Well gang, Asian horror month is definitely over as all heck. October is here so you know I’m going to be moving on to other, more pressing horror matters but I wanted to share this convo that Nafa and I had about Asian freakin’ horror.
Richard: I have a vague memory, as well as a confused timeline, of when you and I first discussed things such as Kwaidan, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Battle Royale, and other stuff. I have a feeling it was back around the time when The Ring Two hadn’t come out yet and Asian horror was really breaking big over here. So maybe late 2004? Anyway, the library played a huge part in all of this, especially in their VHS collection full of oddities. Hell, there was even a copy of Jigoku with no subtitles which creeped me out to no end and Blind Beast, also with no subtitles. These things kind of hit my brain all at once.
Nafa: It was a while back, perhaps even before that. Thanks to a video supplier out of Miami, the library got some really great, hard to find films, like one of my favorites, Tsui Hark's Don’t Play With Fire, though that’s more action than horror. Unfortunately, as you pointed out already, some of them had absolutely no subtitles or reference to anything and to this day I still have no clue what Moju: The Blind Beast is about exactly. Lots of boobs though.
Richard: That’s right! Video Search of Miami! Who would donate their friggin’ bootlegs to a library? God bless the cataloger who added them to the collection. I have proper copies of both Jigoku and Blind Beast now. Blind Beast doesn’t really do it for me though. It’s grim as hell but good luck sitting through it twice. For me, the most important thing was discovering Chinese Ghost Story. That movie’s combination of strange elements: ghosts, zombies, comedy, and beauty, really had an effect on me. I didn’t know it but I was slowly being groomed for Asian cult cinema. I was already a fan of anime so it was only a matter of time before I was digging on the live action stuff.
Speaking of Akira Kurosawa, I was thinking about the scene in The Bad Sleep Well where [SPOILER ALERT] the hero (played by Toshiro Mifune) uses the faux-suicide of an executive to his advantage by having the guy pose as a ghost to haunt another corrupt executive. It is actually a really creepy scene and it showed the director’s knack for cooking up some horror. I wish Kurosawa had done more stuff in that vein. But there were traces of horror in his Shakespeare adaptations Ran and Throne of Blood. There were ghosts in Dreams, right? And what about Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan? Weren’t you going to talk about those two flicks? Well? Weren’t you!!??!
Nafa: Aaron from The Death Rattle already expertly covered Kwaidan, so I’m just gonna talk about Kurosawa’s flick. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (AKA Yume) has ghosts, demons, and a Yuki-onna (snow woman), plus the terror of impending doom. They claim that there were only 3 actual nightmares in ‘Dreams’, but I count 5. Of the 3 there is ‘The Tunnel’, where a Japanese officer returning from World War II encounters platoon—all of whom died in the war—and the officer has to convince the soldiers that they are actually dead. The second nightmare is ‘Mount Fuji In Red’, which is basically a nuclear nightmare with the centerpiece being Mount Fuji glowing and burning and all the radiation and chemicals consuming everyone in mass hysteria. And the third nightmare is ‘The Weeping Demon’, where a man encounters a hellish place in a post-nuclear world that has turned the survivors into demons who cannot die but do little more than howl in pain and menace the occasional passer-by. To these three I also count ‘The Blizzard’ (which is a Yuki-onna story very similar to ‘The Woman Of The Snow’ from Kwaidan) and ‘Sunshine Through The Rain’ (the very first dream in the film, and a story that pretty much ends with a fox telling a child to commit seppuku). Dreams is an amazing, unsettling, and beautiful film that I was lucky enough to see on the big screen and then find a barely used rental copy for $3 when it was still listed in the new book for $95.
There is so much more to Asian Horror than black hair and meowing children. And wait, to make things easier should we abbreviate the term Asian Horror to AznHor? Hmmm. Maybe not.
Richard: I want to call you “TrndStR” which could be either “Trend Setter” or “Turned Shitter”. One of the first Asian horror films available for rent at Blockbuster is called St. John’s Wort. It is about a group of video game designers who are using a girl’s memories of her disturbed family to flesh out the story for a new game. They go to her family’s mansion where it turns out that there is some spooky and rather deadly shiznit going on there. Even though it is cheap as hell, this flick has a pretty cool story to it. Plus, LeEtta and I were particularly enchanted by the film’s strange visual effects. Instead of trying to hide the little details with CGI, the filmmakers’ instead tried to create an even more abstract and unusual environment by tricking out the colors of the environment. Grass is an impossible green, the sky is wildly purple and menacing, and the mist surrounding the house is made up of really chunky pixels. I had no idea that this film was inspired by the unreality of films like Hausu and Sweet Home.
That’s probably what makes Asian horror so great though. I go into horror looking for visually appealing and weird stuff. But since Asia is a place that is totally alien to me (even after all these years of ingesting their pop culture), even mundane settings and potentially dull plots are more interesting to me. Not that I haven’t seen some boring ass freakin’ films from that part of the world. Like Nightmare Zone!
Nafa: As a bit of a side note, before I got into HK cinema and the Asian Horror genre I was a big fan of those mondo documentaries that were so popular with the early video rentals. The one that leaps to mind is 1976’s Shocking Asia. Most of the stories were about things like Japanese love hotels and Indian piercing rituals, there were also very graphic moments like a real sex change operation in all its full-colour gory glory and shots of corpses being eaten birds and burned along the Ganges. This was perhaps the most hardcore and horrific shockumentary I’ve ever seen, but it still is fascinating. It was my springboard to proper Asian horror, and I think it prepared me well.
Richard: I’ve never seen Shocking Asia before but I’ve read so much about it that I’ve feel like I’ve seen it. When I was a kid, I could handle those kinds of explorations of the exceedingly morbid. Nowadays, I use horror movies to retreat from the real so any of these documentaries, whether real or staged, just ain’t for anymore.
From the shockumentary to the faux-snuff. I do still have a happily nauseous taste in my mouth from the Guinea Pig films. Back when Megaplay (the video game/movie store on 56th Street) was still around, I was able to get my hands on most of these disgusting delights. You want to ruin your brain for a while, check out Devil’s Experiment or Flower of Flesh and Blood. The latter film spooked Charlie Sheen so much that he called the FBI. Priceless! My favorite of the entire series though is Mermaid in a Manhole. This pukefest was written and directed by my horror manga hero, Hideshi Hino.
Mermaid in a Manhole tells the tale of an artist who goes searching through the sewers to get inspiration for his macabre paintings. Of course, he just happens to stumble upon a sickly mermaid who he brings home. This poor creature becomes ill and starts vomiting earthworms. Next she is covered with hideous sores which spew multi-colored pus that the artist uses to paint his ultimate horror masterpiece.
Sounds pretty funky, right? Mermaid in a Manhole is so sick that it made my best friend Scott, who is a morbid sicko himself, turn to me while wincing to say, “Holy shit, Rick, this is so disgusting!” I’ve never been more proud of my horror collection than I was at that moment. So Nafa, do you have any gore memories from the annals of Asian horror that you’d like to mention?
Nafa: You know, I’ve never seen the Guinea Pig series (thankfully), though I have seen a good deal of Mermaid In A Manhole. In fact, most of my Asian horror diet has been fairly tame, at least by my standards—I’ve always encountered the Asian Fantasy and Action films that having had more gore in them per se. There are some beautifully hideous scenes that stand out, especially in one of my most recent favorites Sick Nurses (all I will say is scalpels and flying babies).
More than gore, however, is the dense, choking atmosphere that has been a constant in Asian Horror since the beginning. That dread, that thing in just out of your range of vision, that feeling of something watching, the intangible terror. A lot of that can be chalked up to just straight cultural differences. Take pre-Twilight vampires for example. We grew up with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee as blood sucking vampires—they had flying decapitated women with intestines hanging down and cats. Even the Eastern European vampires, as freakish and horrific as they are, can’t hold a candle to the almost indescribable creatures the Asian lands have dreamt up since time began. Even with children. And in Western cinema a child sometimes can be the baddie but only if they are pure evil to begin with. Damian, Esther from Orphan, even Chucky. But in Eastern cinema, all bets are off. They can simply be just victims (Toshio from Ju-On) or conduits for evil rather than the personification. They may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely random targets (Hyun-seo from The Host), and that senseless, reasonless fear strikes deep into the Western psyche.
Asian Horror will go into areas that are taboo to us (and I’d imagine vice-versa), however. Thoughts?
Richard: Whoa. Well put, duder. For some reason I thought you were the gore guy. Maybe I'm the gore guy. Or maybe I’m thinking of James Gandolfini.
I find that when it comes to watching films that are unpredictable, then Asia is the way to go. I will never forget seeing the Category III classic Run to Kill where the [SPOILER ALERT] main character is tied to a chair while his daughter (a girl of maybe 5 years old) is set on fire right before his eyes. The camera does not stray either. It stays right on the horrible business at hand and we see the main character come completely unglued. Next, he picks up the charred remains of his kid and runs off, carrying her until he accidentally knocks her head off on the handrail of a staircase. Something like that happening in an American film? I don’t think so. And the first time I saw A Tale of Two Sisters, I had absolutely zero idea of what was coming; not just in the major elements of the plot but also the fate of one of the characters. It is so unimaginably heartbreaking and just so damn weird, I’ve never been quite the same. That movie still haunts me.
So yes, I am always after atmosphere from my horror movies and, to steal your words, the “dense, choking” atmosphere is what many of the best of the best have. What I really love is the utter foreignness and the quivering insanity of these films. Even after years and years of exposure to Asian (especially Japanese) culture, I’m still not used to how folks from this part of the world entertain each other. So even stuff that might seem mundane or crappy to them, just blows my friggin’ mind. But then again, especially in Hong Kong, the directors of these films seem to know that they’re audiences are a) smart, b) morbid, and c) equipped with shorter and shorter attention spans, so they make these hyperkinetic celluloid freakouts that seem to come from some really distant planet where the atmosphere is made up of laughing gas and gravity is very, very weak.
I keep harping on Hong Kong but only a country as insane as that could produce someone like Ngai Kai Lam who gave the world Story of Ricky and The Seventh Curse; films that are so manic and so bafflingly weird that they border on the schizophrenic. Of course, in Japan, there’s Takashi Miike who is 8 times more prolific and a better filmmaker. However, he is also capable of destroying a film’s narrative at the drop of a hat and when he’s um… bored or something, he refuses to faithfully adapt a screenplay without some insane divergent moment. And now that you have shared the joys of Thailand with me with Sick Nurses, I have another bizarre country to keep my eye on.
Well, Asian horror month is now completely over. In fact, we’re going into overtime here and there’s still so much more to watch and say. Hopefully, next September, when INVASIAN 2 arrives, I’ll be able to have as much fun as I did this time. Any final thoughts, duder?
Nafa: One last observation—there is no Japanese equivalent to Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and what scares them is much more intangible than what we grew up on. We know the formula of slashers and what to expect, but in Asian cinema all bets are off. Who knew I’d ever get a chill looking at black hair or when some kid looks at someone funny or when the phone rings. What scares us is more obvious brute force; what scares them is more subtle, simple.
Richard: I do think it’s interesting that Japanese horror icons are Sadako from Ringu and Kayako from Ju-on. They have lots of evil chicks but no recurring bad dudes with 10 sequels under their belts. Urban legends fuel Asian horror films and that pleases me greatly. Like the slit-mouthed woman going around asking people “Am I pretty?” Give her the wrong answer and then she slashes yer dang face up. I like how Junji Ito’s Tomie, everyone’s favorite regenerating love demonness, has continued to spawn movie after movie. But for a few lame exceptions, the Tomie movies are quite unpredictable in how they unfold. You always know Tomie is coming back but she’s not hacking up teenagers with a machete at Camp Fuji.
I guess before I finally shut the hell up, I want to say that I already miss the Asian horror boom over here. Sure, titles are still coming out on DVD here in the States but I miss going to Target or Wal-Mart and finding copies of Pulse (THE ORIGINAL!). Obviously, the market got flooded with remakes but thankfully some amazing films were scattered in there as well. I don’t want anybody giving up on Asian horror movies. There is still really good stuff out there. When you take an entire part of the world’s film output into consideration, separate by genre, and then filter out the bad stuff… shit, you’re gonna find some kick ass stuff. So… Don’t stop, believin’! Whoa oh whoa oh!