The Pleasure of Fear
--- A New Wave of Asian Horror Films Tells Us How to be Scared Ecstatically
By Andrew C.C. Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on September 23, 2005)
When in fear and uncertainty, one wants to scream one’s anxieties out as exemplified in the famed Edvard Munch painting “Scream.” What better way in this world to let out one’s fear and angst by experiencing vicariously the fictional horrors on the silver screen and scream out one’s own anxieties out loud in the darkness of movie theaters --- the only place where screaming is considered legal in modern civilization other than the psychiatric ward in the hospital.
This month, Taiwan’s film industy challenges the audience’s capacity for facing fear again with the wonderfully executed horror film “The Heirloom.” Already breaking box office record and on its way to become the highest-grossing domestic film this year, the movie is about a young couple moving into their family old mansion. The couple soon find that there are more than inheritance awaiting them --- family sins, curses, death and spirits from the other world.
“I don’t want this movie to be a typical horror film,” says emerging director Leste Chen, who came from art-house background and had a short film “Wandering” nominated by Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Fortnight. “I try to bring my art-house sensibilities into this film. Horror film happens to be a genre that allows the slow build up of emotion and suspense. It’s also a genre that demands believable characterization. I allow this movie to progress slowly. The frights here are not the sudden screaming kind but psychological and emotional. I also let the characters stand out by emphasizing the actors’ personal traits.”
“The Heirloom” is only the latest example of the mainstreamization of Asia’s horror films to feed into the audiences' insatiable appetite for fears. Before this millennium, horror films used to be B-movies made with shoestring budgets relegated to the watch-and-toss teenage market. During the past few years, many brand name directors have ventured into the horror film and elevated the genre into a respected trend that speak to the mainstream audiences and reflects the Zeigeist of a world entrenched in fears of terrorism, wars and plunging market forces.
The explosion of horror movie rage always occurs during the time of economic hardship or sociopolitical unrest. The German Expressionism movies reflect the anxiety of the German people during the Nazi-rising pre-WWII German while Universal Studio's horror movie cycle in the 30's bespeaks people's fear in America's Depression era. The ghost movie rage in Asia during the past few years reflects Asian people's fears and anxiety in the face of the region's economic setback after five decades of economic booming, the global recession and China's possible totalitarianism after the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.
Before “The Heirloom,” the first mainstream horror film was the mega-budget “Double Vision” produced by Columbia Asia. Directed by Taiwanese auteur Chen Kuo-fu, who also helmed the 1995 art-house lesbian tale “The Peony Pavilion,” "Double Vision" is a spooky cross between ghost movie and serial killer movie. The movie unfolds with an FBI agent Kevin (American actor David Morse) pairing up with a troubled Taiwanese cop Huang (Tony Leung Ka Fai of "The Lover" fame) to track down a serial killer who is embedding a mysterious fungus into the brains of his victims. The degree of chill intensifies when we find out that the serial killer is killing the victims according to Taoism cult ritual in attempt to achieve immortality. By throwing out the double-punch of ghosts and serial killer at the same time, "Double Vision" made huge waves and became the top-grossing movie in Taiwan that year.
Several recent Hong Kong horror classics also attest to the audiences’ hunger for fear. “Three” part one and the sequel “Three – Extremes” produced by Hong Kong’s Applause Picture and “The Eye” trilogy directed by Thai brother team Pang are the recent classics of horror film canon.
"Three" is a high-concept film that aims to bring together three acclaimed directors from three Asian countries for a three-segment collaboration horror film. “Three” features director from Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong. In the first segment "Memories" helmed by Korean director Kim Jee-woon, a middle-class family moves into a new city and apartment with anticipation of new life. However, the woman suddenly wakes up on the street without memories of her identity and past. As she tumbles through the streets, she slowly remembers her lovely husband, their disintegrating marriage and finally his murder of her. In the second segment "The Wheel" directed by Thai auteur Nonzee Nimibutr, Tong is a poverty-ridden street puppetry player who envies the millionaire puppetry master Tao for his puppet passed down from 15th century Thai court. Realizing his court puppet has been cursed, Tao orders his wife to discard the puppet into the river. This action comes too late as Tao's wife drowns in the river while Tao is found dead the next day.
"Three" saves the best for last with director Peter Chan's (of "Comrades, Almost a Love Story" fame with Maggie Cheung) third segment "Coming Home." Policeman Whee and his son Kiny moves into a new derelect apartment complex where the only neighbor is a Chinese herbalist doctor named Pahy. One day, Whee's son Kiny disappears with Pahy's daughter. To track down the whereabout of his son, Whee breaks into Pahy's apartment and discovers the corpse of Pah's wife. It turns out that Pahy has been bathing the corpse in herbal bath tube in the belief that she will come alive again after three days. Fearing possible disruption, Pahy inprisons Whee at his apartment and awaits for that morning when he believes his wife will resuscitate.
South Korea’s recent cinematic renaissance also produced a crop of horror classics that has Hollywood rushing for remake rights. Director Kim Jee-woon’s (who directed the segment “Memories” in “Three”) haunting “A Tale of Two Sisters” is about two sisters who return from treatment in a mental institution only to face the inhuman behavior of their absent-minded father and cruel step-mother in addition the other-worldly forces that seem to be ghosts.
Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr (who helmed the segment “The Wheel” in “Three”) put his name on the cinematic map with 1999's ghost fable "Nang Nak," which won the best picture and best director awards in that year's Asia-Pacific Film Festival. Based on a Thai legend, "Nang Nak" recounts the journey of Mak as he leaves for Bangkok and becomes seriously wounded in the Chiang Toong War. His wife Nak meanwhile dies with her stillborn child in Mak's absence. However, when Mak returns from the war to his village, he continues to live happily with his wife without realizing that she is a ghost. However, the forces of cosmic natural laws intervene and push this forbidden human-ghost marriage to a hauntingly unexpected denouement.
“Three -- Extremes” again features three segments from three Asian directors. The highlight is again the Hong Kong segment directed by award magnet auteur Fruit Chan.
In this segment entitled “Dumplings,” an aging wife with a womanizing husband goes to the back alley to seek help from an illegal mainland Chinese doctor. The doctor offers dumplings made of baby embryos which could help one reclaim youth. After eating the dumplings, the middle-age wife becomes young and beautiful. The suspicious husband pays a visit to the sultry doctor too, only to end up having sex with her. Half way during their intercourse, the husband suddenly sees a document on the wall that describes the birth date of the woman in from of her as early Republic China.
The other segment “Box” is directed by Japanese helmer Takashi Miike. Miike made his name with the 2003 horror hit “One Missed Call” which tells the chilling story of people who receive voicemail messages which contain the recording of their future selves reacting violently to impending death. The third segment “Cut” is directed by none other than Korean master Park Chan-wook, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year with his highly acclaimed “Old Boys.”
In the highly acclaimed "The Eye" trilogy directed by the brother team Danny and Oxide Pang, the Pang brothers recounts the trials faced by people who could see ghosts. In “The Eye” part one, a blind girl finds herself seeing living people as well as ghosts after a corneal transplant. In “The Eye II,” a pregnant woman who attempts suicide starts to see ghosts roaming on the street and ghost who is trying to enter her embryo in order to become her child. In the third movie entitled “The Eye 10,” a bunch of teenagers go to Thailand and purchase a book that instructs ten ways to see ghosts. The heedless teens start to experiment with all methods and slowly die one by one.
As horror films start to turn from B-movie to prestige films with acclaimed auteurs’ stamps on them, they start to attract award as well as mainstream audience. The “Coming Home” segment of “Three” won Hong Kong idol star Leon Lai a best actor award at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards whereas the actress Lee Sinji who headlines “The Eye” swept the three major film awards in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China by picking up three best actress awards.
Japan is also a powerhouse in producing high-caliber horror films that scare their ways through Asia all the way to America. So far, three Japanese horror films – “The Ring,” “The Grudge” and “Dark Water” -- have been remade into American versions with box office success.
"The Ring" has its premise on a mysterious video tape that kills off anyone who watches it. Whenever a victim is hapless enough to watches the tape, the phone rings and tells the victim he or she has only one week to live. A young journalist named Rachel is investigating these mysterious events. However, matters become personal when she realizes that she and her small son have just watched the tape. Hence, it becomes a race against time to find out the curse of the tape and how it could be stopped. “Ringu,” the original Japan movie, was so successful that it spawned four sequels and still counting.
In the American version of “The Grudge” directed by the original Japanese horror master Takashi Shimizu himself, Karen is an exchange nurse student from the U.S. who fills in at the last minute for another nurse in a Tokyo suburb house where the house owner was rumored to go crazy, kill his wife and then himself. After starting her job there, Karen is alarmed by the bizarre behavior of the aging American woman Emma who is mute and sleeps through the day. Karen soon discovers that the house is possessed by a vicious curse caused by someone who dies with a unrelenting grudge a decade ago. After several horrific deaths in the house, Karen finds herself in a race against time to save herself or be consumed by that deadly grudge from the dead.
In this year’s another American remake of Japan horror film hit “Dark Water,” Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly portrays a newly divorced wife Dahlia who is struggling to make the ends meet with her daughter with a new job and a new apartment as their home. Things turn spooky when mysterious noises and persistent leaking of dark water start to overwhelm the apartment and send the already embattled Dahilia’s imagination run wild. Is this just an embittered divorced wife’s imagination or is there dark force at work in the apartment? Dahilia is determines to find out the answer at all cost.
As Indian master M. Night Shyamalan has demonstrated with the blockbusters "The Sixth Sense" and "The Signs," Asians know there's more to horror than what meets the eyes. The true chilling horror resides in a mind that believes in a horrid thought than seeing simply blood and gore.
Despite some inevitable gory scene, bloodshed is never the core attraction in Asia's quality horror movies. The drawing gravity is always a haunting thought or idea that would ferment in the audiences' minds and then consume them with gratifying fears long after they leave the theater. In "Double Vision," it's the idea of a serial killer who kills the victims in Taoism ritual in order to become a demi-god. In "The Ring," the chiller is the video tape that would kill anyone who watches it. In "The Eye" trilogy, it's the hapless ability of being able to see ghosts. In the “Coming Home” segment of "Three," it's the maniac thought of a doctor who keeps his wife's corpse in bed in the belief that she will resurrect three days later. In the “Dumplings” segment of “Three -- Extremes,” it’s the horrid and disturbing thought of eating dumplings made of minced meats of unborn babies’ embryo to renew youth.
In “The Heirloom,” the director and the screenwriter push the envelop further again by tackling the subject matter of keeping a baby ghost and feeding blood to it in order to dispatch him out for missions and accumulate wealth. The subject matters slowly progresses from people who can see ghosts in “The Eye” trilogy, to keeping the corpse of one’s diseased wife in “Three,” to eating dumplings made of still born babies’ embryo in “Three -- Extremes,” and then to the grisly practice of keeping a baby ghost as slave and sacrificing a family member to amass wealth. In Japan, the fear of a modern technology that distorts humanity from “Ringu” that features a video tape that would kill anyone who watches it to “One Missed Call” in which a phone message warns you of your future tortured death.
In a world where renewed ancient civilizations clash with modern technologies, there is no doubt that horrors that come from deep rooted superstition or traditional rituals are far more scarry than cutting-edge special effects. While American horror classics such as "Friday the 13th" series and "Nightmare on Elm Street" series or even the recent “Aliens vs. Predators” boast state-of-the-art special effects and flying heads aplenty, the lavish splashing of blood becomes comical in comparison to the psychological and emotional neurosis in Asian horror films.
The real horror comes from a real or even ambiguous belief in the darker world – a belief that could only come from a nation with an old culture and civilization. In a new country like the U.S. where skyscrapers and upscale cosmetics dominate, the true horror is to see movie audiences becoming bored with splashing blood and decapitated heads. Hence, Hollywood studios rush east-ward to seek inspirations from older civilizations in Asia where primitive religions and darkly rituals have existed for millenniums. To see the ancient Taoist practice of keeping baby ghost in order to seek prosperity in “The Heirloom” is to realize the horror of actual human cruelty and decadence.
With global recession and terrorism still hanging over our heads, what better time to exorcise one's fears and feast on the pleasure of seeing one's inner and outer demons in horror movies?