March 17, 2009 – 4:28 am

It’s easier to enjoy Asian horror in its multivaried forms than to explain why one enjoys it, or why it’s perceived to be generally better than the Hollywood kind. Is it that Asians have a more profound, more widespread belief in the supernatural? Is it that their many cultures are more open to matters mythological, irrational, metaphysical? Critic After Dark Noel Vera ponders on the horror at the Rotterdam International Film Festival 2009 (Hungry Ghosts programme).

One thing I learned while writing a piece for a film magazine that had asked critics and writers to sum up their thoughts about Asian cinema, is that the cinema is basically impossible to summate. Too many cultures, with too much history behind them, expressing their passion and skepticism and terror in too many ways. Do Asians have a stronger belief in ghosts? Yes, but they at times show an equally strong rationalism, a belief that there are other things to worry about besides phantoms (see Joko Anwar’s impressive “Pintu Terlarang” (Forbidden Door, 2009)). Is Asian culture more open to the supernatural?

Yes, at the same time it’s equally open to technological change (observe the swift rise of digital filmmaking in the region in recent years) and our complexly ambivalent response to them (see, among others, Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” (Ring, 1998), Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s “Kairo” (Pulse, 2001), Takashi Miike’s “Chakushin ari” (One Missed Call, 2003), Masayuki Ochiai’s “Shutter” (2008) (funny you can’t help but notice most of these tech horrors are Japanese). Are Asian horror films better than Hollywood?

Yes, usually - with the qualifier that many of these Asian films are often inspired by or take off from or are clever variations of their Hollywood equivalents (both a good and bad thing, I think). When it comes to writing about Asian horror, much less Asian cinema in general, one is well advised not to attempt too many generalization - chances are there’ll be a handful of films somewhere, sometime, that will prove you wrong.


Take for example 4BIA (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, Banjong Pisan-thanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom, Paween Purikitpanya, 2008). It’s an omnibus with four short segments on four wildly differing subjects (a girl with a broken leg and her phone-texting stalker; a curse scribbled on a piece of paper; a quartet of friends on a fatal boating trip; a stewardess on a special flight delivering a dead passenger), told through four wildly differing approaches. If one can’t observe common ground within a single film, how much more difficult is it to categorize the cinema of an  entire continent?

That said, is there anything to be said about the current crop of Asian horror? A few cautious observations - Asian filmmakers generally have lower budgets, are usually quicker to resort to low-tech gimmicks like extreme camera angles, trick editing, prosthetics, on-camera effects (with the additional benefit that said effects, not having undergone the unmistakable fading that results from being processed through computer software, seems sharper, altogether more real). They are thanks to the aforementioned lack of a large production budget less eager and more modest about displaying their monsters, wraiths, what-have-yous (with the additional benefit of generating more terror (thanks to the build-up) at the sudden entrance of a latex-and-corn-syrup creation than said creation has any right to expect).

They are on the whole (and I love this, the word being entirely appropriate to the theme of this portion of the festival) hungrier. What with smaller budgets, smaller audiences, and no guarantee that they’ll see any of their money back, Asian filmmakers tend to take more chances, try more tricks, pour more energy and intensity and sheer unnerving fear into their films than their better braced Hollywood brothers. They believe in their projects, and no wonder - they have little else (certainly not money!) they can pour into them.

Yes, I Can See Dead People

I’ve noted that much of the source material often isn’t new. 4BIA’s four storylines are inspired by, respectively, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954), James Wong’s “Final Destination” (2000), Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others” (2001), and George Miller’s segment in “The Twilight Zone” (1983); the premise of Lee Kwong Yiu’s “Yes, I Can See Dead People” (2008) clearly comes from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” (1999), only the former does the latter one better by adopting a breezy tone - right off, with the movie’s opening scene, we have the hero off-handedly admitting he spots ghosts right and left (often his friends, who have one by one and with no further explanation have either died or killed themselves). You sit there all perked up, ready to put Shyamalan aside and follow this movie wherever it wants to go, the old premise having just been given a lively new spin.

You see much of that in Asian horror - ideas borrowed from Western, often Hollywood, sources but just as often mere springboards for taking the original concept into realms undreamt of by their originators. Is that a lack of originality? I like the image of some craftsman, hungry (again that word) and hurried, scrounging around a junk pile, finding something old and familiar and discarded, realizing with a demented gleam in his eye that he can do something with it. Not cutting-edge creativity, but not slavish imitation either; these people have to make money entertaining audiences, and no one likes a storyteller who repeats himself too much.

Nightmare Detective 2

Take Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Akumu Tantei 2″ (Nightmare Detective 2, 2008) - the idea of literally entering someone’s dream as a form of psychotherapy is at least as old as Wes Craven’s “Nightmare at Elm Street” movies, and as recent as Tarsem Singh’s year 2000 film “The Cell” (though if we consider a film to be someone’s dream committed to celluloid and watching it our way of entering that dream, we may ultimately have to credit the Lumiere brothers for the idea).

The director of “Tetsuo” (Testsuo, the Iron Man, 1989) is trying to present something nervier here, however - he’s trying to make the case that every case the detective takes is a reflection of his own, their traumas merely variations of his own trauma, and that he’s basically investigating himself. Surprisingly sophisticated fare for a horror film, and a sequel at that.

Then there’s Rico Ilarde, whose “Sa Ilalim ng Cogon” (Beneath the Cogon, 2005) plays as if reels of John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) were mixed up with reels of Erle C. Kenton’s “The Island of Lost Souls” (1932) only with Bruce Lee in the leading role, and whose “Altar” (2007) suggests the hero of John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952) visiting a low-budget combination of Michael Mann’s “The Keep” (1983) and “The Amityville Horror” (1979), the various parts pulled together and fused by Ilarde’s graceful visual style, and (crucially) his belief in the righteousness of his unlikely genre-bending creations.

His movies draw from so many others they create a sensibility all their own, simultaneously cheesy and crunchy and exhilarating - guaranteed to annoy, if you don’t fall in love with their inimitable flavor. Ilarde’s films have the kind of old-fashioned grace and conviction (maybe because the filmmaker himself holds a similar conviction) that can persuade one into believing maybe there ARE nuttier things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, at least in conventional Western philosophy.

Beneath the Cogon

Is it Asian? I’d say this: instead of measuring how well a film fits a category, why not rework definition of the category to include said film? Asian cinema in general and Asian horror cinema in particular is all the richer for including Ilarde in its unholy ranks.

Easily one of the most original of recent fare is Anwar’s previously mentioned “Pintu Terlarang.” Anwar adopts Sekar Ayu Asmara’s novel (which accounts for the density of characterization and elegance of plotting - unusual in a horror film, much less an Asian one) and the resulting picture is an intensely surreal psychological brew that resembles the work of no other recent horror filmmaker; if anything, one has to look beyond traditional canon, to David Lynch (and in fact the flower-draped white picket fence in Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” makes a cameo appearance here).

Talk about the power of conviction, Anwar draws you into his successful celebrity sculptor hero’s world as thoroughly and profoundly as the artist himself; even when the entire film takes a sudden left turn - when said sculptor finally walks through the eponymous door - Anwar’s sober, understated style (so essential in the best of Asian horror, so rare in its Hollywood equivalent) tolerates no other response than total belief in what’s found in the other side.

Is the film about ghosts, or the supernatural? Only in the sense that childhood traumas can haunt a man even beyond the grave, and paranoid delusions can give him the impression of supernatural (or at least malevolent) forces at work - but perhaps that’s enough. Ghosts as a manifestation of childhood trauma, the supernatural as a symptom of intense paranoia - that’s about as persuasive an argument for the existence of matters horrific as anything I can think of; at least I for one have no problem believing it is.

Note: You can email Noel Vera at [email protected]

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