"Exorcism: Haunted Child" and "Ju-On: The Final".
As much as we love seeing poltergeists and possessed individuals in our western horrors, we never had much troubles with them because we can separate ourselves that such hauntings only happens in the homes of the average White family, and they have no reason to make our lives miserable. So it has always been the Asian horrors that made us feel more uncomfortable because they were more plausible and felt closer to home.
Asian horrors had a real take-off in the mainstream when the interest for them peaked in Hollywood around the 2000s and eventually it turned into an exploitative trend of making remakes of them for a more Hollywood-friendly audience (and you wonder why are we seeing so many remakes today). In anticipation for the release of "Exorcism: Haunted Children" from Vietnam and the final installment of the long running Japanese Ju-On series in "Ju-On: The Final" this month, we look out for definitive horrors to have come out from five countries in the Asian world of movie making that has given us sleepless nights, but worth revisiting.
Japan has had a long tradition of supernatural horror movies since the early days of its filmmaking, drawing on its abundant myth of supernatural beings and creatures, which has served the basis for many of its early classics. However, the genre gradually died down when it had exhausted that well of inspiration, so something new had to be done. Adapted from a novel written by Koji Suzuki, who was in turn inspired by 1982's "Poltergeist", Hideo Nakata's 1998 "Ringu" would kickstart a revival of the supernatural horror genre in Japanese filmmaking. Starring actress Nanako Matsushima as a reporter who investigates the video curse that has been circulating and causing horrific deaths to those who watched it, including her own niece, "Ringu" created a new universe of Japanese horror that had historic roots to its culture, but dwell in the advanced world of technology through the accursed VHS tape.
Not only did "Ringu" become the highest grossing horror in Japan during the year of its release in 1998, it started a new wave elsewhere. Its record as the highest grossing Japanese movie in Hong Kong was only defeated recently in 2015, and it is recognised as the stepping stone that paved the way for the entry of contemporary Japanese horror movies into America, including the seminal "Ju-On" series and later Nakata's own "Dark Water". It had also started a new trend of Asian horrors being remade by western directors in the 2000s, of which Gore Verbinski's own remake as "The Ring" was even more formidable to outgross Nakata's original in his home country.
"A Tale of Two Sisters" (South Korea)
Korean filmmaking was in the midst of a great revival in the 2000s with the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers who were able to deliver artistic outputs for commercial success. Among those pioneers was Kim Jee Woon, who already had made quite an impression with his debut "The Quiet Family". However, it was his 2003 "A Tale of Two Sisters" that would cement his place as not only one of Korea's horror masters, but a diverse filmmaker in his own right. Based on a popular Korean folktale "Rose Flower, Red Lotus", which reads like a more gruesome and twisted version of Cinderella, the characters here are sisters So Mi and Su Yeon who are put under the thumb of their new stepmother. While the displeasure between stepmother and stepdaughters are apparent and central to the story, it is the unexplained happenings around the house that catches our attention that something far more sinister is happening.
For its stylistic storytelling, framing a twisted plot that would greatly benefit from not being spoiled here, "A Tale of Two Sisters" would be remembered well as one of the masterpiece of Korean filmmaking. It has remained as the highest grossing horror in the Korean box office to this day, and it was also the first Korean movie to have an open release in the United States, which opened the gates for many worthy Korean horrors (including Kim's other classic "I Saw the Devil") to gain a mainstream audience. "A Tale of Two Sisters" also had its American remake "The Uninvited" in 2009 by the Guard Brothers, but it is not nearly as comparable with the original.
Looking closer to home, Thailand has been a hotbed of horrors and it is surprising how one country has managed to sustain a genre almost inexhaustibly for decades with new material that never fails to capture our imaginations and fears. "Shutter", as the name suggest, is centered on the existence of spirit photographs, or the appearance of spirits captured on the medium of film (before cameras went digital). When photographer Tun starts to notice odd strokes on his photographs and an uncomfortable strain on his neck after a fateful accident, it takes him and his girlfriend Jane to investigate more about spirit photographs which leads them to a darker path and past.
Co-directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun, who would later go on to direct the 2013 smash hit "Pee Mak", and Parkpoom Wongpoom, "Shutter" may not have been the commercial ground-breaker, as those from Japan and South Korea, but the universality of its idea had its appeal. While Masayuki Ochiai's 2008 American remake is likely the more well-known remake, "Shutter" has also been remade in Tamil and Hindi.
"The Maid" (Singapore)
Think Singapore and not many can think of anything other than Jack Neo movies. That is quite a shame though, as that means they must have missed "The Maid". Widely known as the first horror movie to be produced from Singapore, the imagery and sentimentality employed here by director Kelvin Tong are much similar and familiar to its neighbours in the north, especially on the Hungry Ghost Month. Through the eyes of Rosa, a young and naive Filipina, who is employed as a maid for a Teochew family of Chinese Opera performers, we explore the missteps to avoid during the Hungry Ghost Month (from sweeping ashes to sitting on the front row of an opera performance), but "The Maid" hides a far more sinister terror, reminding us that the real ghosts are sometimes not the ones that have trouble moving on into the afterlife.
"The Eye" (Hong Kong)
As one of the premier powerhouse of movie making in the Asian region, it would be unimaginable that horror has one genre that has never been explored in Hong Kong. Instead, it can easily said that if one had to really pick a representative horror from Hong Kong, one would be spoiled for choices (avoid the dumplings, though). However, one that did managed to stand out from the pack is 2002's "The Eye", that follows a blind violinist who is able to see again after a cornea transplant, but she is bestowed with more than just mere sight that makes it hard for her to differentiate the material from the ethereal. Inspired by a real news report of a girl who had committed suicide shortly after having a cornea transplant, the Pang Brothers took that premise further by blurring the lines of what can be see and unseen, "The Eye" makes us realise that spirits can be found at every corner.
The main reason why it became our pick though is because "The Eye" was a pan-Asian production. Starting with the directors who are Hong Kong natives, it stars Malaysia's own Angelica Lee in her breakout role, alongside a cast from Singapore, Thailand, and Canada. The production and post-production was also a collaboration between the production houses in Hong Kong and Thailand, which the brothers had a close connection with since their making of "Bangkok Dangerous". So in many ways, "The Eye" could be said to be a truly Asian horror in almost every sense of the word.
Watch our top five picks for the best Asian horror movies!
Cinema Online, 22 June 2015