In the 2000s, Western audiences gained more exposure to Asian horror films through Hollywood remakes starring western actresses like Naomi Watts, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Jennifer Connelly. Kickstarted by the commercial success of The Ring, the remake machine quickly went into overdrive and eventually sputtered out. Along the way, American audiences came to know certain foreign film titles through association. The American DVD releases of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water were both timed to coincide with the theatrical runs of their remakes.
But there is a whole other world out there beyond those remakes. Hollywood did not get its hands on every noteworthy title in Asian horror.
Let’s take a spoiler-free look at eight genre gems that have miraculously slipped through the cracks of the Asian horror remake factory. With no Western versions to give away their best moments, these eight films offer pure, undiluted scares, shocks, and chills. They are one-of-a-kind.
Murder as post-hypnotic suggestion. A serial killer who never actually kills, but merely incites other people to do it.
Detective Kenichi Takabe (played by Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance? fame) is drawn into the mystery of a series of homicides linked by similar details but different perpetrators. “The devil made them do it is all I can guess,” says a psychiatrist consulting on the case. Takabe is a person who has been taught never to show emotion. He lives in a repressed society where impatient men mutter curses under their breath at the dry cleaners, only to flip a switch and feign politeness when the clerk returns to the counter.
At home, Takabe is saddled with the burden of a wife who is mentally unwell. They tell themselves they’re going to take a trip somewhere when the case over.
When we first meet the killer in Cure, he is on a beach, looking up the sky, as if that is where he came from and he is slightly confused about how he got down from there. He then turns, his face an indistinct blur, and begins walking toward the camera, accompanied by a rising ambient hum. What he brings with him is a head full of amnesia and a barrage of inane questions. These questions (“Who are you? Do you understand my question?”) have a destabilizing effect on his victims, breaking down their superego, offering them the cure for repression.
Some of the movies on this list might take some tracking down, and Cure is one of those. It’s the very definition of a hidden gem. Horror aficionados might know it, but in the West, it seems to have escaped the spotlight.
With Cure, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa crafted a film that I honestly believe belongs on the same plane as The Shining. That is not a random comparison, either, as there is a clinical, Kubrickian quality to this film. The camera always seems to linger at an icy remove, building up a suffocating stillness and infusing the movie with dread. When the editing takes a turn, allowing quick, disquieting flashes, we get the feeling that something bad is about to happen. That feeling of unease begins to permeate the film more and more as it shifts from a crime thriller into something darker and more obtuse, mingled with concepts of mesmerism, animal magnetism, and “soul-conjuring.” It’s my favorite Japanese movie.
Directed by Takashi Miike, who also helmed the gruesome Ichi the Killer and the samurai film 13 Assassins, Audition is perhaps the most well-known movie on this list. But Audition’s notoriety is not the reason I’m going to say less about it than the other films on this list. The reason I’m going to say less about it is that I went into the movie blind, and if at all possible, you should, too. If you’ve never heard any plot details about Audition, don’t let your curiosity get the better of you. Just watch the movie and be deeply disturbed.
I still remember the first time I saw this movie. I was with some college friends and we decided to have a foreign film night. I don’t even remember if I knew that Audition was a horror movie when we started watching it. I was just along for the ride that night…and what a ride Audition turned out to be. This is a film that really gets under the skin.
If you’re in the mood for a good horror novel, you might also check out In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami, the Japanese author whose 1997 book provided the source material for Audition. An English translation of the book was finally released in conjunction with the film’s 10-year anniversary in 2009.
Due to governmental restrictions on movie content, Mainland China, like Vietnam, has not produced a wealth of great horror flicks. Hong Kong lives outside these restrictions, and while it is more well-known for its action cinema, the country did produce The Eye (2002) as a joint venture with Singapore. The Hollywood remake machine promptly gobbled up that film…but it would likely choke on Dumplings.
Who doesn’t like dumplings? You can steam them; you can boil them; you can fry them. You can stuff them with cabbage and pork or…other things.
Written by Lillian Lee and directed by Fruit Chan, this film revolves around a retired actress, played by Miriam Yeung, who seeks out a culinary whiz known as Aunt Mei whose special dumplings — made in her home kitchen — are said to restore youth and vitality. Fans of ABC’s Lost may remember the face of Bai Ling from that infamous season 3 episode where the flashbacks were devoted to the story of how Jack Shepherd got his tattoo in Thailand. Under heavy eyeshadow, Ling played Jack’s lover and the artist of his forbidden tattoo.
Here she plays a kind of fairy-tale witch in wild pants. Dumplings is a film that is more horrific than scary. It reveals the secret ingredient of Aunt Mei’s dumplings in an oblique manner. While the film does show certain ghastly images and could very much be considered transgressive in terms of its subject matter, it does not feature a lot of gratuitous gore.
This is a film with more on its mind. In the midst of playing with stomach-churning taboos, Dumplings touches on China’s one-child policy and will have you thinking about human vanity and the pressure women undergo to maintain an unrealistic beauty standard as they age.
Many horror movies suffer from cheap production value, but Dumplings feels like more of a proper film, one that benefits from the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, who shot the visually stunning Hero starring Jet Li and who frequently collaborates with Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love).
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