During the Vietnam War, a Viet Cong soldier stationed in the claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels is haunted by the ghost of a fallen comrade.
With this Vietnam War-set foray into horror, writer/director Josh Tanner and writer/producer Jade van der Lei give us a cinematic lesson in perspective. With our understanding of the Vietnam War shaped very much by the American experience, in this film we are introduced to the Viet Cong entrenched not just in warfare but in cultural superstition.
Thematically there is a lot going on in this film. Main character Dao (Lap Phan) is haunted by the spirit of his fallen comrade when his burial ritual is left incomplete. With the Americans closing in on his position, Dao and fellow Viet Cong fighter Quan (Henry Vo) are forced into conflict as they are confronted with the choice of save themselves or complete the burial of their dead brothers in arms. Tanner and van der Lei’s script does a good job of reframing the conflict to the point where properly honouring the dead remains a priority even in the face of being captured or killed.
The film weaves tradition into psychological themes like guilt or paranoia. It also deftly repurposes those themes into a solid horror premise as the consequences of failing to honour the dead are visited upon the two underground fighters. The setting also plays into the sensation of feeling trapped, or worse, trapped with your worst fears. The eerie torch lighting and cramped underground tunnels in which the film takes place hit us like a giant claustrophobic sledgehammer. Classic horror cinematography and editing creates a terrifying and frenetic feel that gives the film a frantic pace when needed. Tanner also knows when to slow the film down in order to ramp up the apprehension.
The two leads give fantastic performances, fully engaging with the emotional torment of culture amid warfare, not forgetting of course, losing friends in combat. They also brilliantly embody the divergence of traditions between young and old, adding further thematic layering to the story. These multiple thematic strands are applied economically but impactfully, painting a picture of fleshed out, three dimensional characters, and establishing them before the story takes a very intense turn.
Once the main body of the film kicks off, all of the elements so carefully laid in the film’s opening moments spring to life in beautifully horrifying splendour. Avoiding the temptation to lean into standard horror beats, the film uses its horror elements to continue to push the narrative forward and pay off the themes that it establishes early on. As a result, the story is able to go to places that you do not expect, adding weight to its premise and arcs to its character narratives all within a very reasonable 12 minutes.
At this point it is fair to say that Josh Tanner and Jade van der Lei have closed the gap on the cinematic experience offered by short film vs feature film. Nothing other than the confines of time is lacking in what you can expect from indulging in the cinematic storytelling that they offer. Wandering Soul is not just a horror movie, it is a peek into a complex and often ignored culture through the prism of history using perspectives we are not used to seeing. All of this is wrapped up in a tense, haunting, frantic and paranoid film that delivers on its thrills, scares, twists and then some.
Studio: Perception Pictures | Year: 2016 | Genre: Horror | Duration: 12 Mins | Suitability: Mature