Wandering Soul: claustrophobic horror film highlights the cynical use of folklore and superstitions as weapons of war

Josh Tanner, “Wandering Soul” (2016)

An intensely claustrophobic film, seemingly a ghost story set during the Vietnam War, “Wandering Soul” follows two Viet Cong fighters, Dao (Lap Phan) and Quan (Henry Vo), in the underground Cu Chi tunnels near what is now Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. At the start of the film, Dao is praying for a fallen comrade and observing the rites that will ensure his comrade’s soul goes to the right place to rest in peace and not wander the earth forever. Quan begs him to hurry as US soldiers are just above ground hunting them. There then follow several minutes of increasing emotional intensity and fear as Dao and Quan are hounded by strange ghost noises that they fear might be coming from the undead spirits of fallen Viet Cong comrades. Too late though they discover the real truth behind those noises – and that the noises and their fears have been manipulated to force them into a trap.

The film derives its name from the Operation Wandering Soul psychological warfare / propaganda campaign used by US soldiers to break the morale and resolve of Viet Cong fighters and force them either to surrender or to defect to the US side. To this end, US forces recorded eerie forest sounds and the voices of South Vietnamese soldiers onto tapes and played these tapes through loudspeakers in forests where Viet Cong activity was known at night. The film highlights the cynicism of US forces in the use of Vietnamese folklore and myths as weapons in the war against the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese fight for freedom. In the instance shown in the film, this manipulation of Dao and Quan is effective: both men are captured though one of them ends up dying. As the film ends, creepy ghost noises begin to resound through the forest again – even though the unit of American soldiers has already packed up and put up the tape recorder and loudspeakers.

Wisely the film does not take up a theme of vengeance that would have turned it into a B-grade war horror flick. We are left with a memory of the dank claustrophobic dirt tunnels, the rising fear felt by Dao and Quan as they pace through the labyrinth, and the real horror when both they – and we – discover the deception played upon them.