Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Asian Horror, by Andy Richards

Asian Horror, by Andy Richards. Harpenden, UK: Kamera Books, 2010. Trade paperback, 160pp, $19.95.

Dumplings made from human embryos. A woman cutting off her fingers. Mutilation by fishhook. Intrigued? Keep reading. These are some of the images from horror films discussed in Andy Richards’ book Asian Horror. Richards states plainly, “Rather than attempting to be an encyclopaedic resource, this book aims rather to encourage readers to embark on their own exploration of some of the intriguing byways of Asian horror, while hopefully enhancing their appreciation of films they have already encountered.”

The book focuses heavily on Japanese horror due to its undeniable dominance and consistent production of the genre. Using a dense but readable writing style, Richards makes reference to Japanese folklore, visual art, literature, and theatre to give a crash course on the influences of Japanese horror films. He also provides helpful cultural backgrounds for Hong Kong, Thailand, and South Korea, all of which have also contributed significantly to the genre. Hong Kong is credited with incorporating an especially sinister sense of humor. Thailand emerges from a standstill during the Asian economic crisis of the 1990s with its distinctive jungle backdrop. Finally, South Korea proves a great success on its home turf, eventually leading to worldwide critical and commercial success.

The format is simple and logical, including an introduction followed by sections pertaining to each country’s film contributions (both classic and modern), short sections on relevant topics and filmmakers, and ending with an analysis of “East Meets West” in terms of horror cinema. Japan is the first country discussed and takes up the majority of the book. For each film, Richards provides the title, year of release, the director, and cast. He then summarizes the story and provides background. Lastly he gives a verdict on the film’s artistic strengths and weaknesses, highlighting particularly grotesque moments or comparing the film with others from the same time period or director. Tidbits of information about the films are embedded throughout the book, engaging the reader and encouraging further exploration.

Comical yet wickedly dark flavor is infused into the reader’s impression of horror films from Hong Kong. In The Untold Story the finger of a severed arm falls off just as the police try to obtain its fingerprint. Even more demented are the succulent treats cooked up in Dumplings, which are made from human embryos, perhaps in a commentary on China’s one-child policy among societal evils of consumerism and fear of aging.

Mizoguchi’s Tales of Ugetsu, released in 1953, is credited with an erotic edge that is a result of the end of censorship imposed by the U.S. occupation of Japan immediately preceding the film’s release. The modest potter Genjuro is seduced by the wealthy Lady Wakasa and is convinced to marry her and leave his wife and child forever. He finds out that she is a ghost and flees to his first wife, only to realize that she too has died and is now a spirit trying to reunite him with his son. Although shocking horror seems missing here, the details that Richards brings to light are Mizoguchi’s use of Japanese Noh drama masks in the seduction scene, something that would influence his directorial rival Akira Kurosawa in his later adaptations of Macbeth and Throne of Blood.

The Japanese smash hit Ring from 1998 is hailed as “ground zero for any appreciation or exploration of modern Asian horror films, and J-Horror in particular.” This film, which Richards references more often than any other, contains many classic elements of the horror genre including the famous yurei (discussed in more detail in the next paragraph), and echoes the classic, folklore-inspired film Onibaba(1964) in its use of a well for hiding murdered corpses.

As a student studying Asian performance, this book grabbed my attention immediately with its references to Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre. It is a dark delight to trace the cliché of the long-haired, lurking, ghostly female to the Japanese yurei, found in Noh theatre and traced even further back to the 11th-century literary classic The Tale of Genji. For the non-theatre nerds out there, have no fear; no particular background is required for enjoying Richards’ writing.

The reference sections of the book include websites, a bibliography, and an index, all of which provide readers with direction to pursue their own areas of interest. The clear, casual style is aimed more at a popular than a scholarly audience, as evidenced by a lack of footnotes.

The concluding chapter, “East Goes West: Lost in Translation?,” critiques some of the U.S. remakes of Asian horror originals. Richards asserts that the remakes rarely add anything of substance. Unnecessary use of CGI and unconvincing acting are common charges brought against the American versions. Richards’ tone is one of observation, and he ends with speculation on a couple of upcoming remakes that may have promise, including Battle Royale and DumplingsAsian Horror briskly achieves its purpose of encouraging curious moviegoers to explore the special pleasures of one of world cinema’s most fascinating genres.

Andryn Arithson is a graduate student pursuing a dual master’s in theatre and business administration at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the writer and producer of the stage production Alice Crypt, an underworld adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where many of her gigantic puppet creations have come to life. Find out more at www.andryn.com.