The opening and closing scenes of Ghosted, centered on an orthodox Taiwanese funeral pyre and shrine, possess a fearful symmetry that evokes an unsettlingly specific East Asian otherworldliness; for at least the duration of its titles, faded in and out atop a gentle flame with rolling jungles in the background, the movie achieves the light, sensual spookiness of a sharply colored, mini-DV Ugetsu. What occupies the space between these wordless, shamanic still life sequences, however, is a clumsily supernatural mystery that strangely uses the fallible density of flesh as its most underscored symbol.
Crosscutting between a suburb of Taipei and a robust Asian community in Hamburg, as well as interlacing two separate timelines roughly six months apart, the film follows a pair of Taiwanese women obsessed with the same feminist filmmaker, Sophie Schmitt (Inga Busch). The first immigrant is Ai-ling Chen (Huan-Ru Ke), who travels to Germany in search of information about her dead father; Ai-ling encounters Sophie by chance and the two giddily traipse into romance until the former is murdered. About half a year later Sophie meets Mei Li (Ting Ting Hu), an aggressive Taiwanese reporter determined to uncover the hazy details surrounding Ai-Ling’s sudden death. It’s a tasteful if tired setup for a butterflied thriller plot: After the story is effectively halved we can feel the narrative candle burning gradually from both ends toward a twisty midriff.
But as soon as the characters start interacting (or, rather, fumbling with the thin dialog), the numinous fire chokes as though sprinkled with chalky sand. Only Huan-Ru Ke’s Ai-ling—whose bisexuality is, quite refreshingly, never flashed so much as a hairy eyeball, despite whispers of intolerance in the story’s periphery (newspaper headlines scandalously touting the word “lesbian,” etc.)—remotely approaches likeability, which is to say nothing of sexiness: The general pulchritude of the leads notwithstanding, the token scene of insinuated tribadism is nowhere near as incendiary as the smoldering currency offerings made to family spirits in the superstitious finale. And while all three lead women trade off playing protagonist of the tale, writer-director Monika Treut places the crucial third act in the unsteady palms of Ting Ting Hu, whose character’s fascination with Ai-ling becomes increasingly less believable as it spirals, or deteriorates, toward a conclusion both predictable and anticlimactic.
By the end, most of the promising threads initiated at the movie’s start—particularly the quizzical paternal subplot—dead-end in the Hamburg rain. Only the film’s muted, glabrous look—as though seen through the eyes of a German citizen imagining his homeland as a European Tokyo—fulfills any of the chic fantasy of the hip titular verbing.