10 great Asian horror films

Originally published on MSNBC.com October 29, 2007. It’s no longer online there, so I’ve reposted it in full here.

Just as the vitality and bold style of manga has swept through the formerly American-dominated field of comic books, Asian cinema has left a lasting stamp on the horror-film genre — especially the violent and distinctively spooky movies currently coming out of Japan, known by their fans as J-horror.

Hollywood has made English-language remakes of some of the bigger J-horror hits, including “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” but why not check out the originals? After all, you only need to fear a few subtitles.

The Host (2006)
A lot of monster movies keep their monsters hidden in shadows or obscured by camera angles until the last few minutes of the film, but Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host dispenses with such trickery immediately, showing us the monster bursting out of the Han River in a broad-daylight attack on a crowded marketplace. One reason it can get away with this is that the creature was designed by Peter Jackson’s WETA special-effects shop; it looks as vividly realistic as anything in Lord of the Rings. But even better is the fact that The Host has more to offer than just special effects. It’s also the story of a fragmented, dysfunctional family in crisis (the crisis being that their little girl was taken alive back to the Host’s lair), and has plenty of pointed satirical commentary about the government’s ability to deal with the beast.

Ringu (1998)
In this effective and hugely influential Japanese chiller based on Koji Suzuki’s novel, a TV reporter tries to track down the source of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it seven days later. This is the only movie in this article that literally gave me nightmares. That’s because the real terror is not the tape, but the incredibly creepy, implacably evil being who haunts it: Sadako, the vengeful ghost of a murdered psychic girl. Her long black hair conceals a face we never see, but only get mere glimpses of the insanity and deformity caused by her long imprisonment in the well that is the videotape’s central image — the well out of which she will crawl to find you and kill you in one week’s time. Japan’s highest-grossing horror film, Ringu spawned a boatload of similar movies, including three sequels and the less-scary American remake The Ring starring Naomi Watts.

Ju-on (2003)
Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on — which he later remade in the U.S. as The Grudge — packs a triple punch of terror with an entire family of relentlessly murderous ghosts who track down and destroy anyone who enters the house where father Takeo went insane and killed his wife Kayako and son Toshio. The evil lives on in their undead spirits, who maliciously thirst for blood. Toshio is now a croaking, sinister urchin who appears to the victims first, heralding the far more frightening appearance of his mother, who crawls like a lizard and announces her arrival with an unnerving, throaty death-rattle. Ju-on brings the scares when it needs to, but the storyline is needlessly convoluted, with too many overlapping, non-chronological plotlines to make sense of.

Kwaidan (1964)
At its time the most expensive movie ever made in Japan, director Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan loosely links four of the ancient folk tales — known as kwaidan, or “ghost stories” — that had been popularized by Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish American journalist and Japanese emigrant who was one of the first people to bring Japanese culture to Western audiences. Elegant and beautifully shot, Kwaidan is not scary in the way we expect of a modern horror film, but it is full of eerie atmosphere, especially the segment “Hoichi The Earless,” about a blind musician summoned each night to play for a courtroom of otherworldly noblemen. Recommended for anyone with an interest in Japanese folklore, or fans of Akira Kurosawa’s similar Dreams.

Godzilla (1954)

The giant city-stomping radioactive dinosaur is too big to ignore, and not just because he’s 400 feet tall. The success of the original Godzilla film launched not only a long series of his own, but an entire subgenre of Japanese giant-monster films — kaiju, as they’re known — including such beasts as Rodan, Mothra and Gamera. A malevolent black force of destruction, Godzilla’s invasion of Tokyo played on the dark memories that many Japanese people had of the devastating and then-recent bombing raids of World War II, especially Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. re-cut of the film watered a lot of that down, adding a pointless subplot featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter, and it’s this version that most of us have seen. But in 2006, director Ishiro Honda’s original Japanese version was finally released on DVD in the States, and it’s well worth seeking out.

Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)
Nine years after directing Godzilla, Ishiro Honda returned to the theme of nuclear-based horror with this claustrophobic tale of desperation and mutation. The setup of Matango is weirdly reminiscent of Gilligan’s Island, which debuted on American TV the following year: A luxury yacht shipwrecks on an uncharted Pacific island, with castaways including a professor, a rich industrialist, a famous actress and a bumbling ship’s captain and mate. They soon discover that their island is no paradise. The prospect of starvation leads to hoarding and squabbling, but things get worse when they discover the wreck of the ship that brought a now-vanished research crew to the island. Inside, in rooms coated with ominously colored fungus, they find a logbook with a warning not to eat the mushrooms, which are, of course, radioactive mutant mushrooms. One by one, the survivors succumb, not to be killed but transformed into what look like giant, mobile toadstools. 

Save the Green Planet (2003)
This oddball horror-comedy by South Korean director Joo-Hwan Jang is ostensibly about an alien invasion of Earth — or, at least, the invasion that nerdy loner Byeong-gu (played by Shin Ha-kyun) is convinced is secretly happening. But as the story unfolds, it becomes an audaciously weird character study, as Byeong-gu and his sweetly naïve circus-acrobat girlfriend kidnap a powerful executive that they think is actually the leader of the extraterrestrial invasion force. But the central question is, are the aliens real, or is Byeong-gu crazy? Green Planet constantly shifts its tone between goofy satire, unbearably intense torture sequences, a noirish cop subplot, and a truly bizarre sequence inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Scientology that explains what Byeong-gu thinks the aliens are really up to. If they don’t always work smoothly together, the disparate elements of Save the Green Planet certainly keep you on your toes.

Wild Zero (2000)
Japan’s “Wild Zero” plays off of a lot more than just zombie films — there are also riffs on 1950s alien-invasion sci-fi, Elvis movies and 1980s punk-era comedies like “Rock And Roll High School.” When aliens invade Earth and bring the dead back to life, it’s up to a bumbling and naïve garage-rock fan named Ace and his heroes, the hilariously supercool rockabilly/punk trio Guitar Wolf — a real band who are sort of Japan’s answer to The Ramones, and who appear in the movie playing themselves. Wild Zero doesn’t take itself seriously for an instant, except for the well-handled love story between Ace and his Thai girlfriend Tobio, who has a secret we won’t spoil here. This is a nearly pitch-perfect midnight movie, in which a horde of zombie and aliens meets its match in the awesome power of rock ’n’ roll, and where a guy cuts a spaceship in half with a samurai sword. If that’s not your idea of a good time, then brother, I don’t want to know what is.

Bio Zombie (1998)
Hong Kong’s “Bio-Zombie” is sort of Shaun Of The Dead meets Clerks meets Dawn Of The Dead. The zombie infestation here centers on the oddly deserted shopping mall where two bootleg-video clerks named Woody and Bee work — well, that’s too strong a term; they’re really just a couple of shiftless slackers and small-change con artists, harassed by the stuck-up guy who owns the cell-phone shop and desperate to make a little love connection with the hotties who work at the beauty salon. An Iraqi-made biological weapon eventually floods the mall with shambling flesh-eaters, and you can guess most of the rest of the plot: A small group of survivors has to fight their way to safety. It’s not the plot that matters, though — what makes Bio-Zombie great fun is the anarchic sense of humor, the deft characterizations, and the clever, knowing winks at previous zombie movies. Skip the English-language dubbing, full of clumsy and unfunny morning-zoo humor, and go for the subtitled Cantonese version.

Audition (1999)
In the most acclaimed movie by Japan’s phenomenally prolific Takashi Miike — who’s credited with directing 75 movies so far, an average of more than four per year — a lonely widower named Aoyama decides on an unconventional method of looking for a new girlfriend by holding a fake audition for a movie so he can meet dozens of women — but the one he chooses has, to put it mildly, a hidden dark side. The sense of dread takes its time building up; in fact, for much of the first hour, the lonely Aoyama’s pursuit of Asami seems like a conventional love story. But then we see that hidden in her apartment, Asami has something human-sized tied up in a canvas bag… After that, Audition makes a sharp turn into a land of bizarre psychological trauma, wronged innocence, sexual obsession and vengeful sadism, a kind of David Lynchian unreality where you can’t be sure that what you’re seeing is exactly what’s happening, but you have a dreadful feeling that it is. Be warned that the final 30 minutes are almost unbearably intense, and probably helped inspire the trend of “torture porn” movies like Saw. Certainly in terms of visceral shocks, the reputation of Audition is well deserved.

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