Latest Asian horror import explores night terrors but delivers its best scares by daylight.
Top: Linh (Lâm Thanh My) sees a ghostly visage in the folds of sheet wafting in the breeze.
A dark little gem embedded in an intricate illusion setting, Vietnamese import The Ancestral wraps its horror inside a carefully wrought story, creating a piece of jewelry whose gleam outshines its actual size. Executed with style and atmosphere, the genre trappings fascinate the eyes like shimmering facets, but there is more lurking beneath the surface: mystery and trauma that lead to several surprises which keep viewers guessing long after thinking they had it all figured out. The result, though deliberately paced to emphasize the characters’ predicament, is an effective chiller with some fairly powerful dramatic resonance.
The Ancestral seems to have a bit of A Nightmare on Elm Street in its DNA, focusing on a character tormented by terrifying dreams that could prove fatal: Wes Craven was famously inspired by news articles in the LA Times about Vietnamese immigrants dying mysteriously in their sleep; The Ancestral focuses on a genuine phenomenon – sleep paralysis – that could provide a “realistic” explanation for dying in one’s sleep. In this case, there is no wise-cracking Freddy Kruger equivalent; the scares are all played straight – and all the more intense because the victim is a child.
After a brief found-footage style prologue featuring a Vietnamese woman discussing her late mother’s battle with sleep paralysis, The Ancestral‘s story begins with Thành (Quang Tuan) driving his two daughters to their new home in an isolated, rural area, following the death of their mother. The old stone building, which somewhat resembles a temple, looks like the perfect place for a haunting, but Thành soon has a couple of bedrooms spruced up for the children. The kids end up being home-schooled by Ms. Hanh (Dieu Nhi), who also happens to be a psychologist.
Hanh’s sideline as a psychologist seems a little too convenient to be mere coincidence, because younger daughter Yen (Mai Cát Vi), who acts like a perky little princess by day, suffers from sleep paralysis at night, which produces vivid nightmares that feel like waking reality (her stiffened body while in the grip of these visions is truly heart-rending, convincing us that her life could indeed be at stake). Understandably, Yen believes she is being tormented by demons, and her belief is buttressed by her older sister Linh (Lâm Thanh My), who experiences some rather terrifying things while wide awake, convincing the audience that something more than dreams are at work. Unfortunately, any progress in resolving the situation is impeded by the sisters’ growing suspicion over the relationship between their father and the attractive Ms. Hanh; their suspicions are exacerbated after an attempt to spy on the adults causes an accident that inadvertently leads to discoveries revealing just why their father moved them to this particular place.
With an effective combination of atmosphere, J-Horror style scares, and a judicious use of computer-generated imagery, The Ancestral draws viewers into its nightmare world almost immediately, but writer-director Le-Van Kiet is careful to keep his camera trained on the family drama at the heart of the story. With two children menaced by supernatural manifestations that might have a psychological explanation, the the film somewhat resembles a far-distant cousin to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw; however, the concerns and focus are completely different, with the audience sharing the point of view of the two siblings, particularly older sister Linh. For all the effectively rendered scares, the real tension derives from the pressure put on Linh to mature early, taking on the role of surrogate mother to Vin while the family recovers from their shared trauma – an aspect emphasized in a flashback of Linh’s mother wistfully warning her about the burdens of being an adult woman.
The laudable emphasis on storytelling occasionally slows the pace down more than necessary; fortunately, the plot has a few surprises up its sleeve. After setting up the generic premise (grieving family moves into an old, spooky house), The Ancestral reveals details that shed new light on the proceedings, turning the film into something more than a riff on A Nightmare on Elm Street. These revelations even cast some doubt on the supernatural nature of the haunting, but frankly some of what we see goes beyond being explained away as being “only a dream.”
This is particularly true because Le-Van Kiet has the audacity to stage some of the scariest moments during the daytime. An early sequence of Linh among laundry sheets drying is vaguely reminiscent of a similar scene in Friday the 13th 3D, but rendered in broad daylight without diminishing the terror – in fact, increasing it ten-fold (you should pardon the pun). The twisted visage outlined by the contours of the sheets may or may not be a ghost, but a later sequence of Linh trapped in a hammock that spins at high velocity, wrapping her tighter and tighter begs a natural explanation.
Ultimately, The Ancestral cannot fully live up to its own ambitions. The plot twists send the story down an unexpected avenue, but that route does not lead to a fully satisfying resolution: by the end Linh and Yen know the full story about themselves and their mother, but the film forgets about curing Yen’s sleep paralysis. Instead, a heretofore relatively stable character goes bonkers at the end in order to provide a suspenseful climax, which is further marred by uncertainty about whether to follow through to the downbeat ending where the film seems to be heading. Instead, the film tries to literally have it both ways and ends up feeling a bit muddled, though not enough to ruin the impact of everything that came before.
Undoubtedly, the majority of interested US viewers will see The Ancestral on home video, which is a shame. Although clearly made on a modest budget (four principle actors in a single, isolated setting), the production values are fabulous, particularly the camerawork, which employs tracking shots and cranes to draw viewers into its eerie world. There is a macabre beauty to the best scenes that deserves to be experienced on the big screen.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. The Ancestral‘s limited theatrical release did not ignite the sort of enthusiasm that has greeted such celebrated indie horror films as The Babadook and The Witch, which makes little sense in terms of actual quality – The Ancestral is every bit as effective as those films, but perhaps it lacks the genre-busting element that engenders high praise from “serious” critics and gatekeepers. Le-Van Kiet seems content to employ the genre elements in the service of his story without trying to overthrow or elevate the genre. In this, he is following in the tradition of such respected genre stalwarts as Terence Fisher, Roger Corman, Mario Bava, and Nobuo Nakagawa, who used the elements available to them to craft enjoyable and even compelling genre work that appealed on multiple levels with no shame about being “only” a horror film. Hopefully, Le-Van Kiet will go on to produce a similarly impressive body of work.
The Ancestral rating
The Ancestral is a solid horror film with stylish production that melds its genre elements to a dramatic story involving grief and family trauma. In the end, the film does not fully live up to all of its ambitions, but it delivers an engaging combination of scares and pathos.
The Ancestral (Bóng Ðè, 2021). Written & Directed by Le-Van Kiet. Produced by Nguyen Le Lan Anh, Le-Van Kiet, Dan Trong Tran. Photographed by Morgan Schmidt. Music composed by Nguyen Hoàng Anh. Cast: Quang Tuan (Thành), Lâm Thanh My (Linh), Mai Cát Vi (Yen), Dieu Nhi (Ms. Hanh).101 mins. Rated PG13. US release date: May 13, 2022.