Dao, a Viet Cong soldier, is stationed deep in the dark of the Cu Chi tunnels during the Vietnam war in 1966, where he has to bury one of his fallen comrades in combat. The tunnels are dark and claustrophobic, and the soldier is isolated.
When another soldier named Quan comes to retrieve him, Dao refuses, insisting he must finish burying and praying for the soldier, or else his ghost will come after them. Dao is left behind, with the Americans due to swarm the area at any moment. But as the eerie sounds of the dead begin to fill the air, Dao realizes too late that he should've left the tunnels.
Writer-director Josh Tanner, along with co-writer Jade Van Der Lei, has crafted a supernatural horror short that practices an elegant economy on many levels, from the pared-down, claustrophobic setting to the compressed scale of the narrative. But within its 12 minutes, it wrenches an intense, vivid tension and fear from its evocation of the supernatural, all while illuminating a forgotten chapter of a military conflict that still haunts contemporary events today.
Making a film shot in a tunnel visually dynamic is no easy feat, but through judicious but moody lighting and excellently calibrated editing, the craftsmanship pulls viewers along, establishing the clashing senses of urgency that power the film's momentum: Dao believes he must pray over his fallen comrade or else his soul will haunt him, but they also must evacuate the tunnels quickly.
The writing is equally smart, precise and lean, beginning in just the right place and building the central questions that concern the narrative: are there are indeed wandering souls, and will Dao and Quan escape them?
After an effective build-up, the film then pivots seamlessly into horror mode, crafting effectively creepy chills and thrills while ratcheting up the pace and intensity. Actor Lap Phan as Dao plays his character's agitation with just the right amount of edginess to make viewers question whether or not he's unhinged and therefore imagining everything -- a slight frisson of uncertainty that the storytelling spins into a stunning resolution.
"Wandering Soul" takes its central idea and name from a real-life operation in the Vietnam War. To say anything more would be to give away the film's powerful reveal, but suffice it to say that it functions not just as a great twist, but an uneasy, resonant commentary on the wages of war, not just physically but psychologically. Its ending haunts like the ghosts that Dao hears in the tunnels -- and won't easily be shaken from the psyche until well after viewing.