Eastern Promise - Dark Cinema from Japan and Korea: An Overview

Dark Water

Ren Zelen heads into the shadowy depths of Eastern culture to bring us Dark cinema from Japan and Korea...

‘No body’ does it better

When a new era of Asian horror films entered mainstream Western cinema with Hideo Nakata’s ‘The Ring’, Asian horror movies were soon perceived to be chasing Hollywood’s more hackneyed horror efforts into the shadows.

Nakata’s frightening and heart-breaking ‘Dark Water’ (2002) and Chan-wook Park’s violent, socially resonant ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ (2002) played in multiplexes alongside the tired Hollywood spin-off ‘Freddy vs Jason’ (ironically helmed by Hong Kong émigré Ronny Yu). Horror enthusiasts quickly made it clear which of these movies had piqued their interest.

Asian horror films became known for their cleverness, exoticism, depth and their skilful handling of tension and shocks. They out-spooked and out-grossed (in both senses of the word) most of the Western horror films being made at that time, which appeared to have run out of ideas and degenerated into a dismal reliance on nudity and high body counts.

East meets West

Back in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino had paid homage to the impact of Asian cinema, specifically the Yakuza movies, in his well-received gangster film ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994). To Asian audiences it was reminiscent of Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano’s Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki - Violent Cop, (1989). However, it was with ‘Kill Bill’ (2003) that Tarantino made his influences clear: he used the revenge story of Shurayukihime (Lady Snowblood, made in 1973 by Toshiya Fujita) and utilized similarly colourful and snowy set designs, rivalries in the Yakuza hierarchy, Japanese fashions and locations, tea-house massacres and even an anime sequence in Japanese as nods to the sources of his inspiration.

More mainstream Asian horror generally makes use of and celebrates psychological forms of terror and dread, hearkening back to a time when this was also a staple of American classics such as ‘The Haunting’, ‘The Shining’, and ‘Poltergeist’. These films are often cited by Asian horror directors as influences on their own horror sensibilities. Ever alert to international trends, Asian film-makers were quick to note Western masters such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg and incorporate some of their techniques and obsessions into their own work.

Despite the subtle cross-cultural exchange between Asian and Western movies, each have characteristics that differentiate them from their counterparts. In general, Asian movies have a profound sense of supernatural forces present in the real world and a more fatalistic approach to an individual’s control over their destiny. They also exhibit a lack of squeamishness when pushing disturbing imagery to extremes, such as Takashi Miike notorious response to the misogynistic ero-gro genre, ‘Audition’(1999) the shocking satire of ‘Dumplings’ by Hong Kong director Fruit Chan and the zombie carnage of Ryuhei Kitamura’s ‘Versus’(2000).

Asian Horror often displays an unwillingness to be confined within conventional genre boundaries. Some of the most unusual Korean offerings, most notably Chan-wook Park’s celebrated ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ deliberately avoid easy compartmentalization, spanning several genres at once.

The creativity found in Japanese and Korean movies dealing with the supernatural, often stems from a wealth of traditional folklore, ghost stories and classic tales of honour and allegiance. Many movies deal with the breakdown of reality, family, and the individual mind when dealing with guilt, jealousy, dishonour or inexplicable supernatural occurrences. Japanese horror often utilizes silence, shadows and empty spaces to create or heighten the sensation of apprehension and impending doom, rather than use a soundtrack to telegraph emotional states or imminent shocks to the audience.

The Asian Supernatural

It’s not entirely wise to make cultural generalizations, but Asian religious traditions usually allow for pantheistic and karmic beliefs which encourage a more widespread acceptance of supernatural forces and a more porous boundary between the planes of the living and the dead. In Shinto for instance, it is granted that many objects, natural, urban or domestic, may be inhabited by spirit deities, antagonistic or friendly, but which co-exist with the world of the living.

Japanese literature contains a long tradition of supernatural storytelling that draws on the ghosts and demons of Shinto and Buddhism. One of the best known is the 11th century’s ‘The Tale of Genji’ in which the jealous Lady Rokujo is a prototype for the ghosts called the Yurei, unquiet spirits which are created when people die violently through murder or suicide, or whenever appropriate burial rites have not been performed.

Almost invariably female (the gender most often wronged) Yurei float, pale, limp and disjointed, dressed in draping, white Shinto burial kimonos, often with one visible eye staring fixedly through long dishevelled black hair (Japanese women pinned their long hair up, but it was left to hang down upon burial). Those Yurei bent on murderous retribution are called Onryou and their vengeance is often not confined to those who are immediately guilty, as demonstrated by the ghostly Kayako in Takashi Shimizu’s ‘Ju-On: The Grudge’. (When put in its original linguistic and cultural context, the term kurokami is a homonym which can mean both black hair and black spirit).

‘Ringu’ and ‘Ju-On’ are culturally specific in that they belong to genre of Japanese ghost story called kaidan which partly derives from the traditional plays of the Noh and Kabuki theatre, utilizing similar make-up conventions which whiten the skin and circle the eyes with dark colour (in fact, also in Hong Kong, a pejorative term for Caucasians is gwai-lo, literally meaning ‘ghost person’ – a reflection on the pallor of their skin.)

The writer of ‘Ringu’, Koji Suzuki explains how kaidan folklore has a different perspective on ghosts than the Western tradition:

“In America and Europe most horror movies tell the story of the extermination of evil spirits. Japanese horror movies end with a suggestion that the spirit still remains at large. That’s because the Japanese don’t regard spirits only as enemies, but as beings that co-exist with this world of ours…”

Furthermore, ‘Ringu’ and other Japanese horror movies such as ‘Dark Water’, relate to the fears inherent in tradition-venerating Japanese society about new gender roles and the increase in the divorce rate and how nowadays, Japanese women often have careers and are no longer full-time mothers. These movies reflect the anxious tension between tradition and modernity that looms large in the nation’s sensibility. As Jay McRoy puts it, ‘these disturbing films offer visceral visions interlaced with a degree of stinging social satire rarely seen in works of Western horror directors’,

The Ghost in the Machine

Western fears tend to reside in our anxieties regarding the repercussions of artificial intelligence and the suspicion that sentient machines may soon rise up to overwhelm us (as in ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’).

In Japan and Korea however, where ancient beliefs still have influence, the unease concerns a disturbing integration between ghosts and the forms of technology they may be able to inhabit and control. At times we all suspect that there is something amiss with our gadgets – we say that there are gremlins in our devices and ghosts in our machines.

In Asian horror we find haunted videotapes (the Ring) haunted internet (Pulse) and in Ahn Byeong-ki’s Korean shocker ‘Phone’ we have a mobile phone through which recipients are sent threatening communications from the dead. These seemingly outlandish concepts have provided some good scary films, thanks to their complex backstories, impressive performances and high-production values.

The movie ‘Phone’ for example, doesn’t just present us with scary calls from the vengeful dead, it is a film which tackles questions about family loyalty, obsessive love, jealousy, fertility, underage sex, stalkers, revenge, possessiveness and possession. In Seo-woo Eun as the possessed five-year-old Yung-ju, the movie might also boast the most frightening performance from little girl since Linda Blair’s Regan.

In Japanese cyberpunk which followed in the wake of the nation’s frantic technological development, Shinya Tsukamoto’s features ‘Testuo: The Iron man’ (1988) and the bigger and better ‘Tetsuo II: Body Hammer’ (1992), are two of cinema’s most striking examples of the ‘body-horror’ sub-genre, using grotesque, stop-motion effects of bodies wrenched into biochemical hybrids to create a vision of society approaching a technological cataclysm.

Other Japanese and Korean cult films include Kinji Fukasaku’s shocking social satire ‘Batoru Rowaiaru’ - ‘Battle Royale’, (2000), Chan-wook Park’s violent social critique ‘Vengeance trilogy’ (2002-2005) and the deeply disturbing and genre-bending ‘Odishon’ – ‘Audition’ (1999) by Takashi Miike. It may be argued that these movies, while being inspirations for highly successful Western imitations, are more engrossing, and offer greater depth and more unexpected chills than the intemperate, random carnage of franchises such as ‘Saw’ (James Wan, 2004-2010) and ‘Hostel’ (Eli Roth, 2005-2007).

Lost in Translation

When Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ringu’ (1998) proved to be extremely successful in Asia and in the West, Hollywood producers immediately attempted to imitate its effect by a return to a more gothic form of horror, preferably with an exotic twist. Gary G. Xu explains the phenomenon:

“There is a certain aura in Japanese ghost fiction and films, often filled with women’s grudges against men who deserted or injured them. Unlike most ghost stories in the West that seek moments of shock and thrills, Japanese ghost stories tend to allow the aura to linger, to permeate, or to literally haunt the audience…”

In remaking ‘Ringu’ for Western viewers, Gore Verbinski ignored the Japanese cultural specificities and focused on ‘domesticating’ the film. In order to adapt the film successfully, the Japanese specificities, such as social insecurities, the slower pace, the atmosphere of tense expectation and the compassion for wronged spirits as well as for their human victims, were removed to make it more palatable to a Western audience.

Leaving things unsaid or obscure is an integral component in Japanese culture and literature (as in Haiku) so much so that there is a term for it in everyday speech, aimai. Asian audiences accept a certain amount of ambiguity in film and do not consider it as some kind of failing.

In American remakes, a finale which offers more closure is usually demanded and the ghosts required to become mere husks and manifestations of evil. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger who worked on the ‘The Ring’ seemed to assume that an American audience needed to have everything spelled out, losing all the ambiguity and subtlety of the original. Further weird imagery was also added to the haunted tape, presumably to substitute for the mystery and exoticism which distinguished the original.

Nevertheless, Verbinski’s American remake grossed over $250 million worldwide, encouraging a franchise and a rush by Hollywood to fund numerous subsequent glossy remakes of Japanese horror films. Takashi Simizu’s ‘Ju-On’ was the next movie to be remade. It was retitled ‘The Grudge’ and went on to become just as successful at the box office as ‘The Ring’.

‘Ju-On’ (2002) is a similar homage to the kaidan tradition. When Simizu remade the film as ‘The Grudge’ (2004) for an American audience, he filmed the ghost of Kayako in the same way as Sayako’s in ‘The Ring’: virtually a faceless head covered by long black hair that reveals only one eye. In imitating this it can be suggested that Simizu was constructing ‘a deliberate relationship between the two films and, as such, conforming to Western expectations about a vengeful ghost in the Japanese horror film’ (Balmain).

This new symbol of horror began to appear repeatedly not only in Japanese films like ‘Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara’ - ‘Dark Water’ by Hideo Nakata (2002) but also in other successful East-Asian films like the Korean horror ‘Janghwa, Hongryeon’ - ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, (2003) by Jee-woon Kim, possibly in order to make the trope more recognizable to a Western audience.

Many of these remakes are serviceably scary but also conspicuously lacking in the suspense and alien exoticism that the originals are able to exude. Some of them, such as Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-wook Park’s classic ‘Oldboy’, have come and gone, barely leaving a trace on the horror community’s consciousness.

Many of the stylistic tropes and signatures of Asian horror have now been appropriated and absorbed by Hollywood and are evident in its own recent products such as ‘fear dot com’ (2002) ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ (2005) and ‘Unfriended’ (2015)

I’ll be writing further articles hopefully giving a further insight into the phenomenon of Asian Horror, but first, for newcomers to J-horror and K-horror I shall next be compiling a ‘must-see’ list of the original Japanese and Korean movies you really need to see, so look out for that.

Hopefully this short overview might shed a little light on the phenomenon of ‘dark’ Asian horror – not too much light however, as some dark things should always remain hidden in the shadows.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2016 All rights reserved.

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