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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Asian Horror Cinema

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.


B-Sol said...

Very interesting stuff, sir. I'm nowhere near as up on the Asian stuff, so it looks like I'll be making quite a few additions to my Netflix queue. Congrats on being The Vault's first guest writer. You're welcome back anytime!

Unknown said...

Really nice article.
Gives me some movies to look forward to seeing and reviewing.

Karl Hungus said...

Thanks man, I'm glad you liked it.

Garg Unzola said...

Great guest post!
Strangely I've been wanting to read up on J-Horror since finally seeing The Grudge 2 the other night. It's good to know there's much better quality at the source.

Karl Hungus said...

Thanks Garg. I would say with absolute certainty that there's more quality at the source. The only remake of an asian film in recent times that has been of any worth in my humble opinion is The Departed. Pretty much everything else has been vastly inferior.

Mr. Karswell said...
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Mr. Karswell said...

>Pretty much everything else has been vastly inferior.

Nice article Karl. And true. The more modern mainstream Asian releases mentioned here are all very worthy of viewing and reccomendable, as are the phenomenally stylish horror films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa like Pulse, Charisma, Cure etc... and don't forget the films based on the nightmarishly bizarre manga of Junji Ito like Tomie, Uzumaki, Kakashi (just to name a few.)

My own intro to J-horror came much earlier with the 70's TOHO vampire series of films often refered to as "the Bloodthirsty Series:" The Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula are all tremendous... and even earlier were the awesome Hundred Monsters (or yokai) series set in the samurai era (Kwaidan of course, and all the variations on the Yotsuya Kaiden theme.) These films blew me away as a kid because like most people up until then all I knew about from Japan was Godzilla, Gamera, Ultraman and Johnny Sokko.

The horror films from Shintoho are very much worth seeking out too, like Lady Vampire, Black Cat Mansion, any of the films of Nobuo Nakagawa. Also worth noting are titles from the big studios like Toho, Daiei, and Toei which equally produced a huge amount of excellent horror cinema and still do to this day, they're not only the masters of the giant rubber kaiju creatures and tokusatsu / sentai heroes but excellent with their other sub genres of horror film as well. Even the early horror tv shows like Akuma Kun, Kappa No Sanpei and Operation Mystery would be most welcome finds for people in the USA looking for something different on their horror plate.

Karl Hungus said...

Thanks very much Karswell.

Yeah, there's definitely a hell of a lot more I could have touched on, but I guess I just wanted to give an overview of asian horror, so I really only briefly touch on some of them. Uzumaki is certainly one I'm kicking myself for not including, as it's just brilliantly odd.

Older films like Kwaidan, or for that matter, Onibaba are amazing pieces of cinema. I could probably write endlessly about the subject.

What I would like to do at some stage is write a book about Asian horror, because that's something I find there's a large gap for.

B-Sol said...

Nice idea Karl. I think you've found your niche.

Mr. Karswell said...

>at some stage is write a book about Asian horror

Let me know what I can do to help... for the last 20 years I've collected and traded specifically rare asian cinema, television, and animation with people from all over the world. FYI: I had a website online for abnout 10 years with my collection available for sale or rent (I even supplied producer Roy Lee with screener copies of films that even he couldn't find or didn't know about long before his Ring remake came out.) My collection is huge and varied so let me know what you're looking for when book time comes.

Unknown said...

Oh, I love, love, love, Asian Horror -- from Godzilla and beyond.

Great posting, Dahlin'! 8-)

Unknown said...

Definitely go for that Asian horror book.
I would read it.

Karl Hungus said...

Wow, thanks Karswell!

I'll definitely let you know if I ever get a chance to write it, I don't know where to start at the moment.

NakaBava said...
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NakaBava said...
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NakaBava said...

Not bad. Though your first two paragraphs include a lot of statements that aren't really remotely true. It would be a good idea to start branching out to older Asian horror. There's enough of it out there. Almost everyone ignores the history when covering Asian horror which comes off as pretty ignorant. I read a book on Asian horror recntly which had no mention of Nobuo Nakagawa THE godfather of Japanese horror. I could have set the book on fire.

If someone doesn't know Nakagawa they aren't fit to write a book on Asian horror.

B-Sol said...

Hmmm. Perhaps a more accurate title may have been "Modern Asian Horror Cinema".

Karl Hungus said...

As I've said nakabava, there's a lot I've not even touched on in this post, it serves as a mere outline of more recent films. Just because I didn't post about it, doesn't mean I'm unaware of it, or haven't seen it.

I didn't try to write a comprehensive history of the genre with this post, especially seeing as the oldest film mentioned is from the mid 80's, so I don't think there was any pretentions otherwise. I think b-sol is right, and "Modern" Asian Horror would have been a better title.

NakaBava said...

Modern Japanese may have been a better title I agree. It was just a disappointment I suppose. Its sad to see a total ignorance to this stuff as a whole (Not talking about you here I'm just musing). As I said before I read a book once that did not ever mention Nakagawa or even Kwaidan or Onibaba (Can you believe that?!). And people are reading these books and taking them as fact. Just spreading more and more misinformation pushing the real classics of Japanese horror in to obscurity just through ignorance; and people are paid to write these books. You can tell all they have ever seen are the Tartan released asian films.

I even find places like Bloody Disgusting and Fangoria especially guilty of things like this (until Vault of Horror came along and in my mind pretty much saved BD from becoming a complete joke).

I don't mean to be busting your balls though, as a retrospective of mordern asian horror your article is really comprehensive considering it's length and pretty amazing. I just expected it to be a history of Asian horror, especially in the second paragraph where you stated that Tetsuo and Evil Dead Trap(set the bar for part of what we know as J-Horror today). I think asian film makers pretty much completely started again after those sorts of films. They really reverted back to the kaidan style films of the 50's and 60's but bought them out of period settings and in to the contemporary.

Karl Hungus said...

No, I can understand why you'd bust my balls, especially considering b-sol is doing a pretty awesome History of Horror. Maybe I'll pop by another time, and write a review of an older Japanese horror as a guest post?

I use the term J-Horror trepidatiously though. It does appear to me that it refers to specific films (the ones released by Tartan generally), almost like a pop-culture term, so when I do hear the term being used, it seems synonymous with modern Japanese horror.

Still, good discussion, eh?

B-Sol said...

Karl, you're welcome back anytime to write that review. Perhaps you might become the Vault's resident Japanese horror writer.

Karl Hungus said...

Thanks man, but I don't know about resident. I've enough to do with my own blog, but I'll certainly try my best to get in a review or two later.

Mr. Karswell said...

Weird, did anyone bother to read the comments I posted here before Nakabava started commenting? I'm glad I even bothered...

B-Sol said...

Yes, Karswell, and it's funny how two people can make the same points, yet come off completely differently. You, for example, are constructive and helpful, and your comments smack not at all of cinematic snobbery. On the other hand.........

NakaBava said...

No cinematic snobbery from me at all. In fact I think Karl Hungus as a writer is superb, he has great personality to his writing. My rant wasn't even aimed at him (though I could have stated that better). I was merely commenting on the latest wave of 'Asian Cinema Experts' who have swept book shelves and blogs now that Asian cinema is cool who only know of contemporary Asian cinema, completely writing out everything made before 1980.

I just find them incredibly irritating people and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Stuff like Kwaidan needs to be seen, not written out of history through sheer ignorance. And again this isn't aimed at Hungus as I know he's aware of these films.

B-Sol said...

Understood. Yeah, one thing that sucks about comments, IMs, etc. is that so often the tone isn't properly translated. But I agree about a lot of writers ruling out earlier work. Unfortunately, I find that pops up in many areas of popular study, and it irritates me as well.

NakaBava said...

Writing on boards like this in between doing essays tends to do that. It drains all personality from your writing. I can't wait until I finish uni so that my writing can become more humanized again, instead of overly formal and uptight. lol

Karl Hungus said...

Karswell, yeah I read your comments, don't worry. :)

Nakabava, that's cool, and thank you very much for your compliments.

While we're on the subject of oldschool Japanese horror, care to give me any recommendations? Something that hasn't been mentioned yet, that maybe I've overlooked? Thanks.

NakaBava said...

Sorry for the late reply!

As for a list of older Asian horror films to check out...

Horrors Of Malformed Men
Ghost Story of Yotsuya
Matango - Attack of the Mushroom People
Goke - Body Snatcher From Hell
School of the Holy Beast (Nunsploitation with a horror slant)

I honestly think you'll enjoy all of these films.

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