SARAH LOHMANN WRITES – Do you believe in blessings? Intentions and outcomes rarely equal in importance; these two are set in sequence with each other by Ronan’s monologue to the viewer at the beginning of Incantation (2022). Intentions come first, and, necessarily, outcomes of some sort follow. Immediately, the film argues that they are inherently and inextricably linked to one another, but it also teaches us that this link is flawed and broken.
Loosely based on true events that happened in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 2005, Incantation follows Ronan, a woman plagued by a curse released from a religious taboo she had broken six years earlier, as she tries to save the life of her daughter, Dodo. Directed by Taiwanese director Kevin Ko, the film was released in Taiwan on March 18, 2022. It became the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film and was internationally distributed online by Netflix in July 2022. Ko previously released short films at festivals prior to his breakout with Incantation.
The film opens with a monologue from Ronan, asking if we, the viewers, believe in blessings. “The fact is,” she says, “we all unconsciously believe our intentions can bring about good outcomes. But did you know intentions can really change outcomes?” This is our first introduction to what we initially believe to be our agency as film viewers. Rather, Ronan plants the first seed in our minds that we have some power here—that our intentions mean something to the outcome of Incantation.
Ko makes the setting dire in a rather heart-wrenching way: Ronan has been cursed for accidentally disrupting a religious taboo, sending her life spiraling for actions we, the audience, have yet to witness and assess for ourselves. She explains, though, that anyone who learns too much about the curse is on the path to danger. Despite this, there are multiple points in the film where Ronan pleads with the viewer to look at an insignia until they have memorized it and recite a phrase with her. She claims that these pledges to a figure she calls the Mother-Buddha will save Dodo.
Is this where our intentions come in? Removed as we are, we make the decision to continue watching—to continue participating. Incantation does not allow us to be merely voyeurs, meaningless witnesses to Ronan’s tragedies: the deaths of her parents, of her lover, and of her own agency as she becomes consumed by trying to escape the clutches of the curse. It is a film that lures the viewer to confront their own role in the world of the film. We are shown even in Ronan’s wording: “if you can,” “just for a moment,” “please.” These are invitations for us to choose rather than command that we do anything.
The narrative reaches its peak at the closing of the film when we are finally allowed to see the footage from that fateful evening. We find Ronan and her friends entering a forbidden tunnel on the land where they have been observing cult activities. Ronan’s friends go into the tunnel ahead of her and unleash the curse by revealing the face of the cult’s deity—one we have heard of before in this film as the one able to save Dodo.
Incantation takes from the viewer as it takes from its characters. From Ronan’s first words to us, the viewers are implicated as an active part of the story. We are on the same path of danger. It is as Dodo says: “The monster will live in your head.” The words Ronan has taught us, the symbol she’s shown, the gruesome deaths and wounds we have seen—even if the curse does not stay with us, the monster of our memory surely will.
Sarah Lohmann graduated from Knox College with a BA in Creative Writing and Asian Studies. She focused her studies on film, translation, and Korean culture.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.