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Movies Reviews The 1 to 5 on Movies

The 1 to 5 on movies: Ji hun (The soul)

This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all movies, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.

Ji hun is a Chinese-Taiwanese mystery, adapted for the screen and directed by Wei-Hao Cheng, based on the novel “Transfer Soul” by Bo Jiang. Starring Chen Chang as a prosecutor with brain cancer who’s tasked with solving a high-profile case of famous business chairman Wang Shi-Cong (Samuel Ku) death under strange circumstances; it’s a straight-forward whodunnit premise, but the movie is much more subversive than one might think at first glance. I like that; when creatives take genre tropes and recontextualize them or reintroduce them with different intentions/executions, it takes a lot of talent and guts to pull it off and there is a fine line between momentary shock – usually followed by imminent disappointment – and an actual meaningful statement or change. Ji hun doesn’t always deliver what it sets out to, but it is definitely able to do more than most with this genre; it’s a weird movie that has me impressed by acting, directing, and some excellent attention to detail, but has left me lukewarm on its writing, characterization, and how it handles the progression of its story.

As the premise above alludes to, Ji hun sets up a typical, whodunnit mystery as the basis for a serious attempt at subverting expectations and keeping the audience in suspense about what is happening. While at some level this is true, I never felt excited by this, just mildly entertained. Knives Out, a similarly ambitious movie, felt exciting because it subverted expectations of what a whodunnit mystery can be as well as introduce a new perspective and tone that hasn’t really existed in the mainstream pop culture since the classic 1972 Sleuth. Where Ji hun “fails” is that it makes the novel aspects of its story and mystery not as exciting as they could be; in the 130 minutes or so of runtime, I only leaned forwards out of anticipation in the last 30, despite the numerous twists and turns before that.

What’s extra disappointing about that is, that the movie actually does most of what I want from a mystery right. There are only half a dozen main characters in the story, all thoroughly enjoyable when it comes to having a role in the mystery. Moreover, the movie never “cheats” and respects the intelligence of the audience; it knows we understand that certain flashbacks are accounts given by possibly unreliable witnesses, it knows that not showing something important is disappointing. So, it shows everything the audience needs to see and gives them new understanding and meaning when the truth is slowly revealed – which is why I was leaning forward for the ending – but before then there wasn’t enough there to keep me excited. I like the characters when they have a role to play in the mystery, but as actual characters reacting to the story, each other, to the philosophical themes put forward in the movie, they are not as interesting. There is a lot of melodrama in the movie and I actually really liked that, mostly because the actors are really solid; Chen Chang is brilliant, but so is Christopher Ming-Shun Lee as the enigmatic Doctor Wan, Anke Sun as Li Yan, Janine Chun-Ning Chang as Ah-Bao, just to name a few that stood out.

Bizarrely, when I thought about the movie and what I liked most about it, I came to the conclusion that I would have really liked it if it had been a straightforward whodunnit, instead of a “modern”, subversive one; I love the director’s confidence in not obfuscating clues, I love the attention to detail they put into the movie, I like how the mystery has dozens of twists and turns yet is remarkably straightforward when you think about it, I liked the melodrama, and the cliched “end on a last reveal” ending that is a trope of the genre.

What I didn’t like as much where the attempts to make the subversions more “bombastic” or part of the core appeal, rather than the usual “red herrings”; I’m not going to get into spoilers, however the overall push towards the supernatural, the time spent on creating certain expectations, and the obsession with saying “there’s more to it than that” about every, single, thing in the movie, makes the set up fairly interesting, the ending exciting, but the middle feels lackluster. The ending isn’t without fault either; I wouldn’t go as far as to say it “jumped the shark”, but it challenges the audience’s suspension of disbelief pretty hard. Lastly, I have to say I was not a fan of the CGI effects and they were clearly out of place compared to some great-looking shots of style and beauty backed by some solid practical sets.

Then, there’s the identity issues the movie deals with and those never felt good to me; I am not an expert on these topics (although I have a Psychology and Sociology degree) and never claim to speak on other’s behalf, however for my likings the use of a certain “tool” the movie uses a lot during the ending felt a bit too impetuous.

Overall, Ji hun is a pretty good mystery, wrapped in a FINE subversive wrapping; I admire the work that was put into it by the actors, by the director who was confident and talented to do what was required excellently, however the subversive aspects and the writing was not as interesting or good, and the ending maybe bites off more than it can chew. It is a very interesting movie however and is one of those I would gladly rewatch with people who’ve not seen it, because while it is not as entertaining as I had hoped, it is good enough and would love to see different people react to that ending.

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