Editor’s Notes: Rigor Mortis is now out in limited theatrical release.
Horror films have been terrifying me since I first set eyes on them. As a genre, there are many reasons for the seemingly constant production and audiences keep coming back for the thrill of the scare. Asian horror films are in a complex league of their own, more often than not being the subject of a Hollywood remake. Sadly the Hollywood productions only offer the obligation of an English language version featuring an English speaking cast of actors as the original is seen to be too niche or not having a distribution worthy audience demographic. There are classics out there that horror fans aren’t even aware of and I’m confident that if more people ignored the subtitles barrier they’d receive a welcomed re-education. In terms of the offerings Asian directors have brought to the horror genre, the contribution has been and continues to be substantial. In this list I’ve tried to keep it as diverse, but have ended up with East Asian horror features taking over. Japanese and South Korean cinema has an invested history in horror films and to this day their production scope turns head the globe over. A lot of these narratives are based on manga series of the same titles and so by the time they’ve even reached the big screen they have a following in Eastern Asia. Social horrors and disturbing paranormal forces combine to weave a web of mind bending fear. Some of the most terrifying, creepy and downright unforgettable imagery can be found within these features. I’ll be sleeping with the lights on for weeks now…whatever good that’d do.
10. Three Extremes (2004)
Involving three directors known for their work in Asian horror films, this little trio of segmented shorts features some inspiring and ugly narrative workings. Park Chan-Wook, Fruit Chan and Takashi Miike are at the helm and develop a collection that marks them as the truly indie style film directors they can be. ‘Box’, ‘Dumplings’ and ‘Cut’ are alternative, different from one another in so many ways, yet at the same time relative because of their formats. A fascinating slice of Asian horror genre cinema from three of the best directors in the field, it’s incredibly talked about amongst new viewers to Asian horror.
9. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Another wonderfully chilling offering from director Kim Jee-Woon, this time it’s under the fragile topic of family deaths. Twin sisters return home from time in a mental institution, but their cruel stepmother’s mind games and an interfering spirit trapped in the family house don’t aid their recovery. Exploring the boundaries of love, family and trust, knowing what’s real and who is acting in relation to their frequently misunderstood personalities is hard to keep up with. When lines are drawn metaphorically in feint chalk, there’s little that will or won’t bypass the willing for power control. A Tale of Two Sisters has often been a focus of the children in horror sort of subgenre. Here it’s more a case of children are involved in things they cannot even comprehend, never mind the persistent ghosts and mental problems that plague them. Having the impressive power to completely immerse you in he twisted tale of cat and mouse, you won’t know what’s up or down by the time the credits roll.
8. Dark Water (2002)
This could well be a lesson in house hunting with the most extreme and disastrous consequences imaginable. When a young mother and daughter move into an apartment only to find it strangely leaking from everywhere with no seemingly obvious cause, there’s supernatural activity afoot. Trying to make a new start for after winning a custody battle the pair become subjects to a haunting by an ever insistent mysterious child ghost. Similarly to Japanese favorites Ringu and Ju-On the curse can only be lifted when the true story of the ghost is revealed. By 2005 this Japanese narrative had already faced a Hollywood remake under the same title and the remake wasn’t very different, if albeit with a Hollywood production value.
7. I Saw the Devil (2010)
South Korean terror favourite Kim Jee-Woon tackles the immense power of all consuming revenge in his thriller that knows not when to stop. Decidedly quirky his latest feature fits into his filmography without much explanation needed. A dangerous and psychotic serial killer with a penchant for human flesh is on the loose and when he can’t be stopped an enraged fiancé takes matters into his own hands. The lines between good and evil are blurred and the audience is here exposed to a desperate revenge situation. Brutal in parts, violence that his previous films didn’t posses is brought to the fore. Edge of the seat unbearable for a majority of the film, there’s an endearment that wiggles its way under your skin and after a couple of attacks you can’t let it go.
6. Dumplings (2004)
How far would you go to reverse the aging process? In Hong Kong there’s a lady who can help, with her famous home-made rejuvenation dumplings that contain a mysterious ingredient she ships from mainland China. Utterly grotesque and morally shocking, Dumplings will test the waters with how we value beauty and the lengths people will go to preserve their mortal image. Featuring controversial themes and terrifically terrible revelations, this is sure to put you off Chinese dumplings for weeks to come.
5. Thirst (2009)
This isn’t the first Park Chan-Wook film to make it into my list and so it’s clear he knows how to spin a good scare factor. In a truly unique representation of the vampire narrative, a priest accidently becomes a vampire and must do battle with his new immortal selfhood. Abandoning all he knew, he enters a world of darkness that he tried so hard in his previous life to fend off. Thirst is the most fascinating study of a modern vampire character and by far the most horrifyingly realist depiction of vampirism.
4. Audition (1999)
Well known horror director Takashi Miike brought a visceral version of Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name to the screen long before the novel was published in English language. When a recent widower agrees to a series of auditions held by his friends to find him a new wife, he picks a woman who isn’t who she seems on the surface. A genuinely tense affair of social expectations and a not so subtle hint of feminist throw back to Japanese society. There’s something just not quite right with this unnatural pairing and it’s too late to tell what.
3. Ju-On (2002)
Another fairly recent release and it only two years before a Hollywood remake under the title The Grudge (2004) graced Western screens. The remake set the film in Tokyo so there are still a few cultural references that have worked themselves into the remake. Based loosely on a lot of Japanese ghost stories where a revengeful spirit marks and pursues anyone who dares enter the house in which it is trapped in this world. Old buildings and lingering spirits are globally seen as a horror genre staple, what makes Ju-On different is the sad tales of young unexplained deaths. Some genuinely freaky moments rank Ju-On high in my chart.
2. Oldboy (2003)
Part horror but mostly thriller in genre terms, but the social horrors that are forced upon one unknowing man are beyond the pail. Recently Spike Jonze had a go at a very fan influenced remake that was close enough to a shot for shot rehash of Park Chan-Wook’s masterpiece. Kidnapped and held captive for fifteen years in a cell block, once released our protagonist Oh Dae-Su must find who did this and why, in a time frame of five days. The director made it as part of a revenge trilogy alongside Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)and Lady Vengeance (2005) and it’s since become his most recognized and accomplished works. Gory sequences of bodily mutilation and fight scenes featuring hammers are weapons strike it out as not for the feint of heart. The social morals are certainly spine tingling once a few reveals have passed, listing it as horrifying enough to make my top five.
1. Ringu (1998)
This had to top the list as it contains the most potent imagery and is by far the most relentless of Japanese horror cinema. There’s been a whole series of this made in Japan and a series of remakes from Hollywood under the title of The Ring. No matter how many times the narrative is reworked and added to, the first film is the most frightening. Once you’ve seen the VHS footage, you have to solve its mystery, lest it kill you. The iconic image of a small girl covered in soaking wet hair crawling out of the TV screen has been parodied by films like Scream 3 (2003). If you have seen the internet memes or the English language remakes, you’ll never be as afraid as when you check out the Japanese original.
If you're looking for some films that are a lot less spooky, checkout our list of family friendly Halloween movies.
About the Author
Currently Belfast based film reviewer, once a film theory student (BA 2:1, MA with distinction). I share a deep fascination with Asian cinemas and am mostly interested in cinematography. Documentary film is probably my favourite genre if I had to pick one. Monster movies, classic comedy like Chaplin or the downright bizarre are among my favourite viewings. My passion for film boarders obsessive like any cinephile would say. I’ll watch anything once, but can guarantee I’ll have something to say.