An Exquisite Nightmare: New Asian Horror Sprays the Screen
"New Asian Horror" is well on its way to becoming a staid film studies expression like "French New Wave." While there certainly was an explosion of style and variety in the late 1990s, the "newness" has faded into film history. However, if you are reading this, do not be discouraged, for watching most of the movies discussed below will certainly provide you with novel entertainment. For the viewer with discriminating taste, these films offer an amazing and hard-to-repeat experience. Of course, that isn't stopping Hollywood from trying.
1996 is a good place to start. This is the year something started to happen in Asian horror filmmaking. In Japan, Kei Fujiwara unleashed an unexpected torrent of shock and gore with Organ. While investigating a human organ smuggling ring, Detective Numata's partner falls victim to the criminals, giving the case the personal edge required for this kind of drama. But Organ isn't really about plot, it's a tour-de-force full of hallucinatory, graphic and gory mutilation along with bizarre, drugged-out torture and disjointed moments that fans of Asian cinema will recognize and love. This is a movie for gore fans, those who enjoy shock cinema or those with a mature sense of dark humor.
Takeshi Miike matched the horror of Organ with his own artsy brand of revulsion in Fu Doh (Gokudô sengokushi: Fudô). Fudoh offers us a glimpse into the lives of a very unusual and special assassination squad. Wonderfully over-the-top and playfully offensive, this was a good preview of the films to come from Mr. Miike.
Anthony Wong, king of psychopaths, in Ebola Syndrome.
With his aptly titled Ebola Syndrome (Yibola bing du), Herman Yau opened up a new kind of Hong Kong Category III cinema, following in the tradition started by Shaw Brothers shockers like Human Lanterns. Previous to this, most Category III films were excuses for soft-core nudity, sex and the usual exploitation tropes. Ebola Syndrome is not only everything the title suggests, it also pushes the Category III movie into new and more disturbing realm in terms of subject matter. While there is some sexual content, the real thrill here is the total disregard for PC sensibilities - or sensitivity of any kind for that matter. Actor Anthony Wong, who has made quite a career portraying psychos, plays a serial killer who has become infected with ebola and uses his disease as an opportunity to avenge all of the abuse he has suffered in his life. Sensational title, sensational story, but probably a big letdown, right? Not in the least. Almost every frame of this film oozes, sprays and splatters blood or infected fluids. This really needs to be seen to be appreciated, and again, not by the humorless or weak-stomached. This is a horror film in every sense of the phrase.
These two films demonstrated a new approach to horror that had not previously been seen in live action Asian film. Suddenly, it was ruder, brighter, more graphic and much more willing to explode out of the box that American and European horror films had drawn around the genre. Something distinctly Asian and radically different was being created. Certainly, these films were shocking and graphic, but they were also fluid and fun, rocking and rolling like some of the better HK action cinema. Other films to consider from this year would be Kenichi Yoshihara's Baptism of Blood (Senrei), and Kai Ming Lai's The Imp (Xie sha). Also, Hideo Nakata released his first feature film, the chilling and moody ghost story titled Don't Look Up (Joyurei). While this was more traditional than the gore fests, it was noteworthy for its serious intent to scare and not rely on camp or genre to reach an audience.
South Korean cinema first contributed to "New Asian Horror" in 1997 with Ahn Byung-Ki's Nightmare (Gawi). While the plot wasn't groundbreaking stuff, the tough visuals and chromatic flair made this stand out from most films of this time in horror filmmaking. The plot concerns a group of friends who share a secret; they also happen to be dying one by one in strange and grisly ways. We are to meant to wonder if a ghost or merely a psychotic peer is responsible for the murders. This is a stock Hollywood plot, but it is here directed with such verve that it puts the retreads from LA to shame.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa began a vibrant part of his horror career with the deep and resonant Cure (Kyua, 1997). While the core of the plot has a detective search for a serial killer, the manner of the killings and the personality of the killer give the film its unique chills and also provide a thoughtful subtext. Stylish, mature and creepy, this film is a good example of the more serious and sincere kind of scary movies New Asian Horror has to offer. Japan also experienced the terrors of Masayuki Ochiai's Parasite Eve (Parasaito Ivu) that same year. Oddly sentimental and uneven, Parasite Eve is a much different film from Cure.
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