In 2031, A prosecutor named Chen Chang (Liang Wen-Chao) is diagnosed with cancer that is soon to spread to his brain. His wife Ah-Bao (Janine Chun-Ning Chang), a police detective, learns she is pregnant and is despondent that their child will grow up without a father. To keep himself busy, and to feel productive, Chen returns to work and requests that he be assigned a recent troubling murder case, that of Wang Shi Tung (Samuel Ku), a wealthy scientist who was also dying of brain cancer, apparently murdered by his son Wang Tian Yu (Lin Hui Min), though questions surround the involvement of his new wife Li Yen (Sun An Ke).
Written and directed by Wei-Hao Cheng, and based on the novel of the same name by Bo Jiang, The Soul (Chinese title Ji Hun) is a beast of a movie, running two hours and ten minutes with more plot points and turns in the road than a full season of a procedural cop show. At the fifty-minute mark, you feel like you’ve already seen the whole story, the main investigation seemingly solved and the loose ends tied up, but the movie itself is only getting started, steering it all in a new direction that layers one more question on top of another all the way to the last few frames. Does it work? Well, sort of it.
After a truly smart opening at a hillside mansion on the outskirts of Taipei, the film seems to want to settle into a crime drama, and that really is its best feature, the teaming of Chen and Bao to work together on why the billionaire was killed making for some fun moments. We learn that Wang and his business partner Wan (Christopher Ming-Shun Lee) have developed an RNA replicating procedure that may cure cancer, though still in the early stages, so Chen and Bao especially become interested in the company as well. What could this mean for the dying prosecutor?
However, while their fate is the most affecting in the story, the plot isn’t done with Wang, Wan, and Li Yen, even when it seem it is, the science fiction of the RNA and the idea that if one was surgically implanted in another could literally change the person from the inside to someone else keeping the wheels spinning the rest of the way. And yes, you read that right, the main plot deals with body swapping at the RNA level so that the outside appearance of a person doesn’t change but who they are inside does. It’s a big pill to swallow, especially, as the title implies, it carries with it all the emotions, memories, history, and well, apparently, soul of the transferred person, eventually erasing all those of the host. If you’re the mind to think even superficially about any of that, this is not the movie for you.
The movie itself allows this plot point to be the guessing game per se in keeping the audience wondering if this is a horror movie (it’s not), a supernatural thriller (it’s not) or just a loosely engineered way to keep the central twist a secret for over two hours (it is). The good news is, the cast is great, with Wen Chao and Chun-Ning Chang superb, the complexities of their difficult on-screen relationship handled very well and their performances sometimes very impactful.
Wei-Hao Chen is aiming for a slow moody drama and takes his time in getting us to the end with very little action, purposefully keeping this a mostly conversationally-driven story with characters that are all linked by the science and the consequences of such. While the initial setup and expectation for how the murder is solved is subverted, there is some motivation to see where it’s all going, even as things begin to pile up in almost comical fashion.
Well made and acted, this is right in line with many themes popular in regional television and film productions, and while many may not appreciate the heightened over-drama, the producers are clearly aiming for a specific audience and aim true. No one who is moved by the tragedies soaked in the personalities will care about the science, only about the motivations and myriad twists. As such, The Soul will be a polarizing film. I’m on the fence, enjoying the good work of the cast but never fully invested in the premise and at least grateful Netflix has options like these for us to explore.