The following is a visual summarization I have made with clips from many of the films I have talked about:
The class I wrote this blog for, GRSJ230: is described as a course that “explores the complex relationships between gender, race, sexuality, and representations of ‘Asianness’ through an interdisciplinary lens.” Horror films have been in my life since I was little. However with passing time, increased knowledge and attachment to my culture have allowed me to view these films as something more than just a source of entertainment. Instead, it has become a modern tool that exposes a country or region’s culture and “Asianness.”
Thanks to all who tuned into Asian Scare, I hope most if not all, have a newfound appreciation for the horror genre.
While I have focused primarily on Japanese films and its culture, it is still vital to take a look at other regions in Asia. Below is several other Asian countries, their horror film(s), and how they tie into the nation’s cultures and traditions.
British rule from 1841-1997
Brief Japanese occupation lasting from 1941-1945
Handover to China in 1997 and established as a Special Administrative Region (SAR).
Handover ceremony of HK, July 1st, 1997.
The Untold Story (1993) and Dr Lamb (1992), which both depict true gruesome crimes that took place in Hong Kong and Macau
Was commercial cinema until the 1990s
Category III films (equivalent to America’sNC-17, except 18+) introduced in 1988
Violent Category III films was a response to the handover and the identity crisis of the city state; an allegory of politics in Hong Kong, keyed to the socio-political context prior and after the return to China.
“Given the impact of the Tiananmen massacre on the citizens of Hong Kong, we could construe The Untold Story as a sort of political or psycho-social allegory. This is an approach that makes a good deal of sense when talking about another film from roughly the same period that also indulges in extreme displays of violence, both sadistic and masochistic.” – LaiKwan Pang & Day Wong in Masculinities and Hong Kong Cinema
Brief History & the South Korean film industry:
President Kim Young-Sam’s cultural infrastructure initiatives (1994) included the creation of multiplexes with theatres (often had midnight screenings), which encouraged the industrial boom of K-horror
At the time, the Korean film market was not fully open to Japanese imports; movie directors had little to no competition.
Bedevilled (2010) – Bok-nam, a young women who has been mentally, physically, and sexually abused on a remote island seeks vengeance.
“Desire for revenge…indicates the deep structural conditions of violent sociality in South Korea”, “Rape-revenge genre signals a blunt feminist stance against sexual violence” – Michelle Cho in Beyond Vengeance: Landscapes of Violence in Jang Chul-Soo’s Bedevilled
*Edit 11/09/2015: spelling error, Hong Hong–>Hong Kong
*Edit 11/15/2015:Revision of all categories and post titles for better organization.
https://www.coursehero.com/file/10887963/BEYONDVENGEANCE-LANDSCAPESOFVIOLENCEINJANGCHUL-SOOS/ (I am unable to find an online copy of the article, so this will be the only reference to it).
Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the film Kairo (2001) follows several different Japanese university students investigating a website linked to a series of suicides. Through its bitter depiction of desolation in its characters, Kairo introduces a saddening issue prominent in today’s society. In Japan particularity, a phenomenon called hikikomori, is defined by an acute social withdrawal from society by adolescents and young adults. As portrayed in Kairo, the victims are shown exhibiting bizarre behaviour, which display the devastating effects of the sociological alienation.
Hikikomori, a Japanese social and health issue.
Hikikomori is often characterized by victims resorting to extreme measures in order to isolate themselves from real-life social interaction. The first example can be spotted near the beginning of the film, after Ryosuke signs up for internet service and accesses a ghost site. In this site we arepresented disturbing images/cams of various strangers confining themselves to dark rooms, displaying depressive manners which include walking aimlessly around their rooms, or glaring back at us (or Ryosuke) through the screen. These odd behaviours are also exhibited by multiple characters throughout the film as they become more obsessed with the idea of loneliness and death. Another example is Toshio Yabe after encountering a ghost. He sits alone in dark and often ignores his co-worker’s presence and concerns.
Scene from Kairo.
These weird behaviours convey a sense of helplessness as they feel their obsession with loneliness have placed them far away from any chance of being saved. This can also be illustrated through the video of the man sitting with a bag over his head in front of a wall with “help me” written all over it. As these emotions spiral downwards, the victims eventually resort to suicide (as seen by the deaths of Taguchi and Harue). As put by a plant nursery member after his co-worker’s suicide, “Maybe…he [Taguchi] suddenly just wanted to die. I get that way sometimes. It’s so easy to hang yourself.” This paints the pessimistic mindset of the victims, who reveal having weak ties to their own personal lives.
On this clip of Flicked, Australian film critic and journalist Marc Fennell asks whythe American film industry keeps making their own adaptations of popular Asian horror films.
an interesting feedback from Sarah, a classmate: “Asian films, not influenced by Christianity or religions with good and evil, don’t focus on good vs. evil narratives and instead is unsettling in its ambiguity and lack of reason or control and the last line says that remakes of these films are unsuccessful because they try to force these narratives into good vs. evil archetypes and explain them to the audience.”
While researching on the topic of Japanese horror influences on the West, I came across an interesting quote by Joe Queenan.
“Ancestral spirits are not a fixture of American horror; the supernatural apparitions tend to be complete strangers or wraiths or itinerant succubi just in for the weekend from out of town. Most of the remakes I have seen are listless and mechanical – horror by numbers – while the originals are taut, frightening, ingenious, and often quite pleasing from the artistic perspective. It may well be that western directors are trying to shoehorn Asian films into a culture that cannot fully accommodate them. Perhaps this is why remakes of Asian horror movies tend to be mildly profitable enterprises that few adults talk about – serious critics hate them – while in Japan, horror movies seem to be taken seriously.”
In his article on The Guardian, Queenan discusses Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films, and why the two cultures may clash in the process.
You can read the full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/feb/22/worldcinema
Of course, the disturbing elements of Ju-On: The Grudge draws from more than just a period of economic hardship of Japan’s history. As a matter of fact, it borrows traditions dating back to the 8th century Japan.
In traditional Japanese beliefs and folklore, onryō, which literally translates to “vengeful spirit,” is a ghost that returns to the living world to seek vengeance after a wrongful death. Although this mythological spirit’s exact origin is unknown, existing information can be traced back to Prince Nagaya, a Japanese political leader during the Nara Period (710-794AD). Nagaya’s relatives, who were jealous with his power, charged the imperial prince with a false crime, driving him to commit suicide. A few years after, the four that who drove the prince to his death eventually all died one after another after catching small pox. In 1988, a Sogo department store was built on Nagaya’s former residence. Twelve years after completion, Sogo went bankrupt.
Due to these two incidents, people believed that Nagaya’s unjustified death bore a curse against the living. In Ju-On: The Grudge as well as the rest of the franchise, the onryō spirit is depicted through the pale ghosts, that come back to kill its victims through its manifesting anger. It is another fascinating element that influences the film to be as haunting as it is.
Toshio Yamada, one of the ghost in Ju-On.
*Edit 11/20/2015: corrected several grammatical errors
If you are into horror movies, hearing the words Ju-On, or The Grudge should automatically spawn the face of a ghostly, pale boy in your head. Released in 2002, Ju-On: The Grudge isprobably one of the most acclaimed film of its genre. The movie tells of a curse resulted from a family murder, which is then passed onto anybody who comes in contact with the house in which the deaths took place. Described as a film that “is purposefully frustrating” and “quietly burrows right into your skull” by the Portland Oregonian, the horror elements of the movie paint the roughed-out society of Japan in the past few decades.
Scene from Ju-On: The Grudge (2002).
Takashi Shimizu is called “one of a new breed of Japanese horror directors” who prefers to “suggest menace and violence rather than directly depict it [through his films].” This quote, stated by film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon, is no unfamiliarity when talking about Shimimzu, who directed and wrote the Ju-On franchise. Shimizu was born in 1972 and by the time he was a working adult, Japan was experiencing what seems like a time of impending doom. Known as the Lost Decade or the Lost 10 Years, the 1990s was a time of Japan’s economic meltdown. Over this period, the national GDP fell about 1 trillion and real wages fell about 5%. This also attributed to changing the long established gender roles, as more women became independent and engaged in the workforce. Some say filmmakers who grew up during this time have used this dismaying memory as part of the influence on their films.
A film historian in Kyoto, Stuart Galbraith IV commented on the matter, “These [movies] were safe, distant fantasies for audiences that felt secure in their community, since then I think horror movies have begun tapping into the unease many Japanese feel as the ills of the [outside] world have encroached on Japanese life.” He continued, “for instance, Japan is no longer the fantastically safe country it famously once was, and the slumping economy has destabilized the notion of lifelong job security.’ Since it was impolite to state in public, many of the misery is reflected in J-horror films. “As a result, their movies deal more with the breakdown of reality, of families, and of the mind,” Stuart finished.
Gemini (known in Japan as Sōseiji) is a Japanese horror film directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. The plot revolves around a young, successful doctor, Daitokuji Yukio, who lives an enviable life with his parents and elegant wife, Rin. The table turns when his long lost identical twin brother, Sutekichi, returns from the slums and takes over Yukio’s life through a twin switch. Purposely set in the Meiji Era of Japan (1868-1912), the film explores the themes of social segregation and the extremes of human civilization. It also gives insight to life in Japan during this historical period.
Throughout the story, there is a clear segregation between the middle-upper class and the degraded residents of the nearby slum. This can be seen when Yukio choses to attend to the injured, affluent mayor rather than a mother with an infant from the slum. He later tries to justify his actions, claiming that the slum dwellers were evil in nature, and should be wiped out with fire. Minorities during the Meiji era were classified as the hinmin (poor people, slums), hinin (non-people, which included prostitutes and criminals), or the burakumins (butchers, death workers). Just like how Yukio points his concentration toward wealthy patients, the upper class at this time period disapproved of those beneath them and viewed them as filthy, naturally sinful, and as social outcasts.
Yukio and his mother in kimonos.
In the two polar ends of the social spectrum, the middle-upper class and the hinmin civilians are portrayed through an obvious distinction. Yukio and his parents, who belong in the upper social ladder, are seen wearing clean suits, ties, or kimonos with formal postures in their everyday routines. They are also seen with maids, or helpers around their well-organized, spacious house. On the opposite end of the social caste, are those who dwell in the slums. These seemingly-monstrous people are characterized with mismatched clothes and dirty, messy hair. Sutekichi and Rin (before meeting Yukio) are seen living in a wrecked house depending on their habit of thieving for simple survival. Other immoral acts such as murder are also present in this setting.
Burakumin, Japan’s “invisible race”.
The table of this Japanese social structure was turned around when Yukio’s identical twin, Sutekichi, who was left for dead since birth, shows up, traps him in a dried-up well, and takes over his life. The animalistic nature of human beings are also seen in the tormented and frustrated Yukio, when he begins to take his evil brother’s filthy appearance, eating rice with Sutekichi’s spit dumped on the ground; much like a wild, hungry animal. Covered in mud with red eyes, Yukio is being put into the shoes of the slum dwellers, much like his brother if he had ended up being his parent’s reject. Yukio’s animalistic nature is also seen when he strangles his evil brother to death.
Yukio, trapped by his brother.
Whether it is the discrimination toward the poor people from the rich, or the hinmin people’s immoral behaviours, the idea of the separation between social classes during the Meiji Era and the lecherous nature of human beings are both properly innovated in Gemini. The film brings a social issue at the time to light, and is told through an interesting, psychological tale.
*Edit 11/15/2015: minor adjustments for clarity;
Added: sources on the discrimination of Japanese minorities, burakumin
Pale white skin, bloodshot eyes, and tangled, long hair. A girl in a dirty white dress is standing at the end of the corridor. You are standing alone at the opposite end and the lights start flickering. With each fleeing second, the ghastly figure appears closer. You turn your back and start to run the other way, but then your face meets her…
Scene from Whispering Corridors 3: Wishing Stairs, a 2003 South Korean film.
This is a common scene in many Asian horror films. When discussing the horror cinema industry in Asia, films such as Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), or One Missed Call (2003) take on the spotlight. Asian horror films, especially those made in Japan (known as J-horror), have played a huge role in the advancement of the movie genre. It is also worth noting that a few of these Asian films have been adapted and remade by famous film studios in the West. Having shocking, visceral and psychological effects on its audience, the genre has earned itself an infamous, disturbing reputation.
However, the horror genre’s goals are far from just evoking fear on its viewers. The elements that make up these national horrors not only give insight to a country’s history, but also its cultural identity and tradition. Known for its ability of political and economic allegory, these films convey an extended metaphor with hidden meanings about major issues through the use of symbols. They reflect national and global traumas, which often include political oppression, wars, and natural disasters; the list goes on. Over the next few weeks, we will analyze major horror films from Asia, examine their overarching themes, visual motifs, and finally, compare them to Western adaptations. Stay tuned for more, if you dare. This is the Asian Scare.
*Edit 11/15/2015: minor rearrangements, grammatical adjustments.
*Edit 11/20/2015: fixed incorrect information – the Ju-On franchise consists of 11 films, although only a few was released theatrically. The one I am referring to is the first theatrical release (3rd film in the series), released in 2002. The American adaptation was released two years after.