Chen Kuo Fu’s Double Vision begins by looking deep into the eye of a stillborn child. Strikingly, the image establishes the film’s interest in perception, or, more specifically, if seeing can be believing. Many films in the serial killer genre explore the inexplicable in terms of the human mind while keeping the forensic side of things intact. In Double Vision, the material world is as messy and unexplainable as subjective states.
In a Taipei penthouse office, a wealthy businessman is found psychosomatically frozen to death. A senator’s mistress is presumably burned alive in a home that has no evidence of fire. A foreign minister is ritually disemboweled with no signs of a struggle. Stumped by these crimes, Taiwanese authorities assign U.S. FBI Agent Kevin Richter (David Morse) to work with Detective Huang Huo-tu (Tony Leung). As Huang is flailing in the aftermath of a corruption scandal that led to the kidnapping and near murder of his young daughter, he sees the partnership as the demotion it is meant to be. According to the buddy formula, the two cops dislike one another on sight.
Even so, they begin to establish links among the bizarre murders, hinging on the discovery of a “hybrid life form”: a bug-born fungus found in the victims’ nasal passages and brains. The detectives theorize that the fungus acts like a hallucinogenic drug, and the victims react to hallucinations generated in their brains. Functionally, they imagine themselves to death. Or so it appears.
Enter an extreme Taoist sect in search of immortality. This is where Double Vision breaks ranks with its generic companions: the overlay of Taoist mysticism, coupled with frank discussions of paranormal and supernatural forces take the film beyond its “whodunnit” structure into questions about the nature of reality. Richter and Huang are no longer stalking a serial killer; they’re asking fundamental questions about perception and belief. And to the film’s credit, they’re not coming up with any reliable answers.
Like most cop buddies, Richter and Huang embody different approaches to their task. “Look, I rely on science, not talismans, not good-luck charms,” Richter declares over spicy noodles. Huang replies, “All your years in the FBI, you have never encountered with [sic] a demon before?”
Richter’s “scientific method” parallels his “American” identity throughout the film: repeatedly, Taiwanese officials associate the U.S. with hard science, looking to Quantico and the FBI to shore up their own lagging “technology.” (This pairing recalls that of Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, among others.) At a press conference early in the film, Taiwanese officials assert that Richter is present to “ensure the use of the scientific method.” While they are careful to outline the legal limitations of Richter’s involvement, the message seems clear: “American” (scientific) involvement is necessary to legitimize this high-profile investigation. Huang, for his part, represents “Taiwanese” culture, more in touch with the supernatural.
But as with most of the set-ups in the film, things do not turn out to be as they first appear. Richter’s methods continue to lead to dead ends. As the two struggle to unmask the killer, it becomes clear that science alone cannot solve this case. Following the buddy formula, the two partners must compromise to make headway. Because each partner represents not only opposing cultures but opposing knowledge-systems as well, these compromises begin to collapse the distinctions made between scientific and supernatural and with them, the hierarchy between the U.S. and Taiwan.
Double Vision dismantles the distinction between the natural and the supernatural both thematically and formally. While the film’s narrative is generally linear, it is interspersed with flashbacks, hallucinations, projections, and possible scenarios that are sometimes indistinguishable from the core plot events. What’s more, these “unreal” or “displaced” moments lack the swishy camera movements, skewed framing, or diffuse lighting that generally characterize these ruptures. Absent the usual markers of “real” versus “imagined” the film leaves the audience hard-pressed to distinguish between these two modes of experience.
This experience is underscored by the film’s title, which on one level refers to literal double vision: the killer uses two pupils in one eye to discern the supernatural “identity” of the victims in order to select them. But it’s metaphorical as well. The film refuses to resolve the science/paranormal conflict by conflating the two systems of knowledge. The final explanations for the case seem to cover all the bases, but can also support a variety of conclusions, from normal to extraordinary. Huang’s cries—“This isn’t real!”—allude to the film’s central questions: what is real? How do we know what we know? By situating these problems in terms of both individual experiences (death) and cultural relationships, Chen shows how the struggle to see and know is an increasingly complex and global one.