A Rough Guide to Asian Horror Cinema

Someone out there in Internet space has posted what he or she considers to be an informative, but basic Guide to Asian Horror (follow this link to check it out).

They admit to having seen only 15 Asian horror films and then proceed to criticize those movies in incredibly Western aesthetic terms. It’s sort of like if a Rough Guide to American Prison Cinema failed to mention Cool Hand Luke, Papillion and the entire sub-genre of women’s prison exploitation cinema.

But for those of you who’ve recently gotten the Asian horror bug (which to my mind means you’re ready to explore some of the most interesting pop-film in the world today) than the above link can help you get started, I suppose. Or lead you in the direction of some very tedious movies that will turn you off of Asian Horror all together.

I’d like to take the liberty to respond critically to the guide linked above and, in so doing, turn you on to a more dangerous and more creative kind of Asian horror cinema. If you like your flicks weird, out of control and ambitious… then keep reading.

The classifications “Asian Horror” and “Extreme Asian” don’t mean exactly the same thing, but the two film movements do feed each other quite a bit. The film TETSUO: IRON MAN managed to break new ground for both horror and extreme Asian cinema on nothing but a shoestring budget and is also one of the few true cyberpunk masterworks from any culture.

Their Guide is mostly concerned with more accessible and traditional horror fare, and that’s the problem. They leave out obvious masterpieces, particularly in the “Extreme-Asian” and existential J-horror set. Works like the groundbreaking Tetsuo: Iron Man, Visitor Q, and Cure as well as more recent films like Three Extremes are completely missing from the list (though Chan-wook Park’s chapter in Three Extremes sort of sucks, but the other two more than make up for it).

My guide would include much of the softer, more commercial choices as well, but would not ignore the extreme underbelly of Asian Horror, which is where, to my mind, the really interesting creative decisions are being made right now.

Visitor Q.jpg
VISITOR Q is Japanese director Takashi Miike at his most intense. The film is a horror movie, a comedy and an existential journey into the erosion of the Japanese culture. Beyond that it cannot be explained and can barely even be experienced. Be warned, this is a work of questionable moral content.

Meanwhile their Guide’s criticism of films it does include leaves much to be desired. To me the author misses the most enjoyable aspects of many of the movies. The Eye is mentioned as being weak on plot (true), but there’s no comment on the fact that it’s the creepiest exorcise in gore-less horror imagery since the original Haunting. The author says Uzumaki has “no real emotional core to the horror”, but fails to mention that the whole thing is supposed to be gloriously cheesy and comically manipulative. The movie plays with time wonderfully, so that it can pace out each freaky revelation in perfect cadence. It is completely overboard and silly. Then he proceeds to claim that The Ring is the best he’s seen of the Asian horror film movement. Well, it might be – to him – and I certainly do appreciate the writer’s taste for slower films (being a cinephile – I love a good, slow movie), but The Ring is just as contrived and emotionless as the other fare, only without the extreme conclusions and fierce imagination that I, personally, go to Asian horror to experience in the first place.

On top of this, theme as an element and engine of the films included is entirely missing from the criticism in their Guide. Much of Asian cinema is theme obsessed, to not let that factor into your criticism is to not fully understand the context and relevance of the film. This leads me to believe that the Author cannot see beyond his own cultural expectations of what horror should be.

CURE is experimental in its structure. As each scene unfolds and central locations are established, the film begins to use more and more of an image-based shorthand. Until the last act descends into a steady stream of disconnected images which reference events and locations from the previous acts, leaving the end of the film uncertain and dreamlike. A stunning work.

The author of the Guide recommends the absolutely extraordinary Audition… but again, doesn’t seem even slightly interested in the themes at play in it… which is exactly what makes the film so brilliant to me.

THREE EXTREMES showcases the talents of a trio of Asia’s fiercest contemporary filmmakers. Fruit Chan’s DUMPLINGS short is actually cut from a feature film of the same name. Despite losing more than 30 min. of its running time DUMPLINGS is still an exquisite horror masterpiece. The image shown here is from Takashi Miike’s brilliant segment, THE BOX

I understand that the Rough Guide I’ve linked to above is just somebody posting in the ever-empowering world of free form thought known as the Internet. But I love Asian cinema, and to see someone defining the extremely wide and eclectic body of work that is “Asian Horror” through its most mainstream, watered down examples, without paying any attention to its roots or its flares of wild excess, is to end up ignoring the contributions of some of the most expressive, challenging and promethean filmmakers in the world today.

So check out their Rough Guide, pick a film from it and, after watching it, if you agree with the writer’s opinions then good on you.

But if you think that his/her take on the film you’ve just seen is a little, well, intellectually lazy… then you just come on back home to daddy and watch one of the films I’ve talked about in this post.

Because there’s a lot more going on in Asian Horror than “The Rough Guide” would lead a novice explorer to believe.

UZUMAKI is delirious horror fun. ‘Nuff Said.

PS: A very commercial flick that did not make the Guide was the wonderfully watchable film (originally targeted toward the 15 year-old Japanese girl in all of us) One Missed Call. It came out two years after the less impressive Korean film Phone and shared some of the same ideas. While being an amalgamation of J-horror cliches, it somehow still manages to be insightful, smart, deeply engaging and above all… fun.

One missed Call.jpg
One Missed Call

Posted on by Joshua Dysart Posted in Film & TV, Journal

Add a Comment