Lurking in the Shadows of the Asian Psyche – What Makes Asian Horror So Terrifying?
When you think of horror, what usually follows would be the image of long dark haired girls dressed in white. But did you know that these caricatures are more an archetype of Asian horror than Western horror?
Western horror over the years have been a genre that hosted a hodgepodge of films. From slasher to aliens to survival movies, these all fall under the umbrella of ‘horror’. Yet Asian horror, on the other hand has always been more specific. Asian horror usually focuses on a supernatural element, be it curses or vengeful ghosts.
Comparatively I would say that Asian horror is much more haunting than Western, only because of how it honed its craft through the years. Some classic Asian horror films were so influential, they spawned several of their own Western remakes. We see this in Shutter (2004) and A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003) becoming Shutter (2008) and The Uninvited (2009) respectively. Some films even had a series of Hollywood remakes such as The Ring (Inspired by Ringu) and The Grudge (Inspired by Ju-On: The Grudge).
However these remakes miss the mark of Asian horror and instead rely on Western tropes such as jump scares. In dissecting these films we can come to understand what makes Asian horror films truly terrifying.
Firstly, one thing to note is that these four movies are from different Asian countries with Ringu and Ju-On from Japan, A Tale of Two Sisters from Korea, and Shutter from Thailand. This leads to each of these films having a unique brand of horror influenced by their home countries. While they have some similarities, there are still elements that separate them.
From Japanese horror or J-horror, we look at the iconic examples of Ringu (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). These two films are often hailed as the best that J-horror has to offer, influencing future generations of the genre. In these films, the element of horror comes from the fact that death seems accidental and inescapable. In Ringu the curse comes in the form of a cursed tape and in Ju On the curse follows anyone who enters the house.
These curses then follow you, making nowhere safe, be it in public, or in the safety of one’s home. We see these entities follow and haunt their victims until they are claimed by the spirits. The fact is, once someone makes contact with the curse, death follows.
These people die as a result of a thoughtless accident of nature. They are neither good, nor evil, they were just unlucky. This ties in with the idea of cosmic horror, a subgenre popularised by American author H.P. Lovecraft. While these films are not prototypical examples of cosmic horror (with no large looming cosmic entities or visceral gore), Ju-On: The Grudge, emulates this form of horror by aligning with Lovecraft’s philosophy of Cosmicism.
The film leans hard into the idea that the human beings do not matter in the story, they are helpless despite their autonomy. There are no lessons learnt and we see the characters not in control despite their agency. At the end of it there are only unanswered questions and a sense of hopelessness, making this truly terrifying.
J-Horror also uses sound very carefully. Most scenes leave you with long moments of silence. Instead of having the sound build up to a crescendo, leading to a jump scare, it does the opposite. It forces the viewer to stew in the silence, unaware of what is to come next. This not only makes the scares less predictable but also preys on our natural fear of silence. With this, it creates an unsettling atmosphere, as we are keenly aware of every slight sound.
In these films there is also a sound association to the entity, such as the Kayoko’s guttural death rattle in Ju-On. This creates an inherent sensitivity to the sound as we hear the rattle before any of the characters are taken by the curse. This conditions the audience to fear the sound as we know that what comes next isn’t going to be pretty.
Korean horror or K-horror uses more psychological elements. In A Tale of Two Sisters, what we expect is a horror movie where an evil entity haunts a poor unsuspecting victim. But that is nowhere close to the truth of the film. We see Su-Mi (Im Soo-Jung) struggle with her guilt at being unknowingly complicit in her sister’s death. The whole film, this truth is kept from the audience until the very end.
Through the use of the unreliable narrator Su-Mi, we see apparitions and strange occurrences in the house and are misled. As events unfold, the audience gets more and more confused as secrets are revealed slowly and contradict the narrative we know. Only at the end when Su-Mi faces her guilt, do we see the truth. In this, it creates horror through uncertainty. We, like Su-Mi, begin to feel as if we are losing our minds, doubting our own judgement.
On top of that, K-horror mostly focuses on despair. We are presented with unwinnable scenarios where characters are helpless as events unfold. As the film comes to a close, the horror stops and we are left with the heaviness of the truth. There are no happy endings, in fact K-horror hinges on this despair. Melodrama is the default narrative mode in Korean cinema as it reflects the struggles that Korean people have experienced in their past. That is not to say that K-horror doesn’t scare you – it does but like fear, this despair feels more personal and leaves a lasting imprint.
Shutter, the 2004 Thai horror film, adopts from the aforementioned films and shows us the best that Thai horror has to offer. Coming up after the J-horror boom, we see scares reminiscent of Ringu and Ju-On, but Shutter gives us its own unique brand of horror. In Shutter there is a strong focus on the character and his guilt after an accident and it becomes unclear if he is truly haunted or haunted by guilt.
We are shown two sides of the same story – a narrative regaling us of hauntings and supernatural entities contrasted with a skeptic’s point of view. The film does well to confuse the audience and character alike, creating a mind-bending trip filled with terrifying scares.
On top of that, Shutter also gives us an eerie and horrifying twist. The reveal is arguably the most memorable horror movie ending to date. While distracting us with scares, the film plants the truth in small fragments, only making sense in the end. As the movie closes out, it leaves us with not only a disturbing image but also gives us no resolution. Showing Tun’s (Ananda Everingham) fate as being resigned to the fact that he will forever be haunted and tormented.
This also is a link to the idea of karma. In Thailand, about 95% of the population are Buddhist so it’s no surprise that its influence seeps into their films. This idea of karma refers to action driven by intention, eventually leading to future consequences. References to religion are also sprinkled throughout the film, giving a cultural richness and something that feels based in reality, accentuating the horror.
Overall, Asian horror is truly unlike anything else, it is aware of the cultures it represents, giving scares that transcends the screen and is highly specific in its use of technical aspects of film as well as aware of what scares audiences. As spooky season rolls around, nothing would be better than to curl up and appreciate these masterpieces and enjoy the thrilling adrenalin rush these films provide.
With all that being said, why not have a go at creating your own unique horror! The fourth and final round of The Inciting Incident: Sinema Screenplay Challenge 2020 is now open for submissions and the genre is ‘HORROR’. So get your ideas ready and craft your own spooky screenplay.
Submissions close on 6 November 2020, 11:59PM (GMT+8). For full details and submission of entries, visit the competition’s official webpage at https://www.sinema.sg/tii-horror/
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To get you started for the season of horror, why not give ‘Shutter’ a watch: