Dealing With Death: Ghosts and Spirits Aren’t All Scary
Halloween has just passed. Haunted houses and costume parties aside, Halloween celebrations in Asia are mostly just commercial and fun affairs, a yearly occasion for all alike to escape real life and treat yourself to a good ol’ scare. Most of the time, the true spirit of Halloween is lost in all the marketing noise everywhere around the world, what more here in Asia?
Except, if we think back about the practice of Hallowmas (a three-day Western Christian observance ceremony which commemorates the dead and the departed), the actual nature of Halloween and the other days of Hallowmas may be closer to us than we think. Just like how Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead on 2 November every year, which we see in Coco (2017), there are many similar observances around Asia that also commemorate departed family members.
In the Philippines, the Day of the Dead (or Araw ng mga Patay) is on 1 November each year. In Indonesia, the Torajan people not only live with the corpses of their family members, the Ma’nene ritual takes place every three years and corpses are dug out to be cleansed. In Chinese culture, there is the annual Hungry Ghost Festival and Tomb Sweeping Day. All these Asian occasions remember the dead in many ways and even downplay the terrifying aspects of death that have saturated today’s media.
It is no wonder that the topic of death is a favourite in Asian cinema. Not only are we constantly reminded of it in our lives through all these ceremonies, death often ties in neatly with ideas of family and community, both of which are common tropes in Asian films. If you’ve had enough of screaming your lungs out after all the Halloween scares, take some time to unwind, to laugh a little and to cry a lot as we look at some Asian films – ranging from blockbusters to indie shorts – and how they approach death. We promise, no jump scares:
Death is never a singular affair, especially in Asia where family and community mean everything. When dealing with death, there are elaborate functions and superstitions that living members of the family have to abide by, whether for funerals or for commemorations after.
Singaporean short Up in the Air (2019) plays with the belief that the gates of the underworld are opened during the Hungry Ghost Festival, allowing spirits to roam around in the land of the living. A hungry ghost boy returns to his neighbourhood only to find out that no one has lit incense sticks for him, which means that no food is offered to him. Starving, he stumbles home and finds that only his curious younger brother is able to see him.
Focusing on the heartwarming relationship between the brothers but also serving a bittersweet reminder of the future before them that they do not have, Up in the Air tackles the eerie reputation of the Hungry Ghost Festival by offering it as an opportunity for family members to reunite.
Even without returning spirits, the thought that the dead live on in our hearts forever is portrayed in Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008). Any event that calls for a family reunion serves as a stark reminder of people who have left. In Still Walking, the family is celebrating the fifteenth death anniversary of the oldest son. So many years later, Still Walking shows how memories are never really forgotten.
The natural scripting of the feature film captures the tensions that remain rife amongst the various friends and family who arrived to pay respects. And yet, the family continues to grow and learn about each other as they gather in remembrance of a lost kin. Even amidst loss, fond and happy memories live on in this simple but relatable tale.
With all the necessary funeral procedures and cultural superstitions, there are also service providers who double-up as knowledge beholders that help the living family members deal with their dead kin, literally. Following a man who helps to cremate bodies for a criminal syndicate, The Crematorium Man (2018) portrays the funeral rites that are enacted to pay respects to the bodies of the lives that have gone.
This Singaporean film handles a wide range of emotions adeptly, juggling off-handed jokes with the cruel realities of life. Complete with the quintessential loud abrasive suo na music that follows Chinese funeral processions, The Crematorium Man succeeds in telling a compact tale that is both impactful and insightful.
Taiwanese short Sunflowers (2014) sees a girl who aspires to be the world’s top makeup artist. Chasing her dreams from one runway model to another, she stumbles upon a stint that lands her with more opportunities to practise her makeup skills…while dressing up the dead, makeup included. Paired with conscious camera angles, Sunflowers display precise editing to generate humour through well-timed jokes. Sometimes, it shows that you can’t help but laugh in the face of death, even as the tears fall endlessly. While predictable at times, Sunflower promises an entertaining, behind-the-scenes tale of the people who help preserve the dead bodies for funeral processions to be carried out.
Both short films give us a glimpse into the practices of people who are essential to the funeral businesses, not only giving the living a peace of mind but also allowing the dead to rest in peace.
What comes after life is a common question that humanity has constantly sought to answer, whether through religion or recounts from near-death experiences. The film medium becomes the best possible way for filmmakers to imagine how life is like in the underworld, creating a world that can be just about anything.
Many animators have tried their hand at illustrating a version of life after death in fun and accessible ways, often dispelling the ominous outlook of death that has haunted today’s cinema. Of course, this is not to say that life is better after death. But if anyone happens to be feeling existential, maybe these adorable takes on the after life can put one at ease, assuring you that the unknowable afterlife is as good as you make it to be, just like the unknowable life that awaits you in your near-future.
Head to the Death School for aspiring grim reapers in the Taiwanese short film Deathigner (2013). From the Egyptian Anubis to the Chinese ‘Black Guard’ and ‘White Guard’, these variations of grim reapers have signed up their offspring to the Death School in the hopes of having their little ones take over their trade one day. Unfortunately, the mini Western Grim Reaper is facing some trouble in his assignments for being just a bit too compassionate.
Through bringing the different deathly personnels from all over the world under one roof, Deathigner shows how the different cultures around the world perceive death and the figures that represent them. Fun and utterly adorable, the short film assures us that maybe death is just a cute mini Grim Reaper greeting us with a hand-knitted scarf. If you can’t get enough of light-hearted animations about the afterlife, check out Death in D Minor (2013) and The Undiscovered Six Days (2013).
For filmmakers who explore the afterlife through live action, there is a niggling feeling of a life that is not much different from what it is now. Korean blockbuster AIong With the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) and its sequel Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (2018) engage with large-scale world building to detail the dead going through trials by seven judges, in accordance to Korean beliefs. If the dead soul passes all trials, up to heaven they go. If not, they’ll have to serve out their punishments for the sins they have committed. As high-budget action movies that portray realistically frightening graphics, the Along With the Gods series definitely lives up to its hype as engaging entertainment while staying true to the different aspects of cultural beliefs related to the dead.
Many films have also taken on a more mundane approach to the afterlife. Next (2018) portrays a reality that all of us are definitely familiar with: waiting in line. With queue numbers being announced and unexpected staff breaks just before your assigned number, the Filipino short film makes fun of the frustrating queues that the unborn souls have to take – complete with chatty strangers speaking different languages – before they can get assigned to their role in their next lives.
While the film’s context is slightly hazy, its unhurried pace places us in the position of the next-in-line: anticipating but apprehensive. And when it is finally the protagonist’s turn to step behind the closed doors, perhaps all these films about the dead hint at the true horrors of dying: having to still deal with bureaucracy and red tape.
Whether for filmmakers or viewers, film has always been a way to comprehend and deal with death. Films have shown that they can comfort the living who have lost loved ones, either through showing similar experiences undergone by others or assuring them that life after death for those they care about may not be too bad.
Banner Photo: Film still from Sunflowers (2014)