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Film Review: The Soul Reaper (2023) by Tran Huu Tan

Thrilling Vietnamese genre effort with a lot to like overall.

Hot on the heels of the initial success of the film “Hellbound Village,” director set out to continue the exploits of the community by offering a new entry set in that universe. Taking the same route to success by adapting the novel by writer Thao Trang, the move proved risky as a one-week delay in release nearly caused controversy with the film's release about to occur. Now, after a record run in theaters that saw it earn over 2 million to become one of the top seven highest-grossing Vietnamese movies of the year, Tan's new film is set to continue the modern Vietnamese resurgence in the genre box office.

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On the eve of their marriage, villager Phong () throws their community into a panic claiming to see a mysterious figure in their midst, but when her groom Sang () leads a group of individuals to look for it, there's no sign of anything in the local forest. Shortly after the incidents, a series of gruesome deaths strike locals in the village, forcing Village Chief Chan () to put the community on high alert until they figure out what's going on, which further angers the villagers as nothing useful is known about the incidents. With the help of her childhood friend Kham (), Phong realizes that everything is intended to serve a dark magic ritual intended to revive a deadly spirit and must race to stop it before it plagues the rest of the village.

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There's quite a lot to like about “The Soul Reaper.” One of the biggest factors to enjoy is the rather fun starting setup by writer/director Tran Huu Tan that effectively explores small-town superstition and mysticism in such a rural community. Given an introduction about the nature of the villagers who have retreated to the mountains to build their home and be away from others living in lesser conditions with their superstitions and customs, the means through which their way of life gets shattered creates a fine setup. The concurrent storylines within the village, from the mysterious sightings of ghosts in the village, the gruesome deaths taking place soon after, and the love triangle between Phuong, Sang, and Kham all offer up enough fun concurrent storylines to keep this moving along.

The chaos and paranoia that emerge once the mysterious deaths are revealed to have a purpose help to unleash a rather dark and sinister progression of the storyline, hinted at involving curses and demonic spirits living in the area. It all ends up making for a great starting point.

With this setup established, “Soul Reaper” turns into a fantastic series of supernatural-tinged encounters showing the deadly effects of their living condition being stranded in a remote village and aware of the curses that focus on bringing about a series of supernatural incidents. The cold-open, presenting a view of the Crimson Sweat curse that affects those who try to leave, is a shockingly gruesome sequence capturing the painful condition in its graphic splendor. That it gets brought up again when the villagers try to leave, following several unexplained and mysterious deaths, is a huge standout with the extended sequence offering scores of bodily scaring or facial deformations that produce some grisly visuals hammers that home quite well.

The resulting aftermath of the various bodies leading up to the realization that the fabled poem they knew as kids, is the key to the whole affair. How everything gets spelled out, translating each of the verses into literal incidents and attacks that mirror the tragedies that befell each of the villagers, ties it all together incredibly well, adding a solid degree of danger to the later sequences of the village going crazy with bloodlust trying to stop the curse. Featuring some genuinely chilling twists and shocking revelations that come about, it's got quite a lot to like and hold this one up the most.

While there's a lot to like here, “Soul Reaper” does have some drawbacks. The main factor with this one is an overlong finale which tries to pack on several different storyline beats that aren't truly needed here. Going along with the revelations made, the battle against the guilty party, and then undoing their master plan is fine enough but even that takes way too much time, featuring several big battles to finish. On top of that, there's also the dealing with the later reveal involving the true figure behind the incidents in the village, which features a big confrontation to play out and wastes even more time trying to deal with the action to figure that out. Also, there's the decidedly obvious use of CGI which shows up for the supernatural flames representing the magic attempted during the magic sequences, which look quite cheap and silly, drawing you out of the sequence entirely. It happens several times on other unnecessary features including burning bodies or fire-dependent features which makes them stand out against the more realistic ones elsewhere.

With a great story and plenty of action to help it out, “The Soul Reaper” is a highly enjoyable Vietnamese genre effort that can hold itself up quite nicely without much in the way of true drawbacks. Viewers who are curious about the adaptation from its original source, appreciate this kind of Asian Horror style, or just curious about it will have a lot to like here.

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