I have been a huge fan of Karen Lam’s for over a decade now. Call me a Lam-ie (pronounced like lambie), if you’d like. She’s a writer, a producer, and a director. She’s one of the smartest and most innovative minds in the filmmaking world.
In The Curse of Willow Song, Lam’s film tells the story of an ex-convict with a very particular set of special abilities that brings forth quite the gauntlet of nightmares and choices to make.
Willow Song, our lead character, is a recovering addict fresh out of jail. She wants to start over. She needs to start over. However, the concrete jungle she’s thrown back into provides few options for true reinvention. She is haunted in many ways.
When the shadows are not creeping in on her, a motley crew of acquaintances threatens to keep her from breaking free. She has a brother who seems to be most comfortable in the crime world and a roommate who is battling her own addictions. Willow’s sister-in-law offers her a place to crash in the form of an abandoned warehouse that her brother is currently not using but the place provides little in terms of comfort or a place to grow.
Valerie Tian is Willow, and the actor absolutely nails the role in every way. Think Najarra Townsend in Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist. Tian seems to have been born to play this character. You cannot help but cringe at Willow’s torture. You want her to succeed, even when every avenue forward seems to lead to a dead end.
Lam has always been a fantastic director with an incredible eye behind the camera, but I have always argued that for as good as she is behind the camera, she’s even better when putting pen to paper. She doesn’t just tell stories—she makes you feel the story and The Curse of Willow Song is a dark and heavy addition to her stellar catalog. Lam took inspiration from Coffee Creek, a female penitentiary that was the subject of a documentary she had been working on when the ideas for Willow Song began to crystalize.
Director of photography Thomas Billingsley deserves just as much recognition for bringing this nightmare to life. The duo of Billingsley and Lam have worked together in the past and that relationship allows the story to be told in a visually captivating way. Lam has made it clear her intention is to make sure Willow looks small in as many shots as possible. Willow may be out of jail, but she isn’t truly out of her confines at any point in this movie.
You could argue The Curse of Willow Song is not a horror film. I would argue it’s not only that but it’s much, much more. The very real horrors of a corrupt justice system and a broken recovery process are handled expertly here. The mental and emotional traumas thrust upon Willow are handled expertly. There’s a suffocating anxiety throughout the film, thanks to the craftsmanship of Billingsley and the story Lam has written. It is a harsh, brutally honest, and gripping tale of tragedy that can only be pulled off by someone who truly respects the terrain of the story. Audiences are safe whenever Lam is your guide.