AKA: The Little Girl in Red
Wen Shu-Fang has been worried lately. Her friend, Shui, has been missing for several days, having disappeared without a trace. But after waking up her grandson one morning and sending him off to work, she’s attacked in her own home by something using Shui’s voice. Meanwhile her grandson, Wei, is busy trying to convince his girlfriend Yi-Chun to marry him, but is getting shot-down at every turn. Dejected, Wei comes home, only to find his grandmother acting very strangely. The next morning she leaves the house and disappears, but miraculously, her friend Shui suddenly returns. Desperate for answers, Wei and Yi-Chun inspect the security cameras and see that Wei’s grandmother seems to have wandered off with a mysterious girl wearing a red dress. Wei and Yi-Chun have no idea what’s going on, but things get worse a couple days later when Wei suddenly disappears and his grandmother is found wandering the freeway with no explanation about her disappearance. Clearly something very nefarious is going on, and Yi-Chun takes it upon herself to figure out what it is so she can find Wei before it’s too late.
The Tag-Along is a Taiwanese horror film from 2015, and is based on a local urban legend that dates back to the late 90’s. As the story goes, back in nineteen-ninety-eight a family was doing a little sightseeing around the mountains of Taizong. While on their little hiking trip they did what any good tourist family would do and filmed parts of their journey. A few days after their vacation one of the relatives who had gone on the trip with them suddenly died. After his death, the family reviewed the tape looking for some good memories, but instead they ended up finding something truly disturbing. While watching the tapes, the family noticed a little girl with dark, hollow eyes and clad in red following them down the trails. Except none of the family members knew who the girl was, or could even remember ever seeing her. During the funeral, the family allegedly showed the video to a Taoist priest, who advised the family not to view the tape again. But of course they ignored him and showed the tape to damn near everybody, until it finally made its way to the national news. It is generally believed that the little girl was most likely a Moshenzi, a kind of mountain demon who abducts susceptible individuals, usually children and the elderly. Their usual modus operandi is to cause the possessed individual to wander off from the group or the path and have them get lost. So they’re basically the physical embodiment of the universal human fear of getting lost. For the most part, the little miscreants are supposedly harmless and are only tricking people for fun. But in rarer instances people get hurt or killed, and those instances get attributed to the more malicious demons, like the Little Girl In Red.
Or, at least that’s all I could find about them online. Though the film’s opening text scroll identifies the girl as a “Mosien,” the characters in the film don’t really give the little demon girl a proper name or distinction. She’s essentially just one of the many nameless evil spirits that live in the mountains. She just managed to infest the town by following the original missing person down from her hike because apparently Shui didn’t follow proper Taiwanese hiking protocols, which includes not responding if someone taps you on the shoulder and says your full name. Because falling for the notorious shoulder tap prank is apparently all it takes to become possessed by your local black eyes, twitchy ghost in Taiwan. Way to doom everybody there, Shui. But even if the demon, or spirit, or whatever the hell this thing is supposed to be, is portrayed as your typical contorted, dark-eyed, long-limbed twitchy child with occasional bad moments of CGI, I guess on the bright side that still makes Taiwanese ghosts slightly less obnoxious than their Japanese counterparts. I mean, at least in Taiwan you actually have to DO something to end up getting possessed. Those damn Japanese spirits will just straight up abduct and possess your ass right out of the friggin’ reference section of the library just for shits and giggles. Those bastards are not to be trifled with.
Though I guess running off with little old ladies is pretty obnoxious too.
Unlike Japan, Taiwan isn’t really known for their horror films. The reason is mostly a cultural one. There is a bit of a taboo in the local culture surrounding ghosts and death in general. Merely mentioning such subjects is said to have the potential to attract bad luck or evil spirits. But things have started changing in recent years, with a dozen or so films like The Tag-Along popping up in the country’s cinema, breaking box-office records and even winning a couple local awards. But while the film maintains an impressively creepy atmosphere, it’s clear the Taiwanese horror industry is suffering from some growing pains. While the plot moves along at a decent enough clip, the plot itself is highly predictable, and almost feels like the filmmakers were following a script about how to write a horror script. Don’t get me wrong. On a technical and comprehensive story level they did a fine job and everything works and flows like it’s supposed to. But there’s really nothing here that really makes the film stand out in any way, except for perhaps the Girl in Red, and even she’s rather reminiscent of other ghosts you see in Asian cinema. Meaning you can pretty much predict all the story points long before they even come up. So while the film is entertaining enough, it’s also going to feel very familiar to well-read horror fans and, as a result, not all that thrilling or scary, beyond a couple of jump scares.
The film’s one notable stand-out element is undoubtedly the acting. In that department, I really can’t fault the film for anything. Side characters are given their own unique personalities to help them stand out from just being a boring auxiliary role, and all the main characters are super solid, with Hsu Wei-ning in particular pulling off a very believable, compelling and empathetic turn as Yi-Chun. You end up really rooting for Yi-Chun, because even though you can tell she’s hiding something from her boyfriend, the minute things turn south she immediately takes charge to try to figure out what’s happening, despite moments of her clearly being absolutely terrified. Hell, she even makes sure that her boyfriend’s traumatized grandmother is well taken care of, even though the woman doesn’t particularly like her and barely knows her name. That’s dedication right there. Wei may be sort of a wet blanket, but he knows how to pick a keeper.
All in all, The Tag-Along is an entertaining enough horror outing even despite its flaws. The characters are engaging and the story is easy enough to follow. But it’s just clear that they just need to work out a few of the remaining kinks in their horror repertoire. While the plot is serviceable, it’s also very predictable and familiar, and as a result, not all that scary. The practical effects and make-up were good, but the CGI demon children could have used a little work. Or, well, okay, maybe a lot of work. Some of those suckers looked pretty funky. Point is, you’ve almost got it Taiwan, and I’ll be rooting for you in the coming years to hopefully produce your own unique take on horror that feels new and fresh and doesn’t borrow quite so much from your surrounding neighbors, or shoehorns in a bunch of traditionalist beliefs at the end, thus contradicting one of your own characters assertions from the beginning of the film. I’m not going to go as far as to say that it’s outright “propaganda” like I’ve seen some people say, because let’s face it, horror movies have been putting in morality clauses in their movies since horror movies became a thing. The Scream franchise pointed out the ones regarding premarital sex and drugs years ago. So it’s not like it’s a new thing. It’s just that horror fans don’t typically like to be so blatantly preached to. But like I said, you’re almost there, guys. Just maybe try to add a little more subtlety into your morals next time.
The Tag-Along is available on a variety of streaming services.
The Tag-Along is also available on Bluray.