The best of Asian horror movies
In 2002, America got its first real taste of horror in several years with the movie The Ring. Starring Naomi Watts, the movie revolved around a VHS tape of abstract images. Whoever watches it dies a horrific death within one week. Shortly after The Ring came The Grudge in 2004. This movie was just as terrifying as The Ring, with a haunted house that dooms anyone who enters.
What most Americans did not know at the time these films were released is they were both remakes of original Japanese horror films. The Ring was originally known as Ringu, and The Grudge as Ju-on. American filmmakers had previously remade or re-visualized Japanese or other Asian movies (most notably Godzilla), but never to the level of The Ring and The Grudge. These two movies raised all expectation of the horror genre.
Even though there were differences between the originals and remakes, the overwhelming success of these films launched a new market in America of remaking not only terrifying Japanese horror movies but also other Asian classics for the American audience. Additional films that followed are:
Dark Water (2005) – Dark Water or Honoguarai mizuno soko kara (Japanese)
Pulse (2006) – Kairo (Japanese)
The Secret (2007) – Himitsu (Japanese)
The Eye (2008) – Gin Gwai (Chinese)
Shutter (2008) – Shutter (Thai)
Mirrors (2008) – Into the Mirror (Korean)
The Echo (2008) – Sigaw (Filipino)
One Missed Call (2008) – Chakushin Ari (Japanese)
The Uninvited (2009) – A Tale of Two Sisters (Korean)
Most of these movies did well in America, yet most Americans have failed to watch or pay respect to the original Asian versions. Whether it is a fear of subtitles or a lack of understanding of the fundamental differences between American and various Asian cultures, American horror fanatics have managed to miss out on some of the best original movies ever made. Asian horror is unique and brings stories to the screen in a fun and terrifying manner, particularly Japanese horror. I have long said that the reason Japanese horror is so outstanding must be because that’s the only place on Earth that ghosts really exist: in Japan.
The trend of remaking Asian horror thankfully faded into oblivion as many of these latter movies were rushed through production with terrifyingly awful rewrites, acting and directing. This allowed for a lot of great Asian horror movies to be untouched and left in their beautiful, horrifying form where they could be savored by horror fans for years to come. For the true horror movie fanatic, the experience of amazing horror films is only complete when they suck up their distaste for subtitles and delve into the fascinating world of Asian horror.
Audition movie poster
Audition ~ aka, Ȏdishon (Japan, 1999)
Making several horror top movie lists, Audition is the one Japanese horror film that people seem to be talking about…or at least they’ve heard about the absolutely insane last fifteen minutes of the movie. Audition was actually my first journey into Asian horror, and I have not gotten off that ride since. While the last fifteen minutes are absolutely terrifying, I actually found another scene in the movie equally frightening, if not more scary than the end.
Directing legend Takashi Miike does not fail to disappoint with this harrowing tale of widower, Shigeharu Aoyama, who feels the pressure to find a new mate. (Fun fact: The widower is played by Ryo Ishibashi, who also played the lead Japanese detective in The Grudge, the American remake of Ju-on.) With the help of his movie-making friend, an audition is arranged for a non-existent film for the sole purpose of Aoyama finding a mate. As soon as Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) stepped up to audition, Aoyama becomes love stricken. What follows is an obsession that goes far beyond what Fatal Attraction could ever dream up to scare men off women forever.
Two quick notes of warning. Should the movie seem slow at times, hang in there because the building up of the movie and characters makes it all worth it. Also, before venturing into the world of Audition, do not do too much research. Many review sites go directly into the meat of the movie with stark spoilers right at the top of their reviews. Watch the movie unspoiled and for what it is.
Infection ~ aka, Kansen (Japan, 2004)
Long ago movie makers discovered that there were some ideal locations for horror movies, namely hospitals or abandoned asylums. Infection takes advantage of the hospital setting in a run-down hospital. An ambulance brings a new patient to the hospital around the same time that Dr. Akiba and staff discover that a terrible mistake in medication was made with another patient, resulting in their death. The staff decides to cover up the incident. The newest patient exhibits unusual and unexpected symptoms. It is not long before the staff members, one by one, start feeling ill themselves and suffer from the symptoms of the patient brought in by paramedics.
Infection is a classic jump-out-of-your-seat horror film with lots of disgusting and gross scenes for the squeamish. The actual artistic side of the movie was quite ingenious in itself, using greenish and other various hues along with great lighting techniques to add an additional and unique layer of horror to the film. With some supernatural spookiness and good old fashioned creepiness, Infection is a winner.
Carved ~ aka, A Slit-Mouthed Woman or Kuchisake-onna (Japan, 2007)
Carved is a fun little urban legend about a disfigured woman who goes about kidnapping children to disfigure and kill them as well. As school children tell tales and draw pictures of Kuchisake-onna, an earthquake happens in the city and Kuchisake-onna comes to life. After the disappearance of one boy, school teacher Kyȏko Yamashita (Eriko Satȏ) goes on a quest to help the missing children, help one of her students Mika, and salvage her troubled relationship with her own daughter.
Though the movie was met with mixed reviews, Carved has lots of opportunity for thrills and chills. The special effects make-up of Kuchisake-onna is frighteningly well done. Tucked away in the horrors of the movie, there is also a real message for those who chose to walk away with more than a what a horror movie typically brings.
Dumplings ~ Jiao Zi (Hong Kong, 2004)
To what lengths would you go to retain your beauty and youthfulness? Part of a three-movie experience entitled 3 Extremes, Dumplings is not so much a horror movie as it is a statement on the depraved egotistical and self-centeredness of society. Aunt Mei is a well-known cook, famous for her “fountain of youth” dumplings. The dumplings are much sought after by those who wish to either stay young or rejuvenate themselves to a former youthfulness. A former actress seeks out Aunt Mei for her mysterious dumplings...and that's where the fun begins.
Dumplings is one of those movies that you watch for long enough to wish you hadn’t started watching, only to find yourself unable to turn away from the horrors contained within. It is a movie that sticks with the viewer long after they’ve seen it. If you want something that is unique in story, that will turn your stomach in knots and will have you glued to the screen in absolute horror, then Dumplings is the movie for you.
Though there are so many titles to choose from, I have chosen only some of my personal favorites to highlight here. There are many other fantastic Asian horror movies, but these are a good start and definitely the "must-sees". If you're already an Asian horror fanatic, please feel free to comment and share some of your favorites as well. For those who haven't seen the films yet, I'd love to hear from you as well on the horror genre in general or what your thoughts are after you have seen one or more Asian horror films.
A small request on comments: While I love a good conversation on Asian horror films and always welcome comments of all kinds (even if you disagree with my choices), please do not put any spoilers in your comments. Years ago, before I had watched the movie The Sixth Sense, someone dared to reveal the ending to me, an act that has never been forgiven. It’s no fun to have the big twist or ending of a movie revealed, so unfortunately I would have to deny any comments containing spoilers out of respect for those that have not seen the movies.