Having just watched Dark Tales of Japan, my 15th Asian horror DVD, I thought I’d provide a roundup of what’s good and what’s not in this sub-genre. I’ll start with the best:
Although obviously lower in budget than, say, the US remake (The Ring, 2002), Ring (Ringu, 1998, Japan) works because for the most part it keeps its horrors subtle, and when they aren’t subtle, they’re often surreal, thus bypassing the stock responses of a jaded genre audience by simply being so strange and new. The cursed videotape itself is a perfect example. When you get to see it, you really feel what the protagonist Reiko feels: first of all a startled, “Was that it?” Then it sinks in. “Oh my god, I’ve just watched it… But what did it mean?” There’s a real build-up to the central terror, without the usual teen-horror necessity of providing cheap jump-thrills at set intervals. It has some genuinely chilly moments. The most famous, when the terrifying Sadako comes for Ryuji, struck me as being both horrific and beautiful at the same time, something I’ve only ever experienced before when watching H R Giger’s monster uncoil out of the darkness of the escape pod at the end of Alien. My one criticism is the film’s reliance on one of its main characters having psychic powers, which distracts from the central horror, making it feel less universal, less threatening to the (presumably non-psychic) viewer. But fortunately it isn’t foregrounded enough to really impinge on the film. The sequels, Ring 2 and Ring 0, are no way near as close to the power of the original. If you’re going to watch just one Asian horror, make it Ring. (The US remake overcomplicated the plot and took all the subtlety out of the main emotional theme of neglected childhood. Avoid!)
If you’re going to watch one more Asian horror than Ring, choose from either the South Korean A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) or Audition (1999, Japanese). Both stretch horror in the direction of the subtle and surreal; both are also shocking and bloody. Of the two, Audition is the more extreme, though anyone watching the first half may think they’re in the midst of nothing worse than a slightly odd but gentle family drama, in which a middle-aged widower is encouraged by his son to find a new wife. His best friend suggests going through the casting process of an invented film to find a mate. Then, suddenly, halfway through things just go weird. A man in a bag. A severed tongue flapping on the floor. Cheeswire and ankles… A Tale of Two Sisters, on the other hand, is a bit more human. Two sisters return to their family home after a stay in some sort of institute. But the family, including a verging-on-a-breakdown stepmother and resigned, defeated father, have obviously got secrets, and the pressure of things not said gets unbearable, till it breaks out in horrific moments and strange terrors. A Tale of Two Sisters is stylish and mysterious, where Audition is like a nice romantic dinner followed by a spiked sledgehammer to the back of the head. Take your pick.
Where to go from there? I’ll be briefer from here on:
The Eye (2002, Hong Kong) has some really spooky effects, as a blind girl gets a cornea transplant that allows her to see the spirits of the dead. Plotwise, so-so.
Ju-On, or The Grudge (2000, Japan) is a sort of ‘J-Horror Greatest Hits’, being basically a series of spooky moments cludged together in a haunted house. If you don’t care about plot, but want to see a few low-budget chills, it’s a good one. You could just as well see the Hollywood remake, by the same director. There’s not much to choose between them.
Inugami (2001, Japan) is a slightly more serious attempt at marrying drama with horror. Its protagonist, Miki Bonomiya, is cursed by a violent Inugami, or dog-spirit, which is reawakened when she falls in love with a new-to-the-area teacher. The emphasis is as much on how the curse turns her into a social outcast as the horror itself.
Acacia (2003, South Korea), has a few chilly moments but loses its impact when it can’t decide whether to be a thrilly horror or supernaturally-tinged family drama.
Shikoku (1999, Japan) has a young woman returning to the village of her childhood to find her friend has been dead for several years. The friend’s mother, a sort of priestess or medium, has gone insane and is working towards bringing her daughter back from the dead. Not bad, not great.
Dark Water (2002, Japan) was directed by Ringu‘s Hideo Nakata, but, although moody, doesn’t have the thematic substance to really take its chills into the sort of horror you can feel in your bones. This is another one that’s been remade in Hollywoodland, but I haven’t seen the remake yet!
Isola (2000, Japan) has the wonderful subtitle “Multiple personality girl”. One of those personalities, of course, turns out to be a vengeful spirit. Again, pretty much standard stuff.
Uzumaki (2000, Japan) is set in a village whose inhabitants start to become obsessed with spirals in all their forms (the shell of a snail, the whirling of a washing machine). More surreal than your standard Asian horror, but without a real emotional core to the horror.
Phone (2002, South Korea) again has spooky moments but nothing to really grab you, and then the plot just gets too improbable and gothic. It’s the sort of horror film you know just had to be made. Someone just had to say, “I know, let’s have a horror film featuring… A haunted mobile phone!” Yeah. Let’s.
Dark Tales of Japan (2006) is a bit different, being a compilation of short horror tales taken from, I think, a TV horror series. Standout moments are the giant demon head that suddenly appears in the corner of the room, and the final tale whose protagonist gets stuck in a lift with three very peculiar individuals.