Growing up in the 70's as a fan of horror fantasy and science-fiction films was an interesting experience; Pre 1973, horror films were on the slide: the Hammer Horror boom of the 60's had died with the law of diminishing returns applying to their output. Drive in movies still hit the circuit, but in the UK you saw very little of them. Tigon and Amicus put out the odd clinker, but there wasn't a lot on offer. Come 1973, things changed: "The Exorcist" proved to movie studios that big-budget horror films of a fairly graphic nature could actually make shit-loads of cash for them. It also gave lots of low-budget filmmakers the opportunity to jump on board the supernatural bandwagon and kick-started a world-wide horror-film boom that only really started to lose impetus in the Early 90's when endless Jason and Freddy sequels, slasher films without any slashing and the dreaded "horror/comedy" hybrids started to rear their ugly head.
With the occasional honourable exception, there have been few films in the past 4 or 5 years that I have really been excited about: I am not saying that there haven't been any but that sense of anticipation - butterflies almost, - that I used to get months in advance about films like "The Thing", "Evil Dead", "Carrie" et al, after reading about them in magazines or hearing about them from mates, has been rare… Except for the stuff coming out of the East - and by this I mean mostly Hong Kong and Japan.
For long- time jaded film fans needing to rediscover the buzz of horror films again, or for new fans unused to seeing films that push boundaries, take them down unexpected avenues and really deliver the pure primal scare so lacking from Hollywood productions, then it's the movies coming out of Hong Kong and Japan that deliver time and time again. The other exciting bit about this for boring old movie bores like us is the extra buzz of being part of something that feels a bit underground: like it used to in the 70's and 80's when you and your mates would be desperately trying to find the new Fulci film or the new horror mag - a little bit of subculture always helps! And the mass of eastern film fans is growing rapidly in the West. What follows is a little personal guide to some films you may wanna check out if you're fed up of building up your hopes for a new film then going to the cinema only to find that the scares you're looking for, are actually in the popcorn you just bought and not the film you're currently watching….
So, what is it that makes these movies so special? Well, it's a heady mix of ingredients. Firstly, eastern culture is heavily influenced by tradition and folklore, and when you consider that ghosts, demons, malevolent spirits, multitudinous and mischievous gods, reincarnation and possession are everyday elements of eastern folklore, you can understand how these are common in so many of their films. These tales are not viewed as old fairy tales, but are still seen as a living breathing part of eastern life. And storytelling itself and the passing on of the stories either verbally, by the written word or by films and theatre is very much alive and kicking. Secondly, there are some factors of life in the East that are unique to those cultures - ritual, manners, sexuality, martial arts, even Atomic destruction. They also find their way into the plots and themes of the films in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Honour and vengeance are integral parts of their culture and folklore, which is why the ideas of Samurai or Yakuza/Triad behaviour and law is such a key part of their films, too. The gang mentality is also appealing from a filmic point of view as it obviously presents filmmakers with the opportunity to show TONS of violence, which again is part of their folklore tales, too - BUCKETS of blood, nasty dismemberment and torture are routine in many of these and you can find these happening time and time again in eastern movies.
Many people are a bit baffled as to how such unpleasant and anti-social activities can have a place in films from the East, when their societies - especially the Japanese - seem to be so ordered and ritualised. This is of course exactly WHY it's in the films, stories and pop-culture: it is an outlet for transgression and excess. The average Japanese "salaryman" works 12 hours a day - There has to be an outlet for non-ordered anti-social behaviour and the comic books (known as manga), anime (animated films, usually adult in tone) and movies are where it happens. For instance, sexuality especially in Japanese art, is a major theme - family life is valued highly, yet you have the age-old institution of Geisha, sex manuals and art dating back to pre-christian times and more recently the whole schoolgirl's panties thing (you can buy a pair of used/worn schoolgirl's panties with a photo of the donor in vending machines in Japan). And rape as a sexual fantasy is also commonplace in lots of folklore , films and anime/comic books. It's a heady mix, to be sure, and not one that you often see in Hollywood movies. But don't expect to see pubic hair in their porn films - it is seen as unacceptable! Thirdly, the comic book and anime have been hugely influential in movies from the East - not just as source material (Akira, the best known anime and the first to impact in the West, was based on a comic book) but also on the style of the films: the framing, editing and pace of many of their movies are reminiscent of these other art forms - hyperkinetic, action-heavy, constantly jump-cutting and lurid in tone and colour. Fourthly, western pop-culture has also impacted upon some of the movies coming out of the East: so gangster films(reflecting their home-grown "mafias"of the Yakuza or the Triads) are hugely popular, all out gross-a-thon horror movies (which go way beyond the Italian Zombie splatter epics), loopy comedies and war movies all have huge followings in the east - the difference being that Eastern films take each of the genres they attempt to the very Max of their possibilities. Finally, the amazingly prolific cinema industry in the East means that directors, actors and writers knock out movies at a frantically busy rate - so crazes develop within months and a dozen movies can be made in a couple of weeks.
In recent years, the directors have also been looking towards Western filmmaking in terms of style and pace - the Hollywood blockbusters have a big following out there, especially in the genres such as Horror, war and action movies and you can see some of the techniques and fashions of those genres finding their way into Eastern films - the difference being that by the time they have filtered them through their own sensibilities, you generally get movies that are more out-there, risky or just plain better than the western movies that inspired them. For instance, good though "The Sixth Sense" was, there are maybe a ten or twenty films better than that from the east, made for a fraction of the budget and with more style, imagination and scares. I can't stress to you how much of a thrill you can get from watching these films, especially if like me, you seem to have little to look forward to from Hollywood, or if you don't want to watch some camcorder-made, video horror equvalent of Benny Hill with a hatchet (Step forward Andreas Schnass!). They have literally re-awakened my thirst for the scary and fantastic and what's more they deliver, really deliver. So having established that there are more decent films out of the East than Jeffrey Archer's taken backhanders, how should an eager movie fan proceed?
The Hong Kong film industry in particular, is mind-bogglingly prolific - it is commonplace for even their most popular directors to make 3 or 4 films per year, every year: in the time Steven Spielberg takes to develop a film, they can write, direct and release 7 or 8 films. Cinema going and now dvd and vcd have really got a grip in Japan and Hong Kong. Careers can hit the dizzy heights and crash down again within three or four years. Plus, directors, writers and actors do not stay within one genre: Take for instance someone like Miike Takashi, director of "Audition" and "Dead or Alive": he's made gangster films, love stories, science fiction, all-out horror movies and now appears to inhabit an area where he fuses together elements of different genres in each film. This year alone, he has made 6 films, four for theatrical release and two for TV. His latest, "Happiness of the Katakuris" is a zombie musical!
Thankfully, there are now lots of ways of finding out about these movies: there are numerous websites out there devoted to these films: some are fan sites and some are obviously dedicated to selling dvds and vcds *, but many of these contain punter reviews too. Even fairly mainstream film mags like Fangoria and Dark Side have covered this new wave of eastern horror film and given them a push in the west. And thanks to the relative box-office success of film like "Ring" and "Audition", more of them are getting (limited) cinema release in the uk, festival showings and then going onto DVD/video release. But, believe me, no matter how easy our UK censors are, there are some movies that will never get through the net. Your only chance to see most of these films is via the wonder of DVD (or VCD if you're a little less choosy about quality). The good news is that via specialist websites, especially the ones based in HK, you can get DVS imported and delivered to your door for less than a tenner including P&P. VCDs won't set you back more than 6 or 7 quid all in.
What follows is a very very basic starter guide to finding your way in: these are films I have seen myself and are my own personal favourites - you'll undoubtably discover your own, but beware - once you're in, you may get obsessed…….
Based on a bestselling book and then a TV series, the first Ring movie ("Ringu") was made in 1998 and took about two years to get to these shores: Directed by Hideo Nakata and adapted by Koji Suzuki from his own book, it's based upon a simple and scary premise: A mysterious videotape is circulating in Japan - one week exactly after you have seen it, you will receive a phone call and die. A reporter stumbles across this phenomena, which is already an urban myth amongst Japanese teenagers. Unfortunately for her, she sees the video and has one week to figure out how she can avoid death herself…. A great start for those of you who are curious about Eastern cinema and who appreciate chills rather than Gore (though the video itself is weird as you like and there is one really frightening moment that you won't forget). The pace is slow and deliberate, so it's not a slam-bang affair - and it's all the better for it. It spawned two sequels, which are OK, and there was a Korean version of the story too, which I haven't seen but which is supposed to be excellent. (The same Writer/director pairing have just returned with a new movie called "Dark Water" which is reckoned to be good but not AS good as Ring - it's already on DVD.) All three films are out on DVD in the UK on the Tartan terror imprint.
Made in HK and released this year, this is a creepy little film, based around the story of a blind girl, Mun, who receives Cornea transplants to give her the gift of sight. Unfortunately for Mun, she also sees ghosts who in turn se her and communicate with her too. She decides to find out more about the donor of the corneas and that's when it gets REALLY creepy…. Directed by the Pang Brothers who also made a great film called "Bangkok Dangerous",(about a deaf-mute hit man!!) it's a highly stylish and stylised film - you can see elements of David Fincher, and David Lynch in the editing and filming, and though slow in pace initially, builds to a cracking finale - about 20 minutes in, you may think you are watching an oriental version of "The Sixth Sense" but it goes well beyond that. It is getting a limited UK cinema release now and it's just out on DVD in the East now.
This movie caused a bit of a stir when it got released here last year. The story of a lonely widowed film producer who decides to stage fake auditions for a female part in a non-existent movie so he can find a woman, Audition got lots of kudos and good reviews, and it is a superb film, and until the end, one of Miike's most restrained films, too. But it takes time to build to the infamous climax, so you need to be patient - luckily, the acting and cinematography are superb and nicely done, so it feels like a quality film from start to finish -and what a finish…You will be peering through the cracks in your fingers, I promise you. He really suckers you into feeling so much for the main male and female characters, so that when the film turns itself - and you - on it's head at the end, you really crash and burn - plus it's nicely sick too! Available in the UK on Tartan again, or on a nice special edition from the States on the American Cinematheque imprint.
Made in 2000 by the singularly named Higuchinsky,and based upon a series of Manga, this really is a unique and quite loopy film. Almost impossible to describe but if I tell you that it's basically the idea of an ordinary father and husband who starts taking photos of spiral pottery and then gradually becomes obsessed with seeing and finding spirals all around him, then I won't even come close to really telling you much about this film - the film itself is a spiral, as death paranoia and bewilderment all begin to converge - the shooting style of the film is equally spiral and deranged, with some creative deaths and cool effects, plus a really out-there ending. If you like headfuck films, then this is a cracker. Out on DVD in the east.
Due to the fast pace of the Eastern film industry and the necessity for directors to constantly change styles, pace and genres, it's pretty hard to recommend individual directors, but Miike is one of the exceptions. This guy makes some of the most out-there, challenging and enjoyable movies you can hope to see, and he makes LOTS of em - averages about 4 or five a year. It was one of his movies that initially got me into Eastern Movies, and although he has the odd clinker, you can pretty much rely upon him to deliver the goods every time. And most of his films are made for straight-to-video release in Japan, which makes them all the more extraordinary. He hasn't really made and out and out horror film, but even his gangster films have enough mayhem, bloodshed and thrills in em that you won't feel short-changed. Too many of his movies to detail one by one so let's just name check three crackers for you to get started with:
Some of you will be familiar with the lost and lamented "Psychotronic Video" shop in Camden. Back in 1997/98, I used to work round the corner and I'd pop in at least twice or three times a week to see what else had come in. JOYOUS was the day I went in and they said they'd got a new video I might like. Boy were they right. After seeing this film, even on a fuzzy old bootleg, I was hooked on Eastern films. FUDOH is not a horror film: it's ostensibly a gangster film about a Yakuza revenging the murder of his brother by his own Father, but takes in lashings of the old ultra-violence, over the top gunplay, hermaphrodite schoolgirls, beheadings and assassinations. It's truly deranged and relentlessly over the top - Miike has a thing about doing things that most Japanese films don't do and he thinks that violence (usually in the shape of shoot outs and martial arts showdowns) have been rendered ineffective by being so commonplace, so he likes to get offensive whenever possible! It's not on DVD over here but there is a US dvd on the Tokyo Shock label. Buy it NOW.
Another Yakuza film but one that goes well beyond the usual rules of the Yakuza movie - a bit like "Heat" (Al Pacino and De Niro movie) in as much as it's a gangster and a cop who are as corrupt and as honourable as each other. That's where the similarities stop though as crazed violence, bizarre plot turns and a great supporting cast of nutzoid character actors propel this movie well beyond the usual Yakuza fare. And the ending is completely out to lunch. So good it spawned two sequels who's only connecting feature is the fact that the same to lead actors are in em all! Out over here on tartan again. Also recommended by Miike are "Ichi the Killer", a wildly over the top and gory hitman film and "Visitor Q" which is sick as you like (the first shot of the movie is a title card which says "Have you ever had sex with your children" and goes through the roof from there). Again, check the websites to track em down.
In case you're getting hungry for the red stuff, you won't be disappointed to know that eastern cinema churns out some of the nastiest, sickest, reddest horror flicks you're ever likely to see, with the Japanese being the worst offenders. As plot is of secondary consideration in these films, most of them are basically dedicated to lacing together episodes of rape, torture, dismemberment and disembowellings. The effects can range from first rate to risible and the acting's nothing to write home about, but then that isn't why you're watching em anyway. If you're into this stuff, then you could start with "Guts Of A Beauty" which has a very very nasty, unpleasant and protracted rape and torture sequence at the start of the film. Similarly, the "Guinea Pig" series (5 films already, torture fans, are purely about women being abducted, raped and tortured. One of them , "Mermaid In A Manhole" which is like a snuff version of "Splash" almost looks and feels like a film, but not very much. These films are all obtainable on DVD and VCD. If you're looking for some out and out gore with a film attached however then you do have some options… "Men behind The Sun" came out in the 80's and is the story of a Japanese Prsioner of war camp, and features some very disturbing recreations of torture and murder - it is however, a very well done film and manages to disturb as well as disgust. "Bio-Zombie" is an HK variant of that hated hybrid - the Horror comedy, but is well worth checking out - a zombie movie with broad slapstick comedy, it's very well done and is horrific and funny, so it kinda achieves what it wants to do, plus the pace is relentless -there is never a dull moment. Again , it's on DVD/VCD and often turns up on Film Four Extreme, too. The other movie I'd recommend in this category is "Evil Dead Trap", a variant on the old dark house genre, with all sorts of twists and turns along the way, director Toshiharu Ikeda makes no secret of his adoration of the film style of Sam Raimi's movies but does manage to pull off some scares and at the last minute heads off into Cronenberg territory. Available on DVD/VCD and worth a look.
I'd recommend two websites for purchasing dvds and vcd - one is www.coolashop.com which sticks just about every HK, and Korean film that gets released. It's pretty cheap too, with most films around the £7 or £8 mark.It works well when you're ordering 3 or 4 at a go though - the postage can be as much as the dvd, so getting a few at once evens it out a bit. Some people I know have had problems with lost DVDs and poor aftersale care but from my own personal experience, I have never had a problem at all. The other is www.hkflix.com - this website is a little more expensive but also has reviews of all the product and a more sophisticated search system within the website so you can find similar films very easily.
*(vcd for the initiated is a pre-cursor of dvd: picture quality is about the same as VHS but it's on CD - usually need two vcds for a full movie. Bonus is they are very very cheap!)
David Dunne 10.11.2002Back to Articles and Contamination Horror Index