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Why I Love Asian Horror – From the Perspective of a Scaredy-Cat

14 May 2020


Why I Love Asian Horror – From the Perspective of a Scaredy-Cat

I wasn’t always a fan of horror movies; I’ve always been too faint-hearted to be fully engaged in or appreciate a film filled with startling noises and unknown elements lurking around, just waiting to ambush my senses. But as I got older, I somehow found myself being drawn to horror films. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still watching with my eyes half-closed and ears covered most of the time, but there’s this strange sense of inquisitiveness that pulls me towards the genre. 

Personally for me, creature features, slasher films or basic ghost stories don’t hold much weight. You can generally convince yourself that these beings or situations aren’t real. The most compelling horror films are those that tap into your psyche, and unravels you from within. Asian horror are usually of this type. 

(Still from Jigoku by Nobua Nakagawa / Image credit: Shintoho)

Asian horror films have been acclaimed for years, and are known for being more thoughtful than their Western counterparts. But the genre of Asian horror represents more than just creative filmmaking expertise. Horror films have been used by filmmakers to uncover the dark sides of their societies, and to stand up to socio-political constraints. Here’s why I think horror films are such compelling works.

Catharsis: What We Cannot and Dare Not Say Out Loud

What I find particularly remarkable about the horror genre is that it’s become a channel through which people can express their fears and apprehension. Filmmakers in the genre use their art to communicate the intensity of the anxieties of society as a whole, in a subtle, yet visceral way. 

I’m sure we can agree that addressing our fears openly isn’t easy. That’s essentially what horror represents – it’s a genre of grotesque honesty. Let’s take a look at Japanese horror, for example.

(Still from Kwaidan 怪談 by Masaki Kobayashi / Image credit: Toho)

Japanese history is clearly a difficult and delicate subject to tackle. Japanese filmmakers have always turned to the horror genre to chronicle their narratives; from how their national identity and societal values have been undermined to how modern technological advancements threaten traditional principles and beliefs that were once so important.

The theme of revenge and vengeance is a staple in Asian horror films. They’re usually depicted as spirits or situations that force people to confront their sins and guilt. This archetype became much more impactful after World War Two, a time of cultural upheaval. Post-war Japanese horror films are a kind of response, if not a reflection, of the devastating aftermath. Not only did the war leave physical devastation behind, but also a lasting psychological trauma.

We can see this most clearly in the 1960 film Jigoku 地獄, by director Nobuo Nakagawa. It tells the story of a young student Shiro and his time in hell, after killing three people, including his girlfriend. It’s eventually revealed that it isn’t actually Shiro who caused their deaths, but his demonic alter ego, Tamura. 

(Still from Jigoku by Nobua Nakagawa / Image credit: Shintoho)

In hell, Shiro is punished for the sins he technically didn’t commit. This includes horrible dismemberment, castration and burning alive. It’s based on the Buddhist concept of afterlife, where everyone faces Judgement Day in hell, with their punishments corresponding to the severity of their crimes while they were alive. More frightening is the idea that you may be punished regardless of your involvement in a crime. 

Jigoku garnered a cult status for its graphic and terrifying depiction of the afterlife. When I first watched the film, the connection to post-war sentiments wasn’t clear in the beginning. But it makes itself evident (symbolically, of course) once we descend into the pits of hell. I don’t think it has to be spelled out how the psychological trauma of 1945 translates into post-war Japanese horror films.

Now let’s take a look at Thai horror films of the early 2000s. Movies such as Shutter ชัตเตอร์ กดติดวิญญาณ (2004) and Bangkok Haunted  ผีสามบาท (2001) gained critical and commercial success, putting Thai horror in the international limelight. But what I find the most significant about their success, is that they portrayed the anxieties of people of the time – how conservative, traditional values are changing in the face of modernity. 

(Still from Bangkok Haunted by Oxide Pang and Pisut Praesangeam / Image credit: RS Film)

Bangkok Haunted by Oxide Pang and Pisut Praesangeam features a lonely woman seeking love through sexual encounters with strangers. She uses a love potion to seduce men, drained from the corpses of dead women. The ghosts of the women from whom the love potion was drained haunt the men, and kill them. 

The timing of this film coincides with the country’s AIDS crisis, and it becomes clear that the movie becomes a caution against sexual promiscuity. Now to be clear, I’m not speaking on behalf of Thai people, and in no way condemning the sex work industry. However, the film’s underlying message that sexual promiscuity is destructive is evident. 

(Still from Ringu by Nobua Nakagawa / Image credit: Toho)

There’s always been a conflict between the rise of modernity and traditional values, and there’s no better place to examine this theme than the Asian horror movies of the early 2000s. It was a time when technology and modernity was progressing, a time of change, something that we tend to be wary of. There’s something about the unknown and unfamiliar that unsettles us, and while it may not be clear, many Asian horror movies were built on this issue. 

Hideo Nakata’s 1998 classic Ringu リング is one of the most recognizable films from the Asian horror genre, and has become an iconic franchise. In the film, the vengeful spirit Sadako possesses a cursed video tape, and anyone who watches it is doomed to die within a week. 

Ringu is one of many that can be read as an allegory to how technology can alienate and isolate people. There’s an underlying apprehensiveness towards modernity, given the nation’s history with the traumatic modernity of Hiroshima.

(Still from Shutter by Parkpoom Wongpoom / Image credit: GMM Grammy)

We can also see this veiled caution towards modernity in Parkpoom Wongpoom’s Shutter, where a vengeful spirit haunts the man who betrayed her through his cameras and photographs. What I find especially interesting though, is the combination of traditional supernatural elements and modern technology. It’s as if the genre is reminding us that even modern and rational thought isn’t safe from the most traditional belief systems. 

Pursuit: Breaking Boundaries

For other filmmakers, though, it’s not so much about the actual content of their horror films that makes their work compelling, but what that production means given their socio-political situation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means saying that the films themselves aren’t thrilling. On top of the artistic value of the films, the horror genre provides filmmakers with a unique sort of ammunition against problematic structures. 

(Still from Mother by Tim Pek / Image credit: Tim Pek)

Horror films aren’t usually pretty, and some political powers would rather paint a more colourful image of their nations. That’s why smaller film industries, such as Laos and Cambodia, have shorter histories with the horror genre. Filmmakers had to go through governmental sanctions for their films to be distributed, which aren’t accommodating of horror films. 

But this hasn’t stopped them. Filmmakers such as Mattie Do (Laos) and Tim Pek (Cambodia) have stayed true to their art and continued to direct and produce horror films despite the challenges posed to them by censors. 

Do and Pek couldn’t have more different issues. Do’s challenge was that there was no known market for horror movies in Laos, while Pek’s was that there were too many horror movies being made in Cambodia. In 2007, horror movies were banned in the Khmer Film Festival because there were just too many. 

(Mattie Do at the 2019 Macau FIlm Festival Awards)

Despite this, Pek and his contemporaries continue to work in horror, which remains to be one of the most popular genres in Cambodia. Do, too, has made a name for herself by being Laos’ pioneering horror director. The growing international acclaim she’s been garnering for her horror film, The Last Walk (2013), has also proven to political critics that horror is a productive genre for the industry. 

The horror genre holds a special place in my heart because of how powerful and subversive they can be. Behind all the eerie imagery and chilling sounds, horror movies can represent our deepest darkest fears that may even be too difficult to distinguish. Instead, we address these fears and anxieties in such a way that is both otherworldly and relatable at the same time. It’s like a cathartic release we never knew we needed.

Read More:

Giving Voices to the Silenced, Southeast Asian Filmmakers Are Steadfast in Their Pursuit for Authenticity

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