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12 films to watch: a beginners guide to Asian Horror

Sometimes it hard to know which course to dive into, Stephen shares his favourites to get your appetite going…

Horror was the genre that really got me hooked on Asian cinema. Whilst subtitles and cultural differences can be a barrier to some people trying out foreign films, sometimes the lure of a favourite genre can be the gateway. So with this in mind, and Halloween upon us, I have put together a list of some horror movies from South East Asia that could be a gateway to exploring further. This isn’t a “best of”, it isn’t list of the strangest or scariest. It is a starting point for the curious.

These are films that a Western audience should be able to find on DVD/Blue Ray or on the various streaming services. Later suggestions may involve a little more work for them to be found. I am only including films from 1998 onwards, taking Ring as a starting point. It doesn’t mean there are not excellent films made before this time.

I am being fairly strict on what constitutes horror. This means that certain films with horrific overtones are excluded because to my mind they are more thrillers than horror per se. So you won’t find films like Oldboy and  I Saw the Devil here, nor more complex cinema of the extreme such as “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”. By the same token I am excluding real gore-fests, the key here is more accessibility than pushing the viewer’s limits. I’ve also decided to concentrate on live-action, so Anime isn’t covered.

Other than the starting point, there is no order here.

Ring (Japan, 1998)

It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the 1998 release of Ring was a turning point in Asian Horror becoming more widely known in the West. In the vengeful Sadako we have a creation that has become recognisable (dare I say iconic) in the West. The film has inspired a complex collection of sequels, reboots and copycats. The strange thing is though that Hideo Nakata’s film actually isn’t that good. Whilst the atmosphere and general conceit are great, the film struggles with the character side of things, failing to properly define the relationship between our two main characters, and throwing in some psychic abilities for one of them as a plot exposition device. On the other hand, the image of Sadako finally coming out of that TV set is worth the admission price alone. Nakata tweaks the source novel by Koji Suzuki by changing the gender of his lead character, softening the unpleasantness of her ex-husband and turning something that was more of a medical sci-fi thriller into something more supernatural.
Where to go from here: Well there are numerous sequels and reboots available. But to be honest most are not so good. My personal favourite is the forgotten sequel Rasen which was released and ignored at the same time. Shockingly, Gore Verbinski’s 2002 Hollywood remake is probably the best version of all, and even then it doesn’t quite have the courage to follow up on an early plot point.

Whispering Corridors Series (South Korea 1998 – 2009)

A little bit of a cheat here, as I am recommending the whole series of these films. Currently standing at 5 movies, all the films are totally standalone (with different directors), but share common themes. All set in all-girl Korean High Schools, the ghostly goings on are decorated with stories about bullying, the education system, teen suicide and lesbianism. What I like about them is that although they sound similar they all offer up something different to the viewer. The first, like Ring released in 1998, is a fairly standard but well-made affair. The sequel Memento Mori has a totally different feel, with the horror aspects firmly in the background, instead working as a structurally complex drama dealing with a number of taboo subjects (for the South Korean audience at least). Wishing Stairs is probably the weakest of the series, but is still a solid reworking of the ballet Giselle. My personal favourite is Voice which concentrates on the ghost herself. The last one (so far) A Blood Pledge feels a little more Western in approach but come highly recommended.
Where to go from here: Schoolgirl horror is certainly a big subgenre in Asian cinema, not just in South Korea. You could try out “Fatal Frame” which is a Japanese entry based on a popular computer game series.

Audition (Japan 1999)

Another film at the forefront of the J-Horror boom, Audition is fairly atypical for all kinds of reasons. Takashi Miike is well known for his work in extreme cinema, but he’s only made a handful of actual horror movies. Even this one is more akin to a psychological thriller, but the disturbing flashes during the first hour, and the outright discomfort that the viewer experiences in the final act mean that this one does deserve its place on a list of horror films. Miike is actually very restrained here (certainly when you look at the other films he was making at the time), adapting Ryu Murakami’s slim novel fairly faithfully. It’s not just a shocker though, it asks plenty of questions about the role of Japanese women in society, and whether you see Asami as the villain or as some kind of anti-hero.
Where to go from here: Miike has made a lot of movies, but true horror isn’t a genre he has really worked in. One Missed Call is a decent film that borrows from Ring, and I will be covering another piece of his below. Not really horror films, but Kim –Ki-duk’s The Isle and Jang Cheol-soo’s Bedevilled might scratch your itch if you like intensity.

A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea 2003)

It seems almost churlish to include Kim Ji-woon’s masterpiece in a list of horror movies, as this is a must-see film regardless of the genre. Taking a Korean folk tale (The Story of Jang-hwa and Heung-ryeon) and placing it in a contemporary setting, A Tale of Two Sisters mixes the age old ‘Evil Step-mother’ with ghosts and mental illness in a classy and visually stunning way.
Where to go from here: Avoid the Hollywood remake (confusingly called The Uninvited). Yim Pil-sung’s 2007 Hansel and Gretel is a more fantastical movie, and probably even more visually impressive. Kim’s own Coming Out is a short film about modern-day vampirism that’s worth tracking down.

Shutter (Thailand 2004)

Maybe it’s the censorship laws of Thailand that makes this nation such a good producer of Ghost-related films. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom are a couple of the leading lights in this genre, and in Shutter they manage to take the subject of Ghosts appearing in photographs, and turn it into something honestly unsettling. There are bumps and jumps along the way, but it is the chilling ending which will live with you for a good while after viewing.
Where to go from here: The pair worked together on the creepy Alone and segments of the 4bia series. Also try and source Wisit Sasanatieng’s The Unseeable, a period ghost story that belies it’s limited budget.

Dream Home (Hong Kong 2010)

One aspect of horror movies it’s actually quite hard to find is the ‘Slasher’ movie. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe it’s because the crime films fill this void. But Pang Ho-cheung’s Dream Home will sate your slice and dice desires. Wonderfully bloody, it even manages to go places that Western Horror movies might shy away from. Best of all, the film actually carries an interesting socio-political message about house prices in Hong Kong. Post-handover Hong Kong cinema can occasionally be a little anodyne but this one revels in the rare CATIII rating.
Where to go from here: Slice is a Thai film that one 2 parts serial killer slasher, and 1 part sensitive drama, with a final reveal that actually makes sense AND manages to blindside the viewer. Taiwan’s Invitation Only is much more mainstream, but could appeal to fans of the sub-genre.

The Eye (Hong Kong 2002)

Angelica Lee has a corneal transplant which enables her to regain her sight, but at the cost of seeing Ghosts. It’s a classic of the genre, although hangs heavy around the neck or the careers of Danny and Oxide Pang, whose films together and individually are usually considered “not as good as The Eye”. It takes it’s time to build to a surprisingly fiery conclusion, but if you aren’t impressed by the scene in the lift, then you are reading the wrong list.
Where to go from here: The Pang’s team up with Lee again in the visually fascinating Re-Cycle, and I will defend In Love with the Dead to my dying day. Diary is another criminally under-rated gem.

Three Extremes (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea 2004)

If you like portmanteau films, then this is the one for you. Park Chan-wook’s Cut has a great cast and set up, but is not really horror per-se. Takashi Miike delivers the weird and creepy Box. But it is Fruit Chan’s Dumplings  that is the standout. This one is all about the aural experience, with a use of sound that intensifies the effect of the disturbing events unfolding on screen.
Where to go from here: Chan released a feature length version of Dumplings, which adds a new plot strand, and gives us a different but equally shocking ending. Thailand’s 4Bia and Phobia 2 I have already mentioned, but they certainly have something for everyone, although they are a little uneven.

Dark Water (Japan 2002)

Hideo Nakata adapts another Koji Suzuki novel, and this one might not be as iconic, but is a way better film. A divorced mother and her child are haunted by damp patches and a red bag. Obviously I am underselling the plot, but its’ deliberate pacing and eerie atmosphere are simply wonderful. Add to this a downbeat ending and you have the perfect example of a creepy Japanese horror movie.
Where to go from here: The Hollywood remake starring Jennifer Connolly is actually really good but adds little. The Discarnates is another superior Japanese ghost story about loneliness and familial breakdown with an equally bleak ending.

Exte: Hair Extensions (Japan 2007)

In many ways this is Sion Sono’s most throwaway work. Exte is tight and humorous, with that wackiness that only Japanese movies can give you. It also stars that girl from Kill Bill and Battle Royale, Chiaki Kuriyama. It isn’t one that will give you chills (unless you really have a severe phobia of hair), but it’s a good way to progress from long haired female ghosts of vengeance to the more hyper-real gore (and boob) fests.
Where to go from here: Sono’s Suicide Circle is a much more complex piece that is more extreme than horror, but if silliness is more your cup of tea (and prefer violence to horror), Noboru Iguchi’s The Machine Girl is a way better film that you might think.

Inner Senses (Hong Kong 2002)

Notable for being the final film of Hong Kong legend Leslie Cheung, with a worryingly prescient element of his tragic suicide. This fact probably makes it a more important film than it actually is, but it’s a solid ghost story.
Where to go from here: Co-star Karena Lam has a couple of solid entries in the horror field – her team up with Angelica Lee in Koma is silly but solid, and it might be worth your time tracking down a copy of the more science-oriented Silk.

LaddaLand (Thailand 2011)

This one might be a little more difficult to get hold of, but it did get a R1 DVD release. One of those movies that uses the horror film to talk about something completely different. Adding the urban legend element to draw in the viewer, it not only provides decent scares, but actually has a lot to say about society and family in modern Thailand.
Where to go from here: In a similar vein, The Unborn Child will give you scares along with a treatise on abortion.

Stay with us this week for some more hauntingly appropriate Halloween recommendations in Asian Horror

About the author

Stephen Palmer
Millionaire Playboy by day, Masked Avenger for Justice by Night, Stephen battles...... Oh ok, I am an English Film Geek who also publishes his own ramblings on More »
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