“THE CURSE OF WILLOW SONG,” one of the year’s most memorable films | REVIEW

Writer/director Karen Lam’s “The Curse of Willow Song” is an interesting character study and effective horror film crafted with an artful eye and the kind of picture modern horror (nay, modern film, in general) needs badly. This is a well-written film that doesn’t trade chills for logic and one that respects its audience by creating adult characters presented with honesty.

Shot in black and white, Lam and cinematographer Thomas Billingsley immerse the tale in stark realism. The absence of color and slow camera pans give balance to the darkness that blankets the lead character’s life and the shadows that haunt her.

Valerie Tian is Willow Song, a recovering addict fresh out of prison who loses her job working for a self-obsessed artist. With an unforgiving parole officer threatening a return to jail and the very real danger of being homeless, Willow constantly sidesteps returning to the past that landed her in prison. While dealing with the struggle of keeping her life on the straight and narrow, a greater danger begins to reveal itself. Willow Song is being tormented by something otherworldly. Lam’s screenplay finds no escape for its lead character, as it isn’t just supernatural forces that possess her emotional state. The people she knows are as dangerous to her as what lurks in the dark.

Willow’s criminal brother Mission (Simon Chin), her real estate agent sister-in-law Dani (Elfina Luk), and her dangerously disloyal drug-addict roomie Flea (Ingrid Nilson) plague her chance at a better life. Dani lets Willow flop in one of Mission’s unused warehouses, but the safe haven becomes a dark and deceptive chamber of horror.

“The Curse of Willow Song” uses its main character’s tribulations to examine pertinent social issues. The world is an unforgiving place and society makes it hard for offenders to receive a second chance. Lam captures this in the design of Willow’s curt and seemingly racist parole officer especially in an ugly moment where a prospective boss sexually harasses her in an interview. When Willow refuses his advances, the man becomes angry and all but throws her out.

The horror genre has always been a good cinematic canvas for social metaphor. George A. Romero, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter have used their works to mirror and critique social and political landscapes. What Lam does with Willow Song stands as a probing study of how bigotry, sexism, and societal judgment can color one’s mental state to negative effect. In the context of the film’s smart and carefully constructed screenplay, the character becomes representative of the dangers of recidivism and how the laws work against those seeking to change.
Willow is an expertly drawn character, both on the page and through the skilled and emotional performance of Valerie Tiam. Her eyes and almost constant frown show a woman at her lowest and almost defeated, but the spark of determination is beginning to show. The actress is captivating, drawing viewers into her struggle and eliciting sympathy without judgment, skillfully working the different levels of Willow Song’s regrets.

While the terrors begin once she begins living in the warehouse, it becomes clear that it isn’t the building that is haunted, it is Willow. This darkness has been with her for a long time.

The symbolic use of fear and the “monsters” who stalk us become an allegorical trip into the darkest corners of the mind. Karen Lam wants to unnerve us with Willow’s chilling encounters, but the director wants her audience to know the character first and takes time and care in doing so. While there are some unnecessary CGI effects in the film’s finale, it doesn’t matter. Lam’s film hits every dramatic and suspenseful beat. Working very well as a horror film, character study, and social commentary, “The Curse of Willow Strong” is one of the most memorable films of 2023.

Johannah Newmarch in “The Curse of Willow Song”


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