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The New Wave of Asian Horror

The New Wave of Asian Horror

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Takashi Miike’s The Box, part of the Three… Extremes (2005) anthology

There’s a new catchphrase for terror these days: J-Horror. Japanese horror is the latest trend in fright flicks that has turned into big business for Hollywood. The movement is being spurred on by successful remakes like The Ring and The Grudge, fed by increasingly strong video sales of imported titles and further driven by promising future remakes of supernatural shockers, many of which are now coming from other parts of Asia. Often shirking the blood and guts approach of slasher flicks and espousing a more psychological bent without a plethora of special effects, Asian cinema is reinvigorating American horror.

The standard themes of the remakes focus on female spirits coming back to seek revenge or quench their bloodlust due to an unresolved conflict from their lives, usually their tragic murder. These ethereal, longhaired women with pale makeup are certainly creepy enough. They’re a different type of boogeyman than the masked, scarred and cartoonish killers that permeate American horror movies, and their pain is something the audience can understand.

Yet not all Asian horror movies are about spooky girls. Masayuki Ochiai’s Infection deals with a nasty plague infesting a dilapidated hospital. The sinister star of Norio Tsuruta’s Premonition is an eerie newspaper that foretells tragedy. Chi-Leung Law’s Koma grapples with organ theft. Higuchinsky’s Uzumaki chronicles a town plagued by spirals. Yoshihiro Hoshino’s Cursed focuses on a convenience store whose patrons meet nasty ends. Takashi Miike’s left-field entry, Audition, finds its terror in the climax of a placid love story gone horribly awry.

Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

“I think what makes the Japanese horror movies work specifically is that the horror comes out of nowhere,” remarks Bill Mechanic, producer of the American remake of Dark Water and CEO of Pandemonium Films. “They don’t worry about as much motivation as the western audiences. When you do The Sixth Sense and everything tracks, it’s great, but not everything has to be literal or linear. As much as you want it to make sense, sometimes the image that comes out of nowhere is the one that stays with you forever.”

That eerie sense of displacement is well represented by Miike’s  unnerving Box, a contribution to the Three… Extremes anthology that also features films by Fruit Chan and Chan-wook Park. Miike says that what this girl cannot get out of in Box is not the situation, but rather her own body. “That’s the metaphor, and the fact that you cannot get out of your own body is quite horrifying for me.”

Tony Borg, president of Tartan Video, whose popular UK “Asia Extreme” line started up stateside in January, thinks the unpredictability of Asian horror films offers a strong lure for American audiences. “The issue or the conflict that’s revealed in the movie [often] remains at the end,” he observes. “The vengeful spirit is still unsatisfied. There aren’t sweet little resolutions to these movies, and that’s why they stick with you.”

Vini Bancalari, president of Elite Entertainment, also praises the cinematography. “Many of these films are shot so beautifully, you forget you’re watching horror,” he said. “It’s like a horror/art film.”

Borg thinks that acceptance of Asian horror makes sense, considering the recent generation of male viewers weaned on video games and anime. Additionally, many film aficionados recognize the stellar talents of directors from Japan, China and Korea. He also sees women drawn to these movies because, rather than focusing on murderers, they deal with the horror of broken relationships, such as in Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters.

While Tartan Video claims that the Korean movie Whispering Corridors (which begat three sequels) was the first international Asian horror success just prior to Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, it is the latter film that blew the doors open on the trend. According to producer Takashige Ichise (RinguJu-On: The Grudge), Ringu grossed $20 million in Japan and the sequel doubled that take. Since then, there has been a proliferation of movies from the Far East, including Ju-Rei: The Uncanny, Isola, Marronier, two more Ringu movies (plus a Korean remake and even a Japanese TV series), and the five-part Tomie franchise, about a sinister schoolgirl.

The fact that you cannot get out of your own body is quite horrifying for me…”
–Takashi Miike

These movies have come out on DVD in the U.S. through major studios and indies such as Lions Gate, Tartan, Elite, Pathfinder, Shriek Show, Synapse, Adness/Kadokawa and Central Park Media. Sometimes they are released more than once. Universal recently reissued The Ring with a bonus disc; Sony now offers the extended director’s cut of The Grudge and DreamWorks has made the four-part Ringu series available domestically. “Personally, I think that home video is where this genre will develop,” offers Bancalari. “These films will keep finding new audiences generation after generation. These are The Evil Deads of the future.”

Tinseltown still sees plenty of horrific green on the big screen. Given the success of The Ring ($129M theatrically; $70M DVD sales), The Grudge ($110M; $48M) and The Ring Two ($75M), Hollywood has multiple Asian remakes forthcoming: Phone at Maverick, A Tale of Two Sisters at DreamWorks, The Eye at Cruise/Wagner Productions and a rumored Oldboy remake with Nicolas Cage. While the recent Dark Water remake ($25M) performed weakly, Asian directors like Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu and the Pang Brothers  keep coming to Hollywood to do remakes and new original features.

The struggle for moviemakers reworking these Asian gems into American stories is bridging the cultural divide. “The belief in ghosts, the belief in fate, the belief in spirit—it’s a natural part of their environment and it is not a natural part of ours,” states Mechanic. “But it’s definitely a part of our movie environment. I thought Dark Water was the most Western-style Japanese movie I had seen since the Kurosawa pictures. Just like Kurosawa was framed by either watching Western pictures or reading Western literature, I thought Nakata and his team were heavily influenced by Western movies, in particular the Polanski pictures.” He adds that while the Japanese version of Dark Water “is a story of fate, our movie is a story of a past haunting a character and leading in a certain direction, so it becomes a story of sacrifice.”

Many Asian horror movies, particularly from Japan, have scary or psychotic women at their center. One could wonder if this is a representation of traditional Japanese males unable to cope with females gaining more independence. “In Japan, for more than 100 years, we’ve had this concept of ‘Kwaidan,’ which means ‘scary story,’” explains Miike. “In all of those stories, there is a socially-suppressed woman, which was a symbol of Japanese society, and most of them were betrayed by men and come back to this world to take revenge.”

“I would say that, traditionally, Japanese culture has been male-dominated,” agrees director Masayuki Ochiai (Infection, Parasite Eve). “Women have always been suppressed to some extent, so that accumulated frustration or sadness could turn out to be extremely horrifying or scary after their death. Nowadays, however, Japanese women are getting stronger and stronger.”

“I think that the Kwaidan”—represented by classic films like Kwaidan and Empire of Passion—“was constantly doing well until the ’60s,” remarks director Norio Tsuruta (Premonition). “Then in the ’70s, The Exorcist came to Japan, and the traditional Kwaidan faded from the marketplace.” It was usurped by slasher movies in the ’80s. “It was later modified into an updated version, and a big success was represented in Ringu. The longhaired, female ghosts are typical classic types of ghosts that are often seen in Kwaidan.”

Ariel Gade and Jennifer Connelly
in Dark Water (2005).

Horror movies from Korea and other countries also focus on age-old tales. “A lot of the Korean movies that you see now are remakes of old Korean fairy tales, and they just happen to be very female-centric stories,” explains Borg. “Some of the films are old fairy tales, others are urban legends they’ve transformed into horror films.”

With freaky flicks now coming out of China (The Occupant, Inner Senses) and Korea (Ring Virus, Oldboy), American audiences will soon get to experience more Asian anxiety. Some of the Far East horror anthologies are also multinational, like Three, featuring shorts directed by Kim Ji-Woon (Korea), Nonzee Nimibutr (Thailand) and Peter Chan (Hong Kong). Regardless of which part of Southeast Asia these movies originate from, there are many stylistic similarities that make them universally appealing.

“I believe that horror should be something that multiplies the source of horror inside the audience, and something that triggers their imagination and lets them roll by themselves,” explains Ichise. “At the same time, it should be intelligent, interesting entertainment… with class. It would be easy to make simply brutal or ugly films, but that would not classify good horror.”

The best Asian horror movies certainly qualify as classic horror films in their themes and execution. But they’re also changing the way we look at fear. MM

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