It’s lucky 13, as James uncovers some real oddities from Asian Horror…
With Halloween fast approaching, the thoughts of Asian horror fans turn as usual to long haired vengeful female ghosts, cursed video tapes and random grudges. However, there’s much more to eastern genre films than Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and its kin, with Japan, Korea and especially Hong Kong having produced some of the most unconventional and imaginative, not to mention incredibly strange, horror from anywhere in the world. With this in mind, the following is a list of thirteen of the more far-out Asian offerings of the last few decades, from sleazy sorcery through to sexually confused slashers, inappropriate hauntings and more – beware of multiple spoilers below.
Red Room 2 (Daisuke Yamanouchi, Japan, 2000)
Even in the annals of extreme Japanese horror, pinku director Daisuke Yamanouchi’s Red Room V-cinema (direct to video) series is infamous, revolving around the simple and sadistic concept of a card game played by a small group of desperate people, the winner of each round getting to torture the loser in whatever way they see fit, a million dollars awaiting the last one standing or breathing. Unsurprisingly, for the most part this means the misuse of blunt and sharp implements and household products alike, such as light bulbs, hair driers and DIY tools, as well as rape, golden showers and other offences best not listed here. While the first film sets the bar pretty high, it’s Red Room 2 which really leaps over the line and shifts from mere grotesque cruelty to surreal madness when one of its female contestants is revealed to be some kind of android or robot prone to spouting philosophical gibberish. Things only get weirder from here, and the film builds towards a nihilistic yet oddly touching conclusion that marks it as a real head-scratcher, at least for those with strong enough stomachs to endure it.
Awakening (Cha Chuen Yee, Hong Kong, 1994)
Anthony Wong and Simon Yam have both been in more than their fair share of crazy Hong Kong shockers, including The Untold Story, Ebola Syndrome, Dr Lamb and others, the two being kings of the category III scene. Though not as extreme, Cha Chuen Yee’s Awakening is definitely one of the least conventional of the popular HK Taoist exorcism sub-genre, with Wong as a TV celebrity fake priest and Yam as a man out seeking revenge against him for a possibly imagined wrong. Though the basic premise is pretty straightforward, the film heads off in a most unexpected direction, Yam’s vengeance involving him ruining Wong’s life and career and pushing him to become the lover of a transvestite gay club singer (the film managing to work in several references to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game along the way) before the two men have a showdown in purgatory – perhaps only to be expected from Cha, whose second film was Shaw Brothers curiosity Journey of the Doomed back in 1985.
Eternal Evil of Asia (Chin Man Kei, Hong Kong, 1995)
Old school Hong Kong category III films are amongst the wildest ever made, and so it takes something pretty special to stand out from the crowd, which Chin Man Kei’s Eternal Evil of Asia certainly does, packing in enough insanity for a dozen shlockfests. Charting the misadventures of an unfortunate bunch of sex-obsessed Hong Kong men being hunted down by an evil black magic practitioner after a sex trip to Thailand goes badly wrong, the inventively tasteless film kicks off with a scene warning viewers not to take young children into the toilets at cinemas, before going on to work in flying black magic sex, lashings of gore, and a man whose head is turned into a giant penis which urinates when he gets nervous. Much more of a proper horror film than most of its category III peers, Eternal Evil of Asia is luridly atmospheric and harks back to the very best of the Shaw Brothers’ gruesome forays into the genre, being reminiscent of Black Magic, Hex, Boxer’s Omen and other nasty classics.
He Lives by Night (Po Chih Leong, Hong Kong, 1982)
Slasher films have generally been far more popular in the west than the east, with He Lives by Night being a rare Hong Kong example of the form, albeit a particularly strange one. Directed by Po Chih Leong, who went on to helm the big budget Chow Yun Fat starring WWII drama Hong Kong 1941 before heading to Hollywood, the film is an unorthodox mix of western-style stalk and slash and HK slapstick, lurching drunkenly between the two in a near-senseless yarn about a killer enraged by women wearing white stockings. Featuring some hilariously inventive death scenes, most notably one involving a 7-up machine, the film is remarkably disco-obsessed, with plenty of dancing and a great electro soundtrack – though possibly a bit too off the wall to count as real horror per se, there’s lots here to be enjoyed by viewers open to something more than a little different.
Troublesome Night 3 (Herman Yau, Hong Kong, 1998)
The Troublesome Night series is one which has a bit of a bad rep with some Hong Kong horror fans, though undeservedly so, as for the most part the earlier entries in its 19(!) film run are actually a great deal of spooky fun, the first six having been directed by the always reliable Herman Yau. Another anthology piece (the series shifted to single narratives after part five), the third film features three surprisingly well-interwoven tales revolving around a group of mortuary workers who encounter the supernatural in one guise or another. Though outlandish (in particular through a macabre segment concerning the corpse of a popular singer), like many of Yau’s works what makes Troublesome Night 3 memorable are its likeable and grounded characters and its skilful mixing of the everyday and the unworldly, and though morbidly amusing in places the film is a genuinely creepy affair.
Naked Blood (Hisayasu Satō, Japan, 1996)
Hisayasu Satō’s Naked Blood isn’t just one of the most disturbing Japanese gore films, but perhaps more importantly is also flat-out one of the most bizarre. Though its simple-sounding premise about a drug created by a mad scientist that transforms pain into pleasure isn’t much more than an excuse for a series of exceedingly horrific set pieces of self-mutilation (one infamous scene depicts a young woman enthusiastically dismembering and devouring herself in graphic detail), there’s definitely something else at work here. What this might be is really anyone’s guess, the film making no sense whatsoever and clearly having arthouse ambitions, though it certainly seems to have something to do with the cactus that keeps appearing – the film wins an award of sorts for the sheer number of inexplicable shots of said spiky plant, and though presumably symbolic or meaningful, the scene with one of its doomed characters placing a virtual reality headset on it and trying to join with its consciousness is simply beyond baffling.
Last Ghost Standing (Billy Chung, Hong Kong, 1999)
Hong Kong genre cinema is known for its kitchen sink approach, typified by Billy Chung’s energetically idiosyncratic Last Ghost Standing, which apes Lamberto Bava’s 1985 horror Demons with its tale of unfortunate patrons trapped in a cinema haunted by a variety of oddball spooks summoned by an effeminate demon played by Francis Ng. Populated by characters every bit as quirky as its ghouls, the film is exhausting and anecdotal, flitting between set pieces without much rhyme or reason, though it’s a great deal of fun and features plenty of memorable moments both gross and amusing. Though it borrows liberally from other eastern and western horrors, there’s a demented originality throughout that makes it more satisfying than similarly themed efforts like Wong Jing’s 1985 Ghost Snatchers, and Billy Chung manages to keep the film bouncing along at a brisk pace throughout.
Holy Virgin vs the Evil Dead (Chin Ku Lu, Hong Kong, 1991)
Not even martial arts megastar Donnie Yen managed to avoid the category III boom early in his career, appearing in Holy Virgin vs the Evil Dead, a film which earned an international release most likely on the strength of its amazing title. A mix of horror, comedy and campy soft-porn, the film probably isn’t one of Yen’s personal favourites, seeing him playing a professor suspected of murder when his female students start being killed by an evil green-eyed moon monster. Though a little slow to start with, the film really delivers the good during its later stages when the action shifts to Cambodia, with lots of violence, fight scenes, gore, black magic and nudity. Though like many category III rated films it’s all rather misogynistic, giving its female cast members short shift indeed, there are enough moments of inspired trashy goodness to make it well worth tracking down.
Organ (Kei Fujiwara, Japan, 1996)
Written, directed, produced by and starring Kei Fujiwara, who also worked with Shinya Tsukamoto on Tetsuo: The Iron Man back in 1989, Organ is a queasy, surreal piece of body horror which features the actress playing one of a gang of organ thieves led by a crazed professor who has a penchant for kidnapping his female students and harvesting them while still alive. Unsurprisingly reminiscent of Tetsuo, the challenging film also recalls Cronenberg’s Videodrome with its many mutations and organic nightmares, and is a relentlessly grim tale of repulsive transformations and hideous surgery that takes the brave viewer to some very unusual places indeed.
Devil Fetus (Lau Hung Chuen, Hong Kong, 1983)
Hong Kong really did produce some of the maddest horror cinema of all time during its heyday, and few films are as mad as Devil Fetus, directed by Lau Hung Chuen, who had previously worked with Tsui Hark as cinematographer on We Are Going to Eat You. The film was trimmed by the censors on original release in HK (a fact which should give a pretty good idea of just how tasteless it gets), though even its cut form is spectacularly deranged, following a young woman who has the bad luck to buy a haunted vase, which somehow results in her getting impregnated by a demon. Logic and coherence clearly never even entered into the equation here, the film having more possessions than any other in memory, including but not limited to the vase, people, automobiles and even a rug, with Lau throwing in monsters and magic along the way for good measure. Adding to the wackiness is the fact that like many other Hong Kong productions of the time, the film steals brazenly from the soundtracks of several productions, most obviously John Carpenter’s The Thing, which though perhaps thematically fitting is a surreal touch. As a result, watching Devil Fetus is an experience akin to that of the unfortunate victim in Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment, as it really does feel like being span around in a chair while being forced to drink alcohol and being slapped repeatedly in the face for an hour and a half – though in a good way, of course.
Rampo Noir (Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Satō, Atsushi Kaneko and Suguru Takeuchi, Japan, 2005)
Starring Tadanobu Asano, Ramp Noir is an anthology based on stories by Edogawa Ranpo (the pseudonym of writer Tarō Hirai, a play on Edgar Allan Poe), whose works have inspired many other Japanese horrors over the years, such as Teruo Ishii’s 1969 exploitation shocker Horrors of Malformed Men and Shinya Tsukamoto’s surreal Gemini in 1999. Each of the four tales brings something unique, disturbing and unhinged to the table, working in gore, S&M, amputation and some particularly repugnant scenes involving insects during the final segments. Though at times veering into arthouse obscurity, the extremely unsettling film is about as far from the usual long haired Japanese ghost horror as it’s possible to get, and is beautifully shot even during its many moments of creative rancidness.
Blue Jean Monster (Ivan Lai, Hong Kong, 1991)
Blue Jean Monster, its title presumably inspired by the 1988 Hollywood Peter Weller actioner Blue Jean Cop (also known as Shakedown), was another offering from Ivan Lai, a man no stranger to bad taste, having helmed The Peeping Tom, Ancient Chinese Whorehouse, The Imp and other category III nasties. The film provided a rare headline role for instantly recognisable HK character actor Fui On Shing, usually known for playing leering villains and who sadly passed away in 2009, who stars as a cop brought back to life by a lightning strike to track down his killers and protect his pregnant wife – shades of RoboCop, another Peter Weller hit from the period. Unfortunately, the poor man’s resurrection is only partial, with his body still rotting and prone to falling apart, pushing him to find inventive means of fixing himself up and concealing his condition, in one scene having to resort to using cookie dough to fill in some bullet holes. It’s demented sequences like this which make Blue Jean Monster a great deal of freaky fun, and Lai combines horror, action and old fashioned Hong Kong nonsense comedy to great effect.
Bio Zombie (Wilson Yip, Hong Kong, 1998)
Bio Zombie really deserves to be better known amongst horror fans in general, as it’s not only one of the best takes on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead from Asia, but anywhere in the world. Directed by Wilson Yip, who went onto bigger things like SPL and Ip Man, the film relocates the undead action to a shabby basement HK shopping arcade, pitting a pair of pirate VCD selling rogues and a cast of eclectic supporting characters against a tide of flesh-eaters spawned by the usual military experiment gone wrong. Fast moving, innovative and successfully striking just the right balance of horror, humour and gore, the film has an authentically local feel to it, and benefits hugely from a pair of likeable leads in Jordan Chan and Sam Lee. Impressively, Wilson Yip manages to make the viewer actually care what happens to the two well-meaning miscreants, and despite the cavalcade of flying body parts, random humour and video game stylings, the film remains coherent and builds to an emotional gut punch of an ending – no mean feat for something as initially ridiculous as Bio Zombie.