Friday, March 9, 2012

Discussion: The differences between Asian and Western horror, or, why Asian horror rocks.

I don't think I've met many horror fans who haven't fallen under the spell of Asian horror. Perhaps they came to it after the rush of Western remakes, the 2002 remake of The Ring in particular, but almost everyone I know has a deep appreciation for the unique cinematic techniques and tropes utilised in Asian horror. Thanks to the films that have been coming out of Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand over the past three decades or so, audiences are able to succumb to the dark and disjointed cinematic representation of our greatest fears, often through the utilisation of the creepiest ghosts and child spirits to ever grace the silver screen.

This isn't to say that Western horror is in anyway lacking, or of a lesser quality, however in Western horror it typically seems to be the smaller budget or independent films that achieve the same great heights as Asian horror cinema, while the mainstream industry is intent to repackage Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Saw in a dozen different guises for audiences every year. Unlike these bigger budgeted films, Asian horror seems to align itself more closely to the horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Although Asian horror films are often the ones which have me jump the most, they're also about much more than simply making audiences shriek or clutch their hands over their eyes. The special effects are typically comprised of physical special effects (masks, prosthetics and mechanised monsters) and film techniques created in the filming or editing processes (jump cuts etc), and the films themselves often have personal or social themes wound neatly up into the supernatural or horror story. When I watch an Asian horror film which falls within these parameters (and not all of them do) I'm reminded of films like The Fly, The Thing and Dawn of the Dead, films which had horrors that were tangible and gritty and pervasive, yet also had social commentary that struck the audience member as hard as the effects did.

There is a lot of ambiguity in Asian horror, and I find that the film tends to head in one of two directions. The first is that it appears, like Ring or The Grudge, to be a fairly typical ghost/monster horror story, yet there is a level of symbolism or discourse that simmers just below the surface, identifiable by a more observant audience member, but not necessary for an enjoyable experience. Or the film will be disjointed, non-linear and blatantly ambiguous, such as MPD-Psycho (a TV series) or Pulse. These films place the emphasis on the thematic concerns of the films, and rarely follow your traditional Western film structures.Both of these two styles employ supernatural or superhuman forces to externalise the internal fears of the characters. I've found that it is rarely a case in Asian horror that the ghost or monster is simply there to terrorise characters, there is always a deeper reason for its arrival, for its tenacity and for its endurance.

Regardless of which two categories a film fits into (and some don't fit into either) Asian horror appears to be more comfortable with letting the audience leap to their own conclusions, to make connections that may or may not have been the film-makers intention, and to take away a more personal reaction to the film. Western films seem much more intent on explaining the continuity of the film, of why everything is happening the way it is, and why that particular character is being punished. Some Asian horror made more recently seems to have fallen victim to this approach, such as the film Dark Water (2002) which had 15 minutes tacked onto the end which was completely unnecessary and simply explained what the film had already perfectly construed through the ghostly water-abounded tale of divorce, loneliness and single parenthood. This is probably the perfect moment to share a quote from horror researcher and author Andy Richards from his book Asian Horror;
 Generally, the slow-burn pacing of the Asian originals is sharply ramped up, combined with an increase in the number of scare-jolts administered to the audience, while the low-fi special effects of the originals are usually  replaced with CGI-enhanced spookery. But more significantly, while Asian horror films are content to leave certain mysteries unexplained, or for the narratives and character motivations to retain a core of ambiguity, the remakes tend to add layers of exposition hat attempt to rationalise - and thereby contain - their supernatural stories.
I have chosen to steer away from discussing Western remakes of Asian horror films, though a post on that topic may soon pop up, but much of what I've said applies to that issue as well. Asian horror may not always be at the same level of technical achievement as a Western horror, and the story and acting may also suffer compared to some of the Western horror films out there, but that never seems to matter. Even amidst the 5-10 minutes worth of dodgy CGI that Pulse employed, the complexity and weight of the film was heads and shoulders above the dozen other horror films I've seen so far this year.

There is a desperate eagerness to tell a story or to represent a current social concern in Asian horror that Western horror simply lacks, and this drive is far more important in creating an impacting and lasting horror film than million dollar special effects or the latest A grade celebrity to feel the need to add some variety to their audition reel. Simply put, Asian horror still believes horror is an important cinematic tool, much like the Western film-makers from the 1970s-80s did, and some indie horror creators still do today. They understand the genre and they continue to experiment and try unbelievable and sometimes crazy things, all to benefit the message they're trying to convey or the story they wish to tell. That's why Asian horror rocks, and that's why every Western production company is falling over themselves to recreate these films, the sad part is that they don't realise how much they're still missing.

Of course, this is all personal observation and opinion, and some of you may feel the complete reverse. Is Asian horror something you seek out to watch, or a style of horror that you just can't enjoy in the slightest?


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, it opened up my eyes to the different types of cinematic techniques used around the world in horror films. I had no idea that Asian horror films were that much different from Western Horror films before reading your post. Its evident to me now that Asian horror films serve a different purpose than what meets the eye, in fact leave the viewers mind up to their own interpretation of the underlying meaning on the film. Now looking back on the Asian films I have watched I can definitely see how they use horror as a cinematic too as opposed to just the genre the film is listed in.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post!
    What I find quite interesting in the contrast between Western and Asian horror is the emphasis of the culture's code of ethics.
    Where Western is more focused on the individuals and overcoming challenges, Asian horror is more focused on the repercussions of selfishness that affect the community/future generations;some of these repercussions are irreversible.


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