Overlooked Asian ghost films from the early 2000s post-Ringu boom…
The nights are drawing in and Halloween is approaching, though for many people around the world under one form of COVID lockdown or another, there aren’t going to be as many chances, as usual, to catch horror classics on the big screen or to attend sinister drinking rituals in graveyards. This makes for the perfect excuse to revisit some of the lesser-known ghost films from around Asia, and in particular those from the early 2000s which were perhaps given the cold shoulder due to being unfairly labelled as Ringu or Ju-on clones, or simply due to horror fans having had their fill of the genre by then.
With the misadventures of Sadako and Kayako having proved so popular not only domestically but around the world, it’s not really a surprise that they inspired so many others with similar themes, some of which didn’t even hide the fact that they were opportunistic knock-offs. While this is only to be expected for the horror genre, unfortunately, it also saw a number of quality supernatural scare-fests from different countries around Asia being lumbered with marketing materials and posters focusing on the usual long-haired vengeful ghosts, whether or not they actually had much to do with the films themselves.
Now, more than a decade later, many of these films are still dismissed as rip-offs, or have been forgotten altogether, and are lost, wandering in a grey cinematic limbo-like hungry ghosts themselves – this seems more than a little unfair, not least since Sadako and Kayako have merrily continued to churn out franchise entries of increasingly debatable quality. Indeed, it’s only right to now give up trying to find something that’ll actually play a cursed VHS tape or to find a haunted house in Tokyo that’s somehow been overlooked by property developers for twenty years, and to whip out a Ouija board, pour out a couple of drinks, and give some of these films the second chance that they deserve.
The Red Shoes
분홍신, South Korea, 2005 (dir. Kim Yong-gyun)
The Red Shoes is a good place to start, released in 2005, by which time the Ringu ghost film boom was already in decline, with less ambitious filmmakers starting to look for more outlandish premises and objects to haunt – the same year would also bring such terrifying haunted inanimate objects as The Wig and Cello, though the limber horrors of Yoga wouldn’t arrive for a few years yet. A film about a cursed pair of shoes might seem to similarly fit the bill, though Kim Yong-gyun’s sophomore effort really does have a lot more going on, being loosely based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen and weaving a complex tale that features a genuinely compelling central mystery – it is worth noting though that the titular shoes here are a saucy shade of pink, rather than red.
While the film does focus on the usual female protagonist looking into the dark secrets of the past, writer-director Kim gives it multiple layers, and the ambiguous narrative mixes in flashbacks and surreal visions to good effect, along with several whacky twists. To be fair, the film doesn’t always make sense, though it’s entertaining and engaging through to its rather senseless conclusion – a Director’s Cut is available, featuring the markedly different original ending, though unfortunately not with English subtitles.
The Red Shoes has much more emphasis on atmosphere and style than the average ghost film, and also benefits from a strong performance from actress Kim Hye-soo, who was in Tazza: The High Rollers and psycho-thriller Hypnotised around the same time, usually playing femme fatale type characters. But where it really stands out is through the fact that it’s surprisingly gory and bloody, something rarely seen in ghost films of the period, with lots of feet getting cut off in graphic detail and other nastiness. The film clearly marked Kim as a very talented director, and as well as the big-budget Sword with No Name he also later returned to the horror genre with the solid Killer Toon in 2013 – apparently his last film to date, which is a shame.
第一誡, Hong Kong, 2008 (dir. Kelvin Tong)
While it wasn’t necessarily lumped in with Ringu and its ilk, Hong Kong ghost film Rule #1 was equally mis-sold, with marketing materials that focused on its cop elements, pitching it much more as a thriller. The film was written and directed Kelvin Tong, who had previously made the more traditional, hugely successful ghost story The Maid, and the horror-comedy Men in White, which both tapped into the supernatural beliefs and traditions of his native Singapore. Rule #1 saw him shifting to Hong Kong, with a story following Shawn Yue as a cop who ends up assigned to Ekin Cheng’s shady Miscellaneous Affairs department after thinking it was a smart idea to try and convince his superiors that a serial killer case he was working involved the supernatural. The department turns out to deal with ghosts, possession and the like, though Yue becomes suspicious that the serial killer has returned from the dead and is haunting him.
Rule #1 is a great mix of different genre elements, Tong working in some well-paced twists as the titular rules about the supernatural are revealed, and it’s one of the few films which manages to successfully combine cop procedural, mystery thriller and out and out ghost horror. Though it starts off light-hearted enough, it rapidly becomes darker and darker, with the last act diving headlong into some surprisingly nasty nihilism, building towards a memorably shocking ending, and it’s well-made and creepily atmospheric throughout. As with The Maid, Tong impresses by taking traditional ghost themes and beliefs, and mines them for something quite different to tense and entertaining effect, and Rule #1 is a film which really begs for rediscovery
Noroi: The Curse
ノロイ, Noroi, Japan, 2005 (dir. Kōji Shiraishi)
There aren’t too many Asian ghost films from the early 2000s, or any period for that matter, which make use of the found footage format, the success of The Blair Witch Project not having the same impact as the success of Ringu in the East. One director who has dabbled in mockumentary and found footage is Kōji Shiraishi, one of the most prolific, and arguably one of the best horror filmmakers working in Japan, responsible for the likes of Carved, Ju-Rei: The Uncanny, Record of Sweet Murder and other solid genre offerings. As well as his 2010 mockumentary Shirome, following a girl band exploring a haunted school, he also gave the world the found footage classic Noroi: The Curse in 2005, which is generally regarded by critics around the world as one of the very best of its kind from anywhere.
Focused on the story of a paranormal researcher and documentary maker who disappeared and whose wife was found dead, the genius of Noroi is in the way that it plays out like a supernatural reality TV show in part, interspersed with footage from a supposedly cursed film shot by the missing man. Kōji Shiraishi makes extremely creative use of the format, and the film is incredibly, unnervingly believable throughout, even when it gets into ghosts, possession and gruesome tales of abortion. Probably the creepiest and most genuinely frightening film on this list, far more so than Ringu and any of its kin, Noroi: The Curse is a classic of its kind, and again shows what a talented and incredibly versatile filmmaker Kōji Shiraishi really is.
異度空間, Hong Kong, 2002 (dir. Law Chi-leung)
Inner Senses has a special place on this list not because it was overlooked as such, but because it became famous chiefly for the sad fact that it was the last film to feature the legendary Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung, who tragically took his own life in 2003. Directed by Law Chi-leung, who also made the solid genre outings Double Tap and Koma, along with The Bullet Vanishes and its follow up The Vanished Murderer, the film sees Cheung playing a psychiatrist trying to treat a suicidal woman who claims to be able to see ghosts (Karena Lam). Although Cheung’s character doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he begins to experience strange things which seem to be linked to a girl from his past, putting his life in danger.
Cheung’s unfortunate passing aside, Inner Senses suffered from being thrown in with not only Ringu, but more importantly with The Sixth Sense and the whole ‘I see dead people’ theme – the film was quickly overshadowed by the success of the Pang Brothers’ The Eye, which was released a couple of months later. This is a shame, as many audiences approached Inner Senses expecting an out an out ghost film, complete with curses and spooky action, as while it does have an angry female spirit, it’s a very different kind of ghost film, and is instead a sad, though moving supernaturally themed tale of loss and regret, with suicide a constantly looming threat. Both Cheung and Lam are on great, if subdued form, and the film is dramatically engaging as well as quietly sinister and atmospheric, Law Chi-leung winning points for doing something different to the formula being used by most others at the time.
분신사바, Korea, 2004 (dir. Ahn Byeong-ki)
Released as Oujia Board in the US, Bunshinsaba is a 2004 Korean ghost film directed by Ahn Byeong-ki, a key Korean horror filmmaker who also helmed hits like The Horror Game Movie Nightmare, Phone and APT, as well as producing the solid 4 Horror Tales anthology. Whereas these films, Phone in particular, are slick though familiar variations on the usual Ringu and modern ghost theme, Bunshinsaba offers something a bit different, being a mix of Korean and Hollywood horror, with a bunch of bullied schoolgirls who take the logical step of using a Ouija board to summon a spirit to take revenge on their tormentors, something which was never likely to work out well.
Like all Ahn Byeong-ki’s films, Bunshinsaba has solid production values, and he’s a director who’s very good at timing the scares, keeping things moving at a fast pace and throwing in lots of supernatural action. Where the film stands out is in the way that it takes the usual curse theme, in this case with the summoned spirit having a serious grudge to bear of its own, and combines this with the Ouija board theme and possession, along with more of a slasher film mentality in the way that victims, chiefly the bullies, are knocked off. While the film does have a Ringu style urban legend feel, and a familiar-looking ghost (who, needless to say, was front and centre on the poster), it perhaps owes more to the Korean Whispering Corridors series in terms of its touching on social issues such as bullying and school problems. Ahn pulls all this together very successfully, and though Bunshinsaba is a bit overlong at two hours, it’s well worth seeking out.
Certainly, the film was popular enough to inspire Ahn to work on a dizzying array of follow-ups, including a Chinese version in 2012, plus its three sequels – this, in turn, was also followed by Bunshinsaba vs Sadako and two sequels (presumably a best two out of three bouts), plus Bunshinsaba vs The Grudge, which Ahn didn’t direct, possibly because by that stage even he was getting confused by what was going on.
輪廻, Japan, 2005 (dir. Takashi Shimizu)
As the creator of the never-ending Ju-on franchise, anything by Takashi Shimizu was always going to come with certain expectations, and so it’s not surprising that some of his more offbeat and genre-bending tales of supernatural menace produced during the early 2000s have ended up being less well known. Although Marebito is perhaps the best and the most bizarre of these, it’s not really a ghost film as such, and so for the purposes of this article Reincarnation is a better fit, and a great film in its own right. Released in 2005, it was part of producer Takashige Ichise’s surprisingly impressive six-part J-Horror Theater project and revolves around a film being made about a hotel massacre that took place thirty years previously, by a professor apparently obsessed with reincarnation. The lead actress in the film starts to experience strange visions of the victims of the massacre, which leads her to the professor’s wife, the only survivor of the killings, and to bizarre footage which he shot.
Reincarnation is a very interesting film, and one which combines modern Asian ghost themes and frights with something a bit more ambitious, Takashi Shimizu getting into philosophical territory and working in plenty of surreal touches. Often blurring the line between the film shoot and reality, and between the past and the present, Shimizu gives the proceedings an ambiguous feel and a sense of the unknown, though without ever getting too obscure. There’s a lot packed into its 95-minute running time, and its child ghosts and creepy dolls make for a good number of eerie scares – Shimizu is a director most effective when allowed to let things get weird, and Reincarnation is all the better for giving him a chance to flex his imagination.
The New Blood
热血青年, Hong Kong, 2002 (dir. Cheang Pou-soi)
Released in 2002, when the Asian ghost boom was still going strong, The New Blood was an early effort from Hong Kong director Cheang Pou-soi, who went to do some really interesting and dark films including Dog Bite Dog and Shamo, before moving more into action with Accident and Motorway, and then big budgeters like S.P.L. 2 and the Monkey King blockbusters. The New Blood offers an interesting twist on the ghost curse formula, this time revolving around a young couple who try to commit suicide, though the boyfriend survives, saved by a blood transfusion from three strangers – needless to say, his dead girlfriend isn’t too happy, and she starts haunting the blood donors, with grim results.
The New Blood was definitely an early 2000s ghost film which sadly went a bit under the radar, and which didn’t get much attention internationally which is a real shame, as Cheang makes great use of a premise that in other hands could have been used for a more straightforward angry ghost revenge tale. It’s quite dark and brooding like other early Cheang films, and is a melancholic, character-driven affair with some solid acting from Niki Chow in the lead role – while it does to an extent follow the usual female protagonist investigates plot, it goes to some pretty unexpected places as it builds towards an entertainingly whacky final act and twist. The film also benefits from an excellently gruesome ghost, who has a very different look to the usual Sadako clones, and from being surprisingly gory in places, thankfully without the use of CGI.
แฝด, Thailand, 2007 (dirs. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom)
Alone was the second outing from Thai writer-directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, whose 2004 hit Shutter was one of the most internationally popular entries in the post-Ringu ghost boom. As such, their 2007 follow-up was eagerly awaited by fans, though faced an uphill challenge due to the playing field being by then overcrowded with long-haired sulky spirits. Certainly, the premise didn’t stray too far from the usual path, following a young woman being haunted by the spirit of her conjoined twin sister, who died when they were separated at the age of fifteen and who seems determined that they be together forever.
Where Alone really scores highly is in the way that it takes this generic-sounding setup, and using it as a framework for a series of increasingly bizarre and surreal supernatural events. It’s certainly not a narrative film in the sense of most others of its type, with the identity of the ghost being clear from the start and there being no real mystery as such, though Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom keep the viewer gripped through an escalating sense of threat and tension – ambiguity is very much key. The ghost herself is certainly one of the more effective apparitions of recent years, a gruesome and enthusiastic spectre who really puts a lot of work into her terror campaign, though the film mostly relies on atmosphere to chill, in a manner reminiscent of the Korean classic A Tale of Two Sisters. While Alone does borrow from this film, it’s nevertheless its own beast, and if anything is even better than Shutter, though is sadly far less well-known.
기담, Korea, 2007 (dirs. Jung Bum-Sik, Jung Sik)
By the time Epitaph arrived in 2007, the popularity of the genre was in decline, and while it does deal with ghosts and the sins of the past, it’s such an ambitious and intellectual film that it’s definitely a mistake to treat it as being more of the same. The Korean film was written and directed by brothers Jung Bum-Sik and Jung Sik – Jung Bum-sik went on to do segments in the excellent Korean Horror Stories anthologies, and also directed Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, a found-footage horror which was a huge international hit. It’s clear from the start that Epitaph isn’t an average ghost film, its plot featuring intertwining stories set in the 1940s during the Japanese occupation period and in the 1970s, with a doctor remembering his times as an intern, when his finance committed suicide, and he fell in love with a corpse in the hospital morgue. The stories grow more complex, moving to focus on a young girl haunted by ghosts and a serial killer who seems to be after Japanese soldiers, before coming to a chilling conclusion.
One thing which really sets Epitaph aside from other ghost films is the fact that it’s visually stunning – the different time periods, and visions and dreams are all shot in very different ways, including 16mm and vintage cameras, and the recreation of 1940s Seoul rivals that in bigger budget period drama productions. While it does have some of the usual Korean horror themes, it’s at heart a darkly philosophical film which explores the ideas of death and mortality, as well as guilt, repression and other themes. A lot of thought clearly went into the plot and its construction, and while Epitaph is perhaps a little cold, it benefits from avoiding the melodrama and tears which often mar Korean genre productions, and it’s a far more substantial film than almost any others from the country during the period.
While it might feel a little out there for anyone looking for a more traditional spook show, it’s a fantastic film in terms of its ideas, and it’s very atmospheric, chilling and gory – it’s also worth noting that Epitaph won a slew of awards in Korea, and it really should be better known internationally.
Horror Hotline… Big Head Monster
恐怖熱線之大頭怪嬰, Hong Kong, 2001 (dir. Cheang Pou-soi)
The list finishes with another from Cheang Pou-soi, and a personal favourite, as well as a ghost film with one of the all-time great titles: Horror Hotline… Big Head Monster. The title actually refers to Horror Hotline, a highly popular Hong Kong radio show hosted by ‘Ghost King’ Edmond Poon, who was involved with the film – the show also inspired a variety of spinoffs, including other films, books and video games. Big Head Monster is allegedly based on a real life incident which happened in Hong Kong in the 1960s involving a mad demon baby, the plot tying into the Horror Hotline radio show concept, with someone calling in and telling the story of a monster baby he came across during his schooldays, and the crew decide to investigate.
The film is actually more serious than the title suggests, and has a great cast with Francis Ng, Josie Ho, Sam Lee and Niki Chow. There’s a bit of Blair Witch in there, urban legends and curses in the Ringu style and other influences, but Soi Cheang really pulls it all together very skilfully, and it’s a surprisingly effective and atmospheric film with a mix of different horror techniques. There’s a lot of supernatural action without ever going over the top, and though the film does get rather out of control towards the end, it does so in the finest crazy Hong Kong fashion – apparently it originally came with 2 different endings which you could choose on the DVD, which is a nice touch, but no matter which version of the film you can find, Horror Hotline… Big Head Monster is absolutely worth tracking down.