Philip W. Chung counts down some of the finest in the macabre from Asia
10. Song at Midnight (1937, China)
Director: Weibang Ma-Xu
Considered China’s first foray into the horror genre, this is a film that would be at home alongside the American monsters who were gracing the screen in the 1930s-Dracula, Frankenstein and their ilk. Weibang wrote and directed this story loosely based on The Phantom of the Opera about a young Chinese opera singer mentored by a disfigured “monster” who pines for his lost love. Originally marketed with the tagline “Please don’t take your children” after a rumor circulated that a child died of fright while watching the film, Song at Midnight was finally introduced to Western audiences in 1998 and instantly proclaimed a classic of Chinese cinema.
9. Shutter (2004, Thailand)
Directors: Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom
Forget this year’s lousy American remake; check out the original. Yes, it’s another film about a pissed-off female spirit with long black hair out for vengeance, but Shutter tries hard to make the otherwise familiar proceedings fresh. The filmmakers create a conflicted protagonist who isn’t your standard goody-two shoes, allowing for a depth usually not seen in characters in this type of movie. But what really sets Shutter apart is how the directors milk the film’s spooky concept (ghosts appearing in photographs) for all its worth, using both striking visuals and an incredibly effective sound design to heighten the chill factor.
8. Matango (1963, Japan)
Director: Ishiro Honda
Directed by the man who gave us the original Godzilla, with its allusion to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this cult classic may be one of the strangest and bleakest films you’ll see. When a yacht encounters a storm, the passengers and crew take refuge on a desert island where they discover an abandoned research ship, wild mushrooms growing everywhere and a bizarre presence that would confound even the hardened castaways of TV’s Lost. The film’s Americanized title-Attack of the Mushroom People-says everything you need to know about what’s coming next but what elevates this film above standard B-movie shlock is its unflinching take on the horrors modern man inflicts on himself.
7. The Echo (2004, Philippines)
Director: Yam Laranas
Horror films from the Philippines may not be as familiar to Americans as those from its Asian neighbors, but The Echo is the perfect place to start for those unfamiliar with that country’s recent wave of excellent genre entries. The Echo is a throwback to old school scare flicks like The Innocents and the original The Haunting, eschewing modern visual effects and “slasher” moments to create terror the old fashioned way: by suggesting it through vivid storytelling, committed performances and the use of subtle visuals and sounds. When a shot of a door slowly creaking open can send chills down your spine, you know you’re in the hands of a master.
6. Audition (1999, Japan)
Director: Takashi Miike
A film experience so disturbing that several audience members had to be hospitalized and even extreme horror director Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses) had a difficult time sitting through it, Audition is not for everyone. A middle-aged widower holds fake film “auditions” to find an attractive woman to become his next wife. But when he finds himself drawn to an ex-ballerina with a fuzzy past, things quickly take a disturbing turn for the worst. Audition‘s most notorious moment is a scene of torture that makes Kathy Bates taking a sledgehammer to James Caan’s feet in Misery look like a Sunday School outing. But if you can stomach the movie, you’ll be treated to a wicked satire on the battle of the sexes that’s more insightful than most serious-minded dramas.
5. Chinese Ghost Story (1987, Hong Kong)
Director: Siu-Tung Ching
An effective mix of genres-horror, romance, comedy and action-A Chinese Ghost Story is one of the seminal films of the 1980s Hong Kong New Wave movement. A young Leslie Cheung plays a tax collector who finds shelter one night in an abandoned temple where he falls in love with the ghost of a beautiful woman held captive by an evil Tree Demon. When he decides to rescue her, he gets more than he bargained for (including a trip to the underworld). Director Sam Raimi (Spiderman) has acknowledged the huge influence of this film on his own work (see The Army of Darkness and select episodes of Xena that include shot-by-shot tributes to Ching’s film). And like Raimi’s work, Chinese Ghost Story‘s refusal to be locked into any genre conventions gives it an energy that’s still unsurpassed 20 years later.
4. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, South Korea)
Director: Ji-Woon Kim
Boasting one of the coolest movie posters ever created, this psychological ghost story became Korea’s highest grossing horror film at the time of its release. Based on the Korean folk story entitled Janghwa, Hongreyon-jon, A Tale of Two Sisters tells the story of two teenaged sisters, their sadistic step-mother and the haunted house they’re forced to share. Yes, the film can be dense and confusing if you don’t pay close attention, but unlike most horror movies that have a B-movie feel, Kim infuses his work with a poetic lyricism and a heart-breaking pathos that elevates it to the level of true tragedy. All this and a twist ending that ranks up there with The Sixth Sense.
3. Ugetsu (1953, Japan)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Considered Mizoguchi’s masterpiece and often appearing on film authority Sight and Sound‘s list of the ten best films of all time, Ugetsu may not be your cup of tea if you’re looking for constant scares (the supernatural element isn’t even made clear until the end of the film). But it’s a must-see for anyone seeking a truly transcendent film-going experience. The setting is sixteenth century Japan and a nation in the midst of civil war. Two ambitious peasants set out to make their fortune-one as a potter and the other as a samurai-leaving their wives behind to suffer tragic consequences. This may be one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, but in Mizoguchi’s hands, it’s also a powerful examination of the horrors men foist on women and the ways in which the women survive those horrors.
2. The Host (2006, South Korea)
Director: Joon-Ho Bong
All due respect to the monstrous stars in the recent big screen incarnations of Godzilla, King Kong and Cloverfield, but the creature at the center of South Korea’s all-time box office hit literally blows them all out of the water. Inspired by a real-life scandal that involved the U.S. military illegally dumping chemicals into Seoul’s Han River, director and co-writer Bong imagines what may have happened if those chemicals had created a new life form that resembles a cross between the monster from Alien and a large prehistoric whale. While the film works as a commentary on the U.S. presence in Korea, the hysteria over SARS, the plight of Korea’s working class and as an examination of the modern dysfunctional family, at its heart it’s an entertainingly kick-ass creature feature that will make you feel like a kid again.
1. Ringu (1998, Japan)
Director: Hideo Nakata
The one that started it all. The huge success of this film kicked off a new wave of stylish Asian horror films that made its way to our shores with Dreamworks’ own remake of Nakata’s masterpiece. If the Hollywood remake attacks you like a feral animal, the original burrows slowly under your skin, building a sense of Hitchcockian tension until it climaxes in one of the most memorable moments of cinematic terror that rivals the shower scene in Psycho. The plot is deceptively simple and utterly genius-anyone who watches a mysterious videotape ends up dead in exactly a week. From this concept, Nakata expertly weaves a tale that finds the horror in the most mundane corners of our modern technological culture. Much imitated but never equaled, this is not just one of the best Asian horror films, but one of the best films from Asia. Period.