Macabre Movie Monday 2020: 10 Asian Horror Nightmares

Welcome to the annual segment of OcTerror that focuses on a subgenre of films rather than paying attention to era lines. These reviews may ignore the boundaries of good and bad in favor of expanding the definitions of what horror can be. In the past, we’ve focused on Remakes & Reboots and Sequels, but now we’ll be diverting away from the franchise concept. This year we’ll be turning our attention to a subgenre of horror that not only is defined by its geography but also by certain aspects of culture, an impact on the genre as a whole, and the increasing attention to it with the rise in international distribution. I’m talking about Asian horror movies.

Below, you’ll find a small selection of the wide variety of films available from this vast area. This list primarily focuses on films from the East, South, and Southeast regions; perhaps in the future, I’ll have a Part II which focuses on the North, Central, and West. However, what is primarily “Asia” in much of Western culture compromises of the regions I’ve pulled from and they’re often the ones with the most active film industries, especially for horror. While Japan and South Korea are powerhouses, I didn’t want them to totally dominate the list so I had to make some tough choices. Even then, we have a lot of great options when it comes to what to watch so let’s get started!

  1. Audition (1999 – Japan). I first heard of this movie from a high school boyfriend almost ten years ago. That is ten years of hype. Between then and now, I’ve watched a lot of movies and grown more familiar with horror, but I was still disturbed by Takashi Miike’s film about a widower who finds a new lover via titular audition. It’s rare that I have visceral reactions to horror anymore, but I was so repulsed by at least one scene in this film I gagged and made lots of choking noises. And I’d already had it spoiled! I knew what was coming! On one hand, this is a slow burn mystery-drama about entitled men who seek meek and submissive women to be the perfect companions; on the other, it’s about how traumatizing that can be for those women when those kind of men are all you know in your life and how you define yourself. The pacing pays off in those last twenty minutes when that whiplash violence comes about in fabulous fashion. It is unforgettable in the best way. Eihi Shiina’s performance as Asami is pitch perfect; she is at once the picture of innocence, as wholesome as a glass of milk, but something just doesn’t add up. Ryo Ishibashi as Shigeharu is the right mix of understandable loneliness and creepy middle aged man, and the balance between the two swivels fairly well. I’d say this film has now captured and made my list of Favorite Antagonists in Horror, easily. If you’re looking for something attractive that’s right around twenty-one years old with a talent for piano, then there’s no need to hold an audition when this film already exists.
  2. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002 – Japan). One of several seminal Japanese horror films and one of many to receive the remake treatment, Takashi Shimizu’s original carries itself well all these years later. Unlike many other horror movies, it doesn’t follow a singular protagonist per say, but rather a curse that goes after many characters. Its plot is told in a chapter-like format and can feel, at times, a little repetitive but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. In the same way a short story cycle is satisfactory because of the connections an audience is able to make so too does Ju-On hinge on our memories of character relationships, mythologies, and the repetitive behaviors and small details. I also love the fact it doesn’t pander in its mythologizing in the way many American films do; there’s no need for a lot of exposition when we’re instead shown things. The film’s version of a death rattle is rather cinematic but iconic, as is the depiction of the vengeful ghosts within the film. It differs in a few ways from the American remake but stands on its own in all the ways that do matter. Many of the scenes are rather quiet but, as in the best horror, it’s what you don’t see or barely see that makes them all the more terrifying—that corner of your eye scare. If you’re looking to explore Asian horror or enjoyed the remake then I definitely recommend checking this one out.
  3. Dark Water (2002 – Japan). I think what I love most about Japanese horror is that it doesn’t rely on jump scares or cheap gimmicks to give viewers nightmares. Rather, through the relentless building of suspense, atmosphere, and relatable chills, these films hone in on the urge to look over one’s shoulder while delivering satisfactory thrills aplenty. Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, based on the short story collection by Koji Suzuki, handles multiple plotlines with a deft hand, but focuses mainly on Yoshimi and her daughter, Ikuko. They’ve moved into a somewhat rundown apartment building in the midst of Yoshimi’s divorce and can’t really afford to leave—not even as a mysterious leak from the floor above threatens their safety and sanity. What I love most about this film is how it handles reality: annoying rundown apartments and supervisors who don’t care enough to fix problems, the drama and horror of divorce, the sometimes cyclical nature of abandonment and separation, and the power of motherhood. When the film delves into the supernatural it’s plenty scary but not as worrisome (to me) as those harsh truths compounded on top of a mystery. Hitomi Kuroki does a nice job of pretty much carrying the film; she flips through emotions so quickly yet naturally. Its denouement could be compared to some other films (but that would be spoiling too much) and yet stands on its own well enough. It was at once chilling, touching, and sorrowful all in one—a scene that I will remember for years to come. Dark Water hits a lot of sweet spots for horror and it’s one that should definitely be seen.
  4. Shutter (2004 – Thailand). The 2008 English-language remake of this film was among the first I reviewed for OcTerror; it also haunted me the first time I saw it. However, after finally seeing the original, the old adage that those tend to hold up better (especially when it comes to Asian horror) remains true. Jane and Tun discover they’re being haunted via photographs by the spirit of a girl they may have killed in a hit-and-run, but not all is as it seems in this taut thriller. So, yes, even though I knew the twist would probably be the same and saw it coming it still got me. However, what’s definitely different here is the pacing—a lot happens in quite a bit of time, but it feels slow. Like I thought forty minutes had paced but it had only been twenty and there was still a lot of movie left. The production does a nice job of showing off some off Thailand and there’s a particular scene in an anatomy lab that just feels rife with tension from the get go by virtue of jars of animals in formaldehyde. Ananda Everingham and Natthaweeranuch Thongmee work well together throughout the film as Tun and Jane; the relationship feels realistic in the way it ebbs and flows. The ending, even thought I knew it was coming, still hit like a ton of bricks and actually felt more impactful this time around. Be sure to watch this movie in a comfortable position; you’ll be suspicious of neck pain for a few days after watching.
  5. I Saw the Devil (2010 – South Korea). I saw a woman get decapitated within ten minutes. About halfway through I determined this way a darker, harder The Silence of the Lambs with an unrelenting emotional core similar to The Nightingale. And by the end I had run through a full gamut of emotions, but at what cost? Kim Jee-woon’s epic follows Kim Soo-hyun as he tracks down and exacts revenge upon the man who killed his fiancée, but at a price that continues to rise. This is, at first, your standard story of revenge, but as the film and hunt drags on it becomes something more and something darker. Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik play off of each other so well even in the scenes they aren’t together. Choi’s performance, in particular, is captivating; you can’t help but watch him when he’s onscreen no matter what’s happening. The violence is choreographed so beautifully it’s unbelievable and much of the general cinematography is gorgeous as well. At its heart, this is a story about revenge—yes—but it also actually looks at the cost of that revenge and if it was really worth it, without too much glamorizing along the way. At times, it’s hard to watch because of the violence and that relentless pace where you would think some other movie would have ended thirty minutes ago, but that heart is what keeps you watching. And it’s what makes the movie earn that ending, which feels so justified unlike so many others that it should be taught in classes. Find a copy so you can say I Saw the Devil, too.
  6. The Tag-Along (2015 – Taiwan). You get a lot of horror films about dark-haired ghost girls in Asian cinema. You don’t get too many about forest spirts that prey on guilt to replenish their land. This Taiwanese film takes an urban legend, “The Little Girl in Red”, and develops it into a moderately fleshed out story revolving around a grandson, his girlfriend, and his grandmother. The film slowly dips into its horror and spends a good amount of time establishing the characters enough that an audience would care about each of them; we can see the tenuous relationships and the strains already present at the beginning and how those work for and against them as the characters disappear and reappear thanks to the spirit. The titular ghost, when she appears, is kind of a mixed bag; in the scenes where an actress plays the character it works fairly well but, when mixed too heavily with CG, sometimes doesn’t suspend disbelief enough. The film has some nice moments of horror: a repulsive meal, a corner-of-your-eye jump scare, getting lost in a forest, and finding what else grows there. Yi-chun, our heroine, has an interesting character arch that doesn’t get quite enough context and, critically, reminds me of American 80s horror—the ending in some ways feels sinister from where she begins because her guilt isn’t fully explained and depends on a lot of context. It seems at once to begin with a feminist message for women, particularly in Asian culture where the expectations for marriage are different, but then becomes something else. Overall, this is a slow burn film with a deep mythos and realistic characters which brings plenty of new things to the table. So tag along for a viewing this Halloween.
  7. Train to Busan (2016 – South Korea). Prior to Parasite, this was probably one of the most highly-recommended Korean films I’d heard of. For some reason—probably my innate fear of zombies—I kept putting it off. What a mistake that was. Yeon Sang-ho’s film is a bit like if World War Z, 28 Days Later, and Snakes on a Plane had a rabid baby with a lot of heart. It mainly follows father Seok-woo and his daughter, Su-an, on the titular train to Busan, along with an ensemble cast of characters as they’re beset by zombies within and without not long after takeoff. As a zombie movie, this checks a lot of the subgenre’s boxes while adding a few new takes on undead hordes. Not only are they fast (the worst kind) but the onset of infection is rapid and in a place as congested as a train it makes the setting feel particularly claustrophobic. There are some gorgeous moments of cinematography with just the right touches of CGI here and there. The film’s pace is relentless; by the end, this is a ride you’ll want to be over as much as the characters and the catharsis is real. Gong Yoo and Ma Dong-seok do an excellent job in their roles. I’ll also say this is probably the only zombie movie to make me tear up—multiple times. If you’re looking for a zombie movie with something more to it then climb aboard.
  8. Take Me Home (2016 – Thailand). Sometimes you can find hidden gems when browsing. Case in point, this vaguely Gothic thriller. Tan, an amnesiac, finally discovers where he can find his family, but it may be for the better that he forgot as dark secrets are revealed. Narratively, this film doesn’t rely on a lot of exposition, which is both an interesting choice and a smart one; having an amnesiac main character allows him to be as confused as the audience when it comes to weird events and what may or may not be ‘normal.’ We learn things as he does. The film instead relies on the lovely production to tell its stories, blending the “dream house” of Tan’s family and a few well-chosen special effects with choice transitions to unsettle viewers. I can’t reveal too much as this is a film built on layers of plot reveals and occasional twists, but the way they unravel is entertaining at least and makes for an intricate web. While the ending is rather weak and ties up too neatly, everything leading up to it is worthy of a good ghost story and is both predictable and not in different ways where I could not be sure quite where I was standing. Wannarot Sonthichai as Tubtim is a highlight in her unsettling and yet delicate performance. This is a film you should, as it says, take home.
  9. The Mimic (2017 – South Korea). Look I’m not saying the United States doesn’t have folklore (fifteen seasons of Supernatural says we do), but when it comes to rich, nuanced, and creepy tales Asian horror has us beat. Huh Jung’s film, based off a popular Korean legend, takes the idea and runs with it. Years after the disappearance of her son, Hee-yeon and her family move to the countryside. She discovers a little girl near an abandoned cave—a girl who coincidently shares the same name and sounds an awful lot like her daughter—and the mysteries and horrors of the area soon escalate. So, yes, there are some traditional horror tropes wrapped within the film, but it’s the characters and the emotional pacing and wavelengths of the plot that make them feel fresh again. Yum Jung-ah’s performance as Hee-yeon is particularly noteworthy. Her desperation, grief, and hope are all brought to life wonderfully on the screen. Shin Rin-ah as the Little Girl is probably one of the few child performances in horror I bought on so many levels and I flipped in so many directions on how I felt about the character or what I believed (which I think is the intention). The ending definitely has Orpheus and Eurydice vibes and will hurt, and I haven’t felt that claustrophobic since watching The Descent. The film has beautiful scenery, atmosphere, some great scares and creeps, and will definitely have you questioning every voice you hear from another room for days to come. A welcome addition to the pantheon of horror.
  10. Tumbbad (2018 – India). Period horrors are a unique subgenre. On one hand, they often encapsulate the mood and time of an era and, on the other, they have to present a horror story as if it were fresh for audiences today. Tumbbad takes place over forty odd years in the midst of India’s fight for independence from British colonization. With that as the backdrop, viewers follow Vinayak Rao in his pursuit of treasure in the titular village and the ultimate cost of greed. Not too many horror films deal with the vice of greed, preferring the obvious wrath or lust, but this one juxtaposes the personal cost of Vinayak’s bargains with the cost of India’s freedom (the use of a Gandhi quote in the beginning is particularly apt). Most of the effects work fairly well and a lot of the scenery is captured beautifully, comparable in some ways to Pan’s Labyrinth. There are great moments of body horror, terror, and a nice score as well. Sohum Shah’s performance as the lead transforms across the years—from optimistic hunter to burdened father. While I know a lot of viewers immediately think of Japan or South Korea when it comes to Asian horror, let’s not count out the creativity and scares that can be found in India as well—presented beautifully in this film.

Asia produces horror movies every year, and while not all of it makes the jump to international success there is quite a bit that’s worth checking out. Thanks to a wider distribution through streaming sites such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Tubi, Shudder, Hulu, etc. you can usually find one or more of these films and many others. If you’re tired of Westernized horror—five kids in a cabin in the woods—then why not visit another locale and see what scares they have to share? Maybe you’ll bring home a new nightmare as a souvenir.