The specters of Asian Horror Cinema
Written by Sneha Nair
Designed by Yash Saxena
Vampires, aliens, and predictable jump scares are not the only kind of horror movies out there.
In the Western context, a threatening monster has long been regarded as the defining element of ‘the horror film’. However, the genre of Asian horror represents more than just creative filmmaking expertise. It is a way for filmmakers to uncover the dark sides of their societies, stand up to socio-political constraints, and communicate the intensity of the anxieties of society in a visceral way.
As filmmakers continue innovating in a genre that has become somewhat stale in the West, there only seems to be a rise in consumption for Asian horror.
What makes Asian horror so terrifying? Is it their multilayered protagonists?
These protagonists can range from betrayed sweethearts, resentful children to queer schoolgirls. The figures often portray fascinating female specters that elicit a range of emotional responses, such as empathy and nostalgia.
A closer look at these popular SA horror tropes reveals the deep cultural influences it is based on.
South Asian societies and the ancient tenets of Confucianism share a complicated relationship.
Confucianism originated in ancient China, and was formally adopted as a political ideology during the Han dynasty (from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220), whose influence lasted for nearly two millenniums. It traveled east, first to Korea and then Japan, by means of its own popularity but also the dominance of the Chinese Empire
Confucianism emphasizes loyalty, sacrificing one’s own goals and satisfaction in order to maintain traditional hierarchies and the status quo.
So, while Western horrors and thrillers operate with values that say evil is innate and must be purged. In East Asian Horror films rage, revenge, and rebellion is rooted in the breaking of tradition invoking a more complex fear in those who are watching.
Which has led to different kinds of plots for movies like the famous 2016 South Korean hit, Train to Bhusan, or the 2001 J-Horror film, Suicide Club.
Ghost films offer potent historical allegories, whether in their narratives or their conditions of production and circulation.
Long black hair has often been the mark of monstrous, beautiful femininity, and a prominent trope as seen in hugely popular J-horror movies like Ringu (The Ring) (Japan, 1998) and Juon: The Grudge (Japan, 2003).
The culture surrounding the hair and white attire of female ghosts is taken from traditions where women who die are often dressed in white with their hair let down.
Hindu-Buddhist cosmology and later Islam, include the “‘Pontianak” – known as “kuntilanak” in Indonesia – a carnivorous creature that emerges on the death of a pregnant woman during childbirth and is often represented as a beautiful young woman with a taste for blood. The maternal and infant death rates are particularly high in Southeast Asia. This situation likely led to the belief that many of the ghosts thought to roam the region.
Another common theme that runs across these films is the way in which women ghosts are portrayed - A disproportionately large number of these films revolve around the “vengeful woman” trope.
What exactly is it about female subversion that lends itself so well to East Asian cinema?
Confucius considered women, in any form, as a part of a different social class than men. Observers of the philosophy often regard women as inferior.
Asian Cinema often borrows from these ideals of Confucianism. The maligned women are victimized for their biological qualities.
And Asian horror cinema becomes the perfect outlet to portray this restrictive idea of femininity. Nothing could be further from the Confucian lady than a woman who terrifies men with her grotesque physique, superhuman strength, and undisguised anger.
In Japan, the concept of ‘Kwaidan’ has lasted for more than 100 years. In all of those stories, there is a socially-oppressed woman, often betrayed by a man, who was a symbol of Japanese society, who comes back to this world to take revenge.
How does Asian Horror look now?
2017 was the first time that USA box offices saw the horror genre gross over $1 billion! Since then there has been a steady rise in the audience for the genre.
Source : Variety
What happens when you put together the potential for huge profits and a lucrative South Asian market together?
With top platforms such as Netflix airing addictive shows tailored for a worldwide audience, and investing heavily in Asian content, a new transnational (read: not entirely Asian) horror series like Trese (2021) comes in.
The series is Netflix’s attempt to establish itself as a global streaming media giant with niche appeal in a country that boasts one of the highest percentages of heavy online users in Southeast Asia.
The appeal for fresh stories has led to multiple global hits that have come from Asia.
Take for example, the 2017 film Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slaves), a loose remake of the namesake 1980 classic by Sisworo Gautama Putra, is Indonesia’s highest-grossing horror film of all time and has been distributed to critical acclaim in 42 countries.
But the crowning achievement of pan-Asian horror and genre cinema came at the end of 2021 with the success of Netflix's apocalyptic South Korean series "Hellbound" (2021) by Yeon Sang-ho. It became the world's most-watched television show on Netflix in a mere 24 hours.
Based on Netflix's weekly lists of its top titles, it was the streamer's No. 5 show of the month and was watched for at least 111 million hours globally.
For Asian horror, this is just the beginning of a storm that is going to take over.