If Asian Horror were a man, I’d marry it.

Movie poster, Shutter (2004, Thai)

(Originally posted on Writingscape V1.0 on 3/9/2008)

I’ve been having a love affair with Asian horror (Korean, Japanese, and Thai, in particular) for nigh on a year now. Why, you wonder? Let me count the ways.

No one is a ghost just for the sake of being a ghost. Plots are woven around subtle issues, and controversies in the culture, and avenging spirits come from that. (One issue I’ve enjoyed seeing played out is the Parents/Traditional/Old School versus the Children/New Age/New School power struggle that’s been going on for some years in real life. In a culture where a guy moving in with the wrong girl can affect the stock prices of a billion-dollar corporation, you can do a lot with that.) It’s not that someone was done wrong. They weren’t just treated badly and died, or accidentally killed. They were done wrong in so many intricate, interlocking ways, that they were forced into becoming the avenging creatures we see, almost against their own will. Which makes for awesome ending twists.

It’s an excellent study for tightening up my own writing. All stories, whether vignette, hour long, or movie length, are tightly woven when it comes to plot and completely cohesive, with no room for the extraneous. Nothing ever seems put in for the sake of the special effect; rather, they find an effect for the scene. Unlike the Hollywood mentality, which works the exact opposite. “Awesome new FX! Where can we stick it?” (Would you really like to know?)

That goes for the dialogue, too. It is every bit as tight as the plot.  No on-the-nose talk.  No monologues of explanation. Which makes the subtext (the stuff you read between the lines) just exquisite. From Ryeong (Dead Friend, 2004, South Korea), with my subtext in red:

Doctor:  “Does swimming help?”
Girl:  “Yes, it’s so soothing. Like my mother’s arms.” I miss Mom’s hugs. Why does she hate me?
Doctor:  “Is she still the same?” So. She’s still treating you like crap.
(girl nods)
Doctor:  “I’m sorry this is the last time I eat cookies with you.” This long, trying relationship is finally ending.
Girl:  “Not relieved? I know I stained your career.” You tried to fix me, but you failed. And everyone watched it happen.
Doctor:  “It breaks my heart to hear that.” You have been a pain, but I care a lot about you anyway. “Your brain waves are normal, but the heart could relapse. Don’t forget to take your medicine.” Girl hasn’t been good at doing what she’s told up to this point—a pain. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. As time goes by, your memory might come back.”
Girl:  “It’s okay. I’ll consider it as an umbrella I forgot on the bus.” I hope my memory doesn’t come back—though I’m not sure why. Uh-oh…!

Ear and eye candy. They do wonders with less incidental music and more silence. And with unusual sounds that you can’t identify until they’re upon you. And ordinary sounds that you just don’t identify with horror. Until. (I thought they were signaling me that something bad was about to happen. It was only a subway train.) Inventive shots and angles—many different ways of shooting the same thing. Sometimes you’re looking at a ghost and you don’t even know it. Until. Last but not least—their ghosts are always doing things I haven’t seen ghosts do before. And that’s the ticket.

Incidentally, I see a new Shutter (2008) is being released to American audiences. I’m pretty sure I won’t be seeing it. The one that spawned it from 2004, the Thai release of the same name, happens to be one of the most outstanding Asian horror films I’ve seen to date. No way will this 2008 one outshine it. (The 2008 trailer shows one of the original devices used in 2004—fantastic—but it also shows that the 2008 version is indeed polluted with overused Hollywood junk. A shame.)

I am so down with this review right here.

The ending of Shutter (2004) stayed with me for a long time. Horrified me in a way I wasn’t expecting.

My brother introduced me to Ju-on: The Grudge (2002, Japan), and that’s what started me off with a bang.

To people in Asia, and hardcore fans, Asian horror is probably mundane. Seen one, you’ve seen them all. Nothing special. But to an American so jaded on predictable American horror that she could puke, it is scary and sweet.

I’ll be on board for a while yet.

Postcript 7/5/2014: Still on board, with no plans to disembark. 🙂

2 thoughts on “If Asian Horror were a man, I’d marry it.”

  1. Obviously I’m coming to this party late, but I’m typically late in real life, so I am at least consistent.

    If you like being horrified, might I suggest Crazy Rich Asian. I just watched it–skipping the commercials, when actually, I should have skipped the whole movie–and let me tell you, this is the kind of horror that speaks about the over-indulgence of the modern age. It could have done with an axe wielding maniac to cut up the film before hitting the box office. By the way, I’m not recommending the movie, it is just my only recent reference to a vaguely foreign theme and I was horrified by the content. Just not in a Hitchcockian way. I do not have the stomach for actual horror films.

    The one series I would recommend is The Legend of Haolan. It’s more in the style of soap opera than horror, but has similar characteristics of consisting of highly interwoven story lines and beautiful sets and costumes. It always feels like they somehow traveled through time and filmed in the Qin dynasty. (Had to look it up. Love the shows, can barely follow the footnotes to understand what is going on.)


Something to say? Be my guest.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.