past: The Tag-Along (2015) Review

Director: Cheng Wei-Hao

Notable Cast: River Huang, Tiffany Hsu, Yin-Shang Liu, Yumi Wong, Chang Pai-Chou, Mario Pu, Pai Ming-Hua, Mei-Man Jin, Basang Yawei


It wasn’t until the third film in the franchise that I started to pay attention, but when I finally looked up a way to watch The Tag-Along my curiosity was full-blown. Not only was this Taiwanese horror flick well regarded in my horror circles (at least to the degree to pique my interest), it was - at the time of its release - the highest-grossing horror film in Taiwan. Although the film has seemingly floundered to find a mass audience outside of its home, The Tag-Along is a remarkably adept horror experience that blends its culturally ripe urban myth concept with classic ghost story thrills into an atmospheric, jump scare littered ride. Don’t assume it’s just another Ring knockoff. The Tag-Along hangs on with some fascinating depth and still delivers the scares. 


When so many ghost stories are birthed from older urban legends or stories from historical texts, it’s always somewhat refreshing to hear a relatively modern one. Usually, when they occur, it’s because a film is attempting to cash in on the 15 minutes of internet fame of a new ‘creepypasta’ trend, ala Slenderman. The Tag-Along, however, is a blend of the two. The origin of the urban myth only kicks back to the 1990s when a video featuring a little girl in a red dress following some hikers was discovered, went viral online, and then created entire new “experiences” of people seeing the ‘tag along spirit.’ It’s just intriguing enough in its unusualness to perk interest and yet vague enough to be imbued with layered meaning for artists to use. 


This is where this 2015 franchise starter exists. The Tag-Along tells the story of a young couple trying to find their path in modern Taiwan through balancing schedules, family obligations, and the choices in moving forward in their relationship. It’s only when their elderly neighbor disappears and his grandmother quickly follows suit, that the two realize something has befallen their lives that aims to pull them from their urban lives and back to the dense forests that surround them.


Although the initial premise might seem like the usual post-Ring/Grudge Asian ghost story, what director Cheng Wei-Hao is working with here feels different. The lessons from those films, particularly in their fluidity of story and atmospheric dread, are met with a relatively fresh injection of James Wan's The Conjuring influence to balance the atmosphere out with a mainstream jump scare tone. Whether it’s the long takes that establish the use of its urban and forested settings or how the film will use the classic ‘ghost pops up from off-frame while shrill music plays’, The Tag-Along has both and it remixes it in a way that works on both ends. 


The CGI for the ghosts is not the best (even by 2015 standards it can be pretty janky) and it ends up being one of the bigger obstacles that the film must overcome, particularly in how it regularly shows its ghosts in full. When the film is blending the CGI with more practical effects, it works the best, but the fact that Cheng Wei-Hao isn’t afraid to show it deserves some respect. 


Yet, despite its solid scares, it’s the themes and characters that make The Tag-Along the surprisingly effective horror movie that it is. It regularly throws some spins into the script that will keep its audience on their toes, including a shift of perspective that pops up about halfway through the film that reveals who the real protagonist is for the story. This aligns with the film’s themes around family, the fear of the future based on the past, and a rather fascinating dynamic between its urban setting and ghosts from the forest. The manner that the film manipulates the meaning of the ghost, morien as it’s defined in the opening, to fit each of the characters or greater themes from scene to scene is wildly impressive. For a film that found so much mainstream success, there is a sense of layering that puts it up there with some of the best of its peers. 


The Tag-Along became a cultural phenomenon in Taiwan leading to two sequels thus far and, to my surprise, it’s totally worth it and deserves the attention. The performances are sturdy to keep the story grounded, but the scares and themes of the film lift it up to the next level. It isn’t perfect, thanks to some cheesy CGI and a few dropped subplots, but the overall effectiveness of The Tag-Along definitely has me following this franchise like a ghost latched onto a hiking trip. 


Very excited to hit play on the sequel. 


Written By Matt Reifschneider

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