Paul asked me to do this a few months ago, and I spent a great deal of time prevaricating about what to write about. Seeing that I spend much of my time writing – mainly on East Asian horror cinema – you would have thought that it wouldn’t have been a difficult proposition.
So months later, I decided to write about five horror films from Japan, South Korea and Thailand that I have enjoyed watching and/or form a good introduction to East Asian horror cinema. My only self-imposed criterion was that they shouldn’t be films that were already popular in the West such as Hideo Nakata’s Ring (Japan: 1998) or A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, Ji-woon Kim, South Korea, 2003) and should be relatively low-budget independent films.
In choosing these films, I am not making value-judgements about either my chosen films or other films that are not in the list. For some reason, these films stood out from the others, and deserve a wider audience than they have at the moment. I have also tried not to give any spoilers or a detailed synopsis of any of films in order not to ruin the experience of watching them.
These then are my five recommendations:
GOTH – Love of Death (Gen Takahashi, Japan: 2009).
The saturation of the Western market by cheaply made gore-filled Japanese films, made with the export market firmly in mind, has meant that more interesting low-budget films such as GOTH have not managed to find much of an audience. This is a shame as GOTH is well worth watching, and a welcome respite from the more popular splatter films. GOTH is based upon the best-selling novel, Goth: risutokatto jikenby, by Otsuichi Kamiyama and centres around the relationship between two high school students, Morino and Kamiyama, both of whom – for different reasons – are fascinated by death.
This obsession leads them into dangerous territory as they attempt to track down a brutal serial killer of young women who creates art installations with the bodies of his female victims. Beautifully shot and eschewing gore for atmosphere, GOTH is comments on the prevalence of despair and ennui amongst Japanese teenagers that provides the central theme for other low budget films including Suicide Club(Shion Sono, Japan: 2003) and The Suicide Manual (Jisatsu manyuaru, Osamu Fukutani, Japan: 2003) and its sequel, The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level (Jisatsu manyuaru 2: chuukyuu-hen, Yûichi Onuma, Japan: 2003).
Sick Nurses (Piraphan Laoyont and Thodsapol Siriwiwat, Thailand: 2007)
A group of nurses, all of whom desire the dashing Dr. Taa, are involved in the sale of newly dead bodies from the hospital where they work. When one of the nurses, Tawan, threatens to tell about the scam, the other nurses kill her. However, she returns as a vengeful ghost and takes brutal and bloody revenge against the other nurses before turning her rage on Dr Taa.
What is not to like about a film set in a hospital, that strangely is absent of patients, with beautiful nurses dressed in [white] designer dresses being brutally murdered by the archetypical vengeful female ghost? I have been reliably informed told that the lack of patients was due to budgetary constraints but this niggle aside, Sick Nurses is a good place to start if you are interested in Thai horror.
Bedevilled (Jang Cheol-so, South Korea: 2010)
Bedevilledis the most recent film on the list and has had a great deal more exposure that the other films I discuss. While Bedevilled can be loosely categorized within the rape-revenge genre, rather than the slasher film to which it has been compared by some critics, it doesn’t have the dual structure of the typical rape-revenge in which the abuse/defilement of the protagonist and her revenge share almost equal screen time. Instead the film concentrates for much of the time on the multiple abuses of Bok-nam, the victim/violator, at the hands of the men in the small community in which she lives.
Bedevilledreceived a rapturous response when it was screened as part of FRIGHTFEST in London even though I felt that it could have done with some judicious editing as the film seemed to take a long time to get to its bloody and welcome conclusion. Having said this, Bedevilled does deliver the goods in the end, when the much-abused Bok-nam takes her bloody revenge on the small rural community where she lives, moving from melodrama into full blown horror in the process. Jang Cheol-so, who previously worked as an assistant director to Kim Ki-duk, is a director to watch out for.
Epitaph (Gidam, Jeong Beom-sik and Jeong Sik, South Korea: 2007)
Epitaph is one of my all-time favourite South Korean films. Epitaph is composed of three interlocking ghost stories: the first of which concerns a doctor who is haunted by the ghost of his dead fiancé; the second is a young girl who is traumatised by the death of her mother and her step-father in a car accident; and the final story concerns the identity of a serial killer who is responsible for a series of brutal murders of Japanese soldiers. All the stories are set during the Japanese occupation of Korea and take place at Ansaeng Hospital (which in the present is due for demolition), providing a critical engagement with the consequences of colonisation articulated through the persistence of traumatic memories of the past within the present.
Epitaphis a film which is both beautiful and horrific, coming close to Burke’s notion of the sublime, haunting the viewer long after watching.
Grotesque (Gurotesuku, Shiraishi Kôji, Japan: 2009)
Grotesqueis also a counterpoint to GOTH in that it is representative of the more extreme strand of Japanese horror cinema. While I cannot say that I enjoyed it, I do feel that it is worth watching, if only to see why Shiraishi’s film generated such controversy in the West and is banned in many countries including the UK. It is no worse than Lars Von Trier’s misogynistic Antichrist (Denmark / Germany / France / Sweden / Italy / Poland: 2009) and at least doesn’t have the artistic pretentions of Antichrist which attempts to justify scenes of extreme violence through reference to some anomalous concept of [high] art.
Unlike many other examples of “torture-porn”, Grotesque does not merely imply a relationship between horror and pornography, but actually visualises such a relationship in the film’s most problematic scene. The film’s premise is simple: a deranged doctor kidnaps a young couple, who are on their first date, and in order to gratify his sadistic proclivities sets about torturing and degrading the couple, telling them that he will let them go if they excite him sexually. While there is little doubt that Grotesque is a disturbing and exploitative piece of cinema, it could be argued that the film self-consciously subverts the comfort of distance that many other examples of “torture-porn” work within by making implicit comparisons between the sexual sadism of the unnamed doctor and the cinematic spectator. After all, extreme and sexually violent cinema is meant to provoke a bodily response from the viewer, whether it be sexual arousal or abject disgust and horror.
More complete discussions of some of these films can be found either in my first book, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (EUP: 2008), or at my facebook group on Korean Horror Cinema.
Bio: Colette Balmain is a writer, film critic and lecturer in film and media. She has published extensively on horror cinema, most recently on East Asian cinema. She is currently the editor for Directory of World Cinema: Korea and is writing her second book which is a history of Korean horror film under the working title: South Korean Horror Cinema: history, memory and Identity (Fisher Imprints: 2012).
Sick Nurses Trailer