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An Exquisite Nightmare

New Asian Horror Sprays the Screen

by Todd Wardrope

"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.

Audition

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 in 'Ebola Syndrome'

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.

Inverted horror in Ringu

You have one week to live after seeing this picture from the opening of Ringu.

If there is a date that changed everything in the world of Asian horror films within the last ten years it is January 31, 1998. A tidal wave of pop culture and guerilla marketing culminated in the very successful release of Ringu (The Ring). Hideo Nakata's very chilling story about a cursed videotape and the secrets it reveals was a smash in Japan, and rumors of its high fear factor spread through the horror grapevine. The effectiveness and profits of The Ring opened a new cycle of filmmaking in Asia, and produced a thirst in the rest of the world for more of the same. Still, the wave was about to crest.

The Ring was released nearly simultaneously with its sequel, The Spiral (Rasen). Directed by Joji Iida, this movie picks up where Ring left off and follows Dr. Andou (Koichi Sato) as he investigates the mysteries of the videotape. Rasen suffers from sequelitis and lacks some of the sincerity that made Ring so frightening. Regardless, it was still a one-two punch of creepiness and the audiences loved it. There was no way The Ring series could stop there.

Happy zombies in the Chinese film 'Bio Zombie'

Even the undead need love in Bio Zombie.

A rival for horror fans' attention in 1998 was the Hong Kong cult smash Bio Zombie. Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee) face off against a small army of toxo-undead in a melee of mayhem and humor directed by Wilson Yip. Plenty of laughs with smart in-jokes and bodily fluids make this fine film a terrific entertainment. Essential viewing.

South Korea was starting to have a "New Wave" of its own. New South Korean Cinema was getting its ball rolling, occupying some of the void left behind by the dwindling Hong Kong film industry. South Korean action films moved at a different pace, had more humor and offered greater thematic variety. This spilled over into the dark fantasy film The Soul Guardians (Toemarok), directed by Kwang-Chun Park. In this movie, the child survivor of a suicidal satanic cult grows up to have strange visions as an adult and a group of heroes must defend her from the forces of darkness to prevent the birth of the Antichrist. That's quite a mix and the movie falters as it tries to do too much at once, but the cinematography is amazing and Park stages some remarkable action and horror sequences. It's a taste of what was yet to come from South Korea.

Hideo Nakata was very busy throughout 1998 and 1999. He directed Chaos (Kaosu), another guilt-inspired ghost story but a non-Ring film. In this film, the victim of a kidnapping gone awry haunts the kidnapper who discovers that there may be another angle to the criminal plot he hadn't counted on. No real gore or explicit violence in this one either, but it employs a Memento-like technique and provides thrills rather than chills.

Sadako returns in 'Ringu 2'

Sadako's all-seeing eye returns in Ringu 2.

Nakata also made his sequel to Ring, which was simply titled Ring 2 (Ringu 2), not to be confused with Ring 2:Spiral. This film extends the plot of Ring in another direction, as we follow Mai Takano (Miki Nakatani) and her boyfriend's son, Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka), as they try to escape the clutches of the ghostly Sadako (Rie Inou). This film is on a par with The Ring in many ways and does not lose many scares for being a sequel. Sadako becomes more frightening as we learn more about her, which is a rare thing for a horror sequel.

As if two good films weren't enough, a plethora of other quality horror was hitting Japanese screens that year. Atsushi Muroga unleashed the amazing zombie film Junk (Shiryour Gari); full of gut-chomping, exploding heads and many walking corpses, this was a re-invigoration of the zombie genre well before 28 Days Later as well as a return to the stylish gory onslaught of Organ.

Zombies love flesh in Junk'

A zombie takes a snack break in Junk.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa completed his second film, Charisma (Karisuma), whose protagonist, a police detective who has gone even further off the mental deep end than the detective in Cure, finds himself in a surreal and foreboding forest. Starker and more atmospheric than Cure, this film is an echo of the more avant-garde filmmaking that has emerged from Japan in the past. Headier than Nakata, Kurosawa deals in dread and angst more than horror or fear, and his films are nearer to art than shock.

Takashi Miike unveiled his own brand of shocking art film with the severe and brutal Audition (Odishon). This twisted film begins harmlessly with two lost souls who meet each other, fall in love and so on. However, something goes very wrong, and what follows is an unrelenting psycho-horror descent into cruelty and mutual revenge. What separates Audition from other run-of-the-mill exploitation is the gorgeous imagery and subtle performances - it's an exquisite nightmare.

South Korean filmmaker Dong-bin Kim took his run at the Ring story with Ring Virus (Ring). This is more a remake than sequel, but there are some interesting stylistic differences. Livelier and more colorful, this film also relies on mood and atmosphere to tell the story of the haunted videotape. Ring Virus is an example of how derivativeness was starting to creep into New Asian Horror, but it is still worth watching.

Memento Mori (Yeogo goedam II) is another Korean chiller that draws on some of the same Ring-like themes, using a haunted diary instead of a tape, but the sympathy for the doomed characters in this film makes for a different experience than Ring Virus. A softer touch and more gore adds up to a horror film that is still better than most genre films.

The Thai film industry got into the swing of things, releasing the superior Nang Nak, a new version of a folk ghost story that terrified the country and found a worldwide audience. Colorful, sincere, this melancholy and moody Asian ghost story is not to be missed.

2000 saw Japan carrying the torch further than the rest of the New Asian Horror wave. Joji Iida released the shocking and sentimental Another Heaven, a film that alternates moments of tenderness with some serious ultra-violence. In this movie, two Tokyo cops chase a highly unusual serial killer. Fans used to abrupt mood shifts will find this less off-putting than new viewers, as there are some odd tonal moves from scene-to-scene.

Wild Zero set a new standard for what rock and roll movies could and should be. Specifically, they should have zombies in them. In fact, they should have zombies from space in them! In this one, directed by Tetsuro Takeuchi, the worldwide rock stars Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf find themselves defending the Earth from evil undead attackers. Much in the same style as Bio Zombie, this one mixes up the camp, the rock and roll and the chunk-blowing for maximum effect. Very highly recommended.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa may have stumbled a bit with his next film, Séance (Korei), a film that concerns a psychic's attempts to manipulate a kidnapping investigation to her benefit. A bit short on the art and mood of his earlier films, this is more standard fare that still offers plenty of creepy visuals and spaces. Almost imitative of Hideo Nakata's work, one has to wonder what market forces had to do with this one.

Speaking of market forces, there was also a Ring prequel, Ring O: Birthday (Ringu 0: Baasudei) which was directed by Norio Tsuruta and was an omen of things to come. The wave was beginning to crash. There were a few interesting films from South Korea, but they were mostly imitative of the lesser Hollywood genre offerings and cultural difference is the only thing that makes these films appear fresh.

2001 was pretty much the last big hurrah for New Asian Horror. However, it did go out with a grand finale instead of a sad cycle of redundancy. Some of the most startling films of this wave were released in 2001. Takashi Miike gave the world the twin monsters of Visitor Q (Bizita Q) and the mind-blowing Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1). Visitor Q's subject is a severely dysfunctional family that takes in an even more dysfunctional guest. Bodily fluid, necrophilia and lactation abound in this sprayfest. Ichi the Killer's spray is of a more crimson hue; Ichi (Nao Omori), an anti-hero pervert, visits his extreme revenge on the underworld. Scenes without juicy violence or sexual perversion are hard to find in this ratings defiant masterpiece.

On the subject of movies that will never be released theatrically in the States, the violent and fun Battle Royale thumbed its nose directly at the American taboo of high school violence. The premise here is that high school students are stranded on an island and must fight to survive, last-man-standing style. Vicious, mean, funny and unpredictable, it is safe to say this film by Kinji Fukasaku will never be remade by Hollywood.

Hideo Nakata made his last "horror movie," at least according to him, the superb Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara). Taking another cue from social problems, this plot is about a divorced mother who tries to discover what happened to a missing girl that used to live in her new apartment. A palpable sense of loss and mourning hangs over this moody and frightening film. Where Ring went for thrills, this one goes for a bone-deep and soaking chill. Again, this is a must-see.

New Asian Horror expended itself as tidal wave after 2001. There would continue to be a string of derivative horror offerings along the lines of what Hollywood was releasing, but the flow of adventurous and challenging films slowed to a steady trickle. Notable films to be released since 2001 include films such as the Thai horror-comedy The Beheaded (Pee Hua Kurd); the Korean/Thai/Hong Kong anthology production Three (San Geng); the Pang Brothers' worldwide hit The Eye (Jian Gui); the Japanese shocker Suicide Circle (Jisatsu circle); Takashi Miike's inspired gangster-horror film Gozu and the much lauded The Grudge (Ju-on).

Ghostly horror in The Eye

The ghostly horror of The Eye.

While Hollywood is picking and choosing among many of these films for remake material, it is doubtful that the energy and sheer creativity of many of these films will translate well in the corporate world of Los Angeles. Even a sampling of these original films will provide for an eye-opening and thrilling film experience. How the energy and verve of these films will affect filmmaking globally is yet to be seen, but I dare say they have gone a long way toward reinvigorating interesting fantastic filmmaking across the international community of film artists. Soon, we will be considering another refreshing "new wave" of filmmaking, and it will likely be from shores beyond the United States. Cinephiles of all stripes have much to look forward to.

GreenCine Recommends...

For a complete list - plus comments - of films mentioned above, please see, well, this list. As for furthering your exploration:

From Hong Kong, veteran director Ringo Lam delivers Victim (Mu lu xiong guang, 1999), a thriller that combines his police drama experience with a supernatural tale of possession. While not as full of fireworks as some of the other films mentioned here, it is a solid and engaging spook story along the lines of Se7en or The Believers.

Battle Royale.

Spiral (Uzumaki, 2000) doesn't have quite the fun or pop appeal of Wild Zero, but it is an interesting and fascinating film. This one opts for the more abstract, arty and intellectual horror, like Tetsuo or Charisma, and investigates what happens to a Japanese town beset by all kinds of strange and ominous spirals. Higuchinsky directed this slower film, which isn't for everyone, but it evokes a Lovecraftian mood and should be seen by fans of the Cthulu mythos.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (Kairo, 2001) continues the thread of Cure and Charisma, returning us to a brooding world of isolation, uncertainty and dread. Once again confronting some of the quieter horrors, Kurosawa offers another strong and artful bit of emotional horror.

Versus (2000) is another hyper-kinetic and hyper-violent offering from Japan. Ryuhei Kitamura directed this time-hopping smorgasbord tale of samurai, zombies, ninjas and gangsters for thrills and not so many chills, but it still features plenty of classic blood spray.

Thailand's Oxide Pang Chun and Pisut Praesangeam delivered Bangkok Haunted (2001) to screens during 2001. Each segment of this fun horror trilogy is a ghost story and offers some of the stunning visuals that Thai film has started to become known for, if not any real chills or engaging performances.

Todd Wardrope writes for The Dual Lens in an effort to advance his belief that film criticism is about more than the good, the bad and the ugly. He also produces the long-running cable program Cinema Apocalypse with cult cinema guru Scott Williamson; the program which covers the dark and obscure corners of world cinema. During occasional bouts of critical schizophrenia, he has been known to make his own movies. Beware.

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