“One gets confused when one has just died”
Ding-Lin Wang’s Taiwanese fantasy thriller film The 9th Precinct (2019) embraces the theme of wandering ghosts. Though also present in the Western culture in the form of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Ghost (1990), to name a few, they seem to be a recurring topic of interest mostly in the Eastern culture.
While in the West the gap between the dead and the living doesn’t appear as great, since both forces appear human, in the East the concept appears entrenched in fantasy to a greater extent, weaving cultural nuances into the flaming hearts of demonic forces. The wild success of Hotel Del Luna (2019) is a clear indication of this, as is the decision to remake it into an American TV series.
The film follows police officer Chen Chia-Hao (Roy Chin), as he strives to appear normal to the outside world despite his ability to see the troubled undead. When his partner dies on the job and Chen Chia-Hao refuses to change his account of the events, in which he credits a ghost for saving his life, he finds himself looking for work. He ends up in an underground precinct swarming with ghosts, where he learns that he is not only one of the many with this unique ability, but that his is greatly limited.
Along with Mr. Chang (Chia-Chia Peng) and Hsueh (Chen-Ling Wen) he sets out to bring stability to the world of conflicting human and supernatural realms by counterbalancing reincarnation and karma. However, things take a turn for the unexpected when Mr. Chang’s daughter, Chang Ju-Hsin (Eugenie Lin), is sucked into the unfolding horrors that accompany the dominant and demonic Huang Ya-Hui (Blaire Chang).
The 9th Precinct wouldn’t be much of a spectacle without the mysterious cases the group is tasked with solving. The events are interlinked and subjected to equal amounts of eeriness and humour, which allows the driving narrative to be clearly outlined. Surprisingly, much of the premise of the atrocities we witness is grounded in poignant stories that aim to balance out the detached, supernatural action scenes.
What is even stranger, however, is that despite the detailed portrayal of the protagonists’ agony, the story fails to be emotionally engaging. We have an awareness of their suffering, which explains the unfolding events in a clinically logical way, but it’s almost impossible to dig through to the soul-stirring core of the film, seemingly only restircted for the characters themselves.
An interesting cultural reference appears when incense is used as a way of communicating with the ghosts. On top of that, the gadgets the police officers have on hand would make James Bond green with envy.
The characters are all likeable, with the exception of the villainous Huang Ya-Hui, who is one mad cackle away from being a cartoonish bandit. The protagonists’ witty sense of humour blends seamlessly with the plot’s twists and turns, leaving you howling with laughter – even if that wasn’t the intention of the script. It’s even possible to overlook the head-scratching insertions of English phrases at random points, as well as the stumbling pace of the film.
But what elevates the film beyond its standard story and theatrical acting is its production value. Much of the thrill of watching the film comes from its use of sound, which engages the sense of hearing in a way that instantly stands out to an unaccustomed ear. The sound designers Agnes Liu and Ning Tseng bring the story to life through crisply tailored tones and vibrations that also manage to ignite the sense of touch in a bewildered viewer. Stanley Liu’s cinematography complements this wordless orchestra, playing with colours as if the screen was his canvas.
If that wasn’t enough, the image saturation keeps all eyes glued to the monitor, much like Bollywood productions. It’s an astonishing blend of artistic inspiration that trembles with vibrancy. And it’s only magnified by the introduction of the split-screen – the quality and vivaciousness of which is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015).
All in all, the film is wonderfully odd. What it lacks in emotional depth, it makes up for in cheek-biting humour, forever tiptoeing on the edge of whatever genre it wants to box itself in.