From East to West – Asian Horror Cinema

A look at the divide between Asian and Western cinema, and why Asian horror cinema is beautifully twisted in the greatest possible way.

I have loved horror movies for as long as I can remember, which is a bit odd considering that my very first experience with such films was late-night channel surfing and stumbling upon Dog Soldiers (2002). The scene in question involved a few guys sitting around a campfire towards the latter half of the movie when, from the sky, a mutilated cow fell onto the campfire. At that exact moment, I got up, said “sod that” and walked out of the room. To this day, I haven’t watched that film again.

Years passed and I began consuming all of the slasher and zombie flicks I could get my hands on. Then along came The Grudge (2004) and everyone I knew lost their collective shits. This, along with The Ring (2002), signalled the start of Hollywood stealing Asian films and remaking them – or, you could argue, ruining them – for a Western demographic. Why do I say Hollywood “ruined them”? For many, those films are scary. For some, they probably still have nightmares because of them. However, they’re not on the same level as the originals from Asia.

Asian horror cinema has a style, an aesthetic and a theme all of its own. Where Western horror cinema tends to focus on in-your-face slashers and jump-scare ghost stories, the films that come out of the Far East tend be much slower, more methodical. They float along on a sea of style, plot and exquisite attention to detail, compared to the brash, scares-before-story attitude that is so indicative of the state of Hollywood in recent years. Its merit is determined, at least for modern films, on body count and how many gallons of blood were used.

Many Asian horror films tend to deal with supernatural entities – ghosts, apparitions and the like. Ringu (1998), directed by Hideo Nakata, and Ju-On (2000), directed by Takashi Shimizu have supernatural plots. Ju-On is an anthology film of sorts detailing the experiences of tenants in a curses house, whereas Ringu deals with a cursed videotape that brings death to those that watch it after seven days. The Eye (2002) tells the tale of a young girl that sees ghosts after a corneal transplant, and was remade in 2008 starring Jessica Alba – so you know it’s world class. Not.

However, where Western cinema tends to stick to the tried and true formula for horror movies, those in Asia are willing to step outside of the box. For example, EXTE (2007) is, at its roots, a film about cursed hair extensions made from a stolen corpse that continues to grow hair even in death. Uzumaki (2000) concerns a tow that becomes infected and terrorised by evil spirals. All this pales in comparison, in my opinion, to the anthology film Rampo Noir (2005). The four separate short films are taken from works by Edogawa Rampo who is considered Japan’s leading writer of erotic-grotesque fiction. The film is insane and twisted, but is also so beautifully crafted that makes it distinctly Asian.

I made a point earlier in this article that modern Western films tend to stick with violence and gore to get their shocks. I will concede that Asian cinema is also guilty of ultraviolence in movies but it is not done for the shock factor alone. Yes, it plays a part in it but the psychology and plot that surrounds it and causes it is sublime. For the best examples of this, one has to look no further than Jee-woon Kim and Chan-wook Park from South Korea. These two names, in my opinion, are some of the best in the world. Chan-wook Park gave us the Vengeance Trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the amazing Oldboy (2003) and the beautiful Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Those that have been paying attention in the last year or two would have seen Spike Lee give the world his take on Oldboy in 2013, which was utterly pointless if you ask me. Jee-woon Kim gave the world A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and A Bittersweet Life (2005).

However, his greatest work – and my favourite movie of recent memory – is I Saw The Devil (2010). This is the one film that I believe gives us the greatest example of Asian cinema firing on all cylinders. It tells the story of NIS Agent Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee) on a destructive path of revenge after the brutal murder of his fiancée by the psychopathic Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi). It’s superviolent but beautiful. Harsh but poignant. High-octane but thoughtful. It makes you feel bad. It punches you in the face and revels in your confusion and mixed emotions. The performances of the two main actors, Min-sik Choi and Byung-hun Lee are worthy of the highest of awards. They embody the characters so wonderfully, with such commitment and zeal, that the film transcends its basic revenge plotline and becomes a film that should be regarded with the utmost respect.

I will be diving deeper into films mentioned in this article at a later date, but I leave you with this: if you are a fan of horror cinema and have only been exposed to Western cinema, I implore you, beg you, to broaden your horizons. Any of the films I have mentioned here are a good introduction to the genre, so pick one, buy the DVD off of Amazon, import if you have to and just revel in their brilliance.

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