Halloween: Asian Horror Films

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Scrap the popcorn and the all-American horror flicks, get ready to squirm to horror done the Asian way.

Horror movies and I have always had a love-hate relationship. From a young age I loved thrillers and all things gothic, but come Halloween it seemed impossible for me to make that last jump (scare) into the horror genre.

I remember being 15 at my friend’s house watching Insidious. Suddenly half-way through watching, she switches off the lights and instantly falls asleep without so much as a ‘Goodnight, and don’t worry there are no demon-possessed children in my house!’ I have to admit, the eerie music, creepy faces, very obvious jump scares and all that stuff works on me. I’m that annoying friend who watches horror movies through the gaps in between their fingers for the whole film.

But despite my scaredy-cat status, this Halloween I’m going to suggest a horror upgrade. The traditional rubric of the American horror genre does a pretty good job of scaring me, but that doesn’t mean it’s giving me even the minimum of what I expect from any film I watch. Sometimes a cheap thrill is enough, granted. However, Western horror produces so many movies and sequels that create massive horror movie franchises now, so it’s not surprising that quality has been replaced with predictability.

So what can Asian horror, in particular Japanese and South Korean horror films, offer us?

The possibilities are really endless in a cinema so ruled by symbolism that expresses itself with such stellar cinematography – these films are really movie poetry and that’s no exaggeration.

The first thing people have to know about Asian horror is that it works totally differently to any horror film we in the West are likely to have seen. Take The Ring (1998), which the US adapted in 2002. The Japanese film is filled with light and is almost excruciatingly bright in places, like when you haven’t slept all night and light starts streaming in through your curtains. Darkness just isn’t necessary to scare the crap out of you – sometimes you have to see what you don’t want to. This film pairs squealing high-pitched noises with unnerving imagery like floating chairs, mirrors, the combing of long black hair, and so on to freak you out. Not to mention water (of all things!) is made scary, used in the place of hell-fire here, with hell being the bottom of a well.

I should also mention that the violence in some of these films, which can be much grizzlier than that of slasher movies we’re used to, is done brilliantly. In Korean horror films such as I Saw the Devil (2010) or thrillers like Old Boy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), we see violence of Medieval proportions in terms of its brutality. But it’s not used mindlessly to no effect. Violence here acts as it did in Greek tragedy and Revenge tragedies to follow – it seems a necessary and all-consuming evil.

Most recently I saw A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and An Audition (1999) and they instantly became favourites of mine. Right until the end you have to question everything you see.

For the first half of Taskashi Miike’s An Audition, you don’t even know you’re watching horror. The actors’ names don’t appear in a creepy gothic font right from the start while ominous orchestral music play us in. No, no – it could be any high quality film of any genre, with good pacing, interesting characters and a strong original concept. A man whose wife died years ago is encouraged by his teenaged son to get a new girlfriend. He discusses this with his film director friend who suggests advertising auditions for a phony film so they can audition potential girlfriends for him. You don’t know what to expect, but you’re definitely fearing it. I found myself watching the simplest thing, like a man having a cigarette or a beautiful woman undressing, and being absolutely terrified of what would happen as a result of the tiniest actions.

I promise, what did happen when it happened was not a disappointment in the least. Because these films don’t give you all the answers. Apart from being scary they’re also clever. After watching the film and then venturing online for Reddit theories, you can engage in truly interesting discussions of what these films satirize or warn against, whether they’re feminist or anti-feminist, how distorted the ‘reality’ they were presenting was or not.  The possibilities are really endless in a cinema so ruled by symbolism that expresses itself with such stellar cinematography – these films are really movie poetry and that’s no exaggeration.

The strong imagistic appeal of these films is epitomised in the Korean A Tale of Two Sisters. Like in The Ring we get water everywhere, and the sense of looming entrapment as one of the two little girls, who are the focus of the film, is irrationally (or not so irrationally?) terrified of her wardrobe and her stepmother.

I will say no more for fear of spoilers, but I urge you to see these films. They’re visually gorgeous and psychologically intriguing. Dreams, unconscious fears, the human brain and the supernatural all come together in an amalgamation of mind-blowing horror goodness that you would be stupid not to watch – or perhaps, you’ll rue the day you do…