Greetings readers, this is Karl Hungus (of karlhungus.com fame) contributing an article for The Vault of Horror, so I'd like to pay my respects to B-Sol for running an excellent blog, and I hope everyone finds this a worth addition to the Vault. The subject for this is of course Asian Horror, so without further delay, I'll begin.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man from director Shinya Tsukamoto was my first introduction to Japanese horror, and I think it was pivotal in bringing the darker side of Japanese cinema to western audiences. It was a terrifying black & white nightmare, an extremely twisted evolution of David Cronenberg's "Body Horror" where a man is slowly being transformed into living metal. That film absolutely chilled me one night when I was a teenager, and I'd say it started a love affair with horror from the east.
It was one of a few films that came out of Japan in the late 80's that widely set the bar for part of what we know as J-Horror today; the more visceral films that take their inspiration from the likes of Cannibal Holocaust. 1988's Evil Dead Trap (An unfortunate title, as the original Japanese name translates as "Prudent Trap") gave us a fairly thrashy, yet competent gore movie, where a female news reporter receives what appears to be a snuff video, and sets off to investigate whether or not it's real, leading her crew into a literally deadly trap, where they are tortured and killed in grotesque fashion.
Japan became rather infamous for extreme torture films, and in essence, fake snuff videos. Guinea Pig: Flowers of Flesh and Blood was quite an ordeal to watch, and while I can appreciate the surreal display of poetry interjected with dismemberment, as a man dressed as a samurai warrior recites haiku in between butchering a young girl, it's not something I'd be too thrilled to see again. The only other film in the notorious Guinea Pig series I've seen is the 4th one Mermaid in a Manhole, which serves not so much as a fake snuff film, but offers up a genuinely disturbing and unique experience.
It's without a doubt that filmmakers in Japan had reached the pinnacle of extreme gore movies, but rather than continue into farce, a more mature kind of film emerged. In 1999, director Takashi Miike brought us Audition, which not only became one of my favourites, it was one of the first wave of films that put J-Horror on the map big time. It's a dark, slow burning affair that builds it's characters first, playing out like a drama, before taking a shift in tone towards more of a mystery, building the suspense, and finally grabbing the audience by the throat in the shocking finale. It's the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock would make if he had ever directed a gore movie, sombre and reserved, like a Psycho for modern times, an introspective into themes of recurring violence and it's consequences.
Miike didn't stop there, and while Audition was quietly tempered, Ichi The Killer was excess itself. A powerfully over the top Yakuza slasher, steeped in sadism, and moments of David Lynch like ambiguity. Further down the Lynchian ladder, we have Gozu which is much more surreal than anything that has come before it, but none the less an extremely good film, that is both disturbing and quite comical at times.
2000's Battle Royale was another of that first wave, along with Audition and Ring, a combination of B-movie sensibilities and ultra-slick direction. Plot wise, it's a half way between Lord Of The Flies and an 80's low budget sci-fi action movie. However, under Kinji Fukasaku's direction, it becomes one of the slickest pieces of action and brutality there is, so while not strictly a horror, it's definitely an important film.
This brings us to the film that needs no introduction, easily the most influential of all J-horrors, Ring. Director Hideo Nakata created one of the most perfect horror films ever, and cemented the image of pale women with long, black hair into popular culture. To say this had a knock-on effect would be to sell it's influence short, as the film paved the way for numerous others like The Grudge, from director Takashi Shimizu who also went on to work with Shinya Tsukamoto in the excellent Marebito. Before long, we had a vast amount of Japanese horrors that took their queue from Ring, Dark Water and Pulse being just a few in many. Sadly, the film had also sparked a revolution in remakes, when The Ring came out, nobody could stop Hollywood from cannibalising all Asian horrors they could get their hands on.
This brings us neatly to K-Horror, as South Korea were the first to remake Ring back in 1999 as The Ring Virus. I felt that for the most part, Korean ghost stories had been inferior to their Japanese counterparts. They weren't bad films by any stretch, but by the time 2003's Acacia came along, it felt like I've seen it all before. A Tale Of Two Sisters however, absolutely blew me away, it was a breath of fresh air that was greatly needed, and director Ji-woon Kim was certainly a talented individual. If you were to ask me what scared me the most, I would say it's probably this one, I hadn't be frightened by a film so deeply since I first watched Ring. Kim also directed the darkly comic The Quiet Family in 1998, which in turn was remade by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris, both versions I would seriously recommend.
Another Korean title that came out in 2003 is the absolutely bonkers Save The Green Planet, which is part black comedy, part sci-fi, and part torture film, with liberal sprinklings of drama. Others such as Into The Mirror and military ghost story R-Point are also extremely well done, and worth a look, even if they are quite unoriginal. Taking us on a completely different path in 2006 was the excellent monster movie The Host, throwing up some comic laughs with an extremely compelling rampage.
Other Asian countries also had their go at the horror genre, with Hong-Kong/Singapore co-production The Eye being one film that really scared me witless at the time, and Abnormal Beauty is another psycho-sexual horror, which takes it's queue from the more gore orientated films of the 80's I've mentioned above. Thailand has also tried it's hand with the excellent Shutter, which isn't particularly original, but it's just so well made and scary that you can forgive the formulaic effort.
Overall, Asia has a lot to offer the horror fan, and while a lot of the ghost stories can be very by the numbers story wise, they can still be worthwhile and very scary experiences. In fact, I've seen a hell of a lot of Asain horrors, and there's really only been one that I thought was a complete waste of my time, and that's Thai film Bangkok Haunted.
So, I hope this has been an enjoyable read, and that you've gleaned something from it.
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