Spend enough time watching Asian movies, and you come to the inevitable conclusion that Asians really really really hate ghosts. Unlike American ghosts, which, as you know, simply wear white sheets over their heads and float around harmlessly, Asian ghosts can inhabit anyone or anything, and they usually have some sort of terrible revenge on their minds. But it’s not just ghosts. Even the most cursory survey of the weird and wonderful Asian horror genre reveals that Asians are scared of just about everything — paper products, puppets, elevators… and even the weather. What scares Asians most? Here’s our checklist.
Many Americans got their first look at a quintessential Japanese ghost in the original version of The Ring back in 1998. In the ensuing decade we’ve seen countless variations on the ghastly white girl with stringy black hair and a long white dress hanging from the ceiling or popping out of the television. It’s interesting to learn that this archetype, known in Japanese as a yurei, goes way back in Japanese culture and is a fixture of kabuki theater. In The Ring, as well as in other phone-related horror flicks such as One Missed Call, the ghosts like to play around with telephones, which make Japanese people especially skittish when they hear their favorite ringtone… and it turns out to the ringtone of death!
In Shutter we learn that the Thai people, who have way more than their fair share of ghosts to contend with, are terrified of cameras, especially Polaroids. Everyone knows that you can see a ghost’s aura on Polaroid film, and no one is eager to learn just how many of them are hanging around. By the way, make sure to see the original Shutter, not the cheesy American remake, which is set in equally cameraphobic Japan. That one had us rooting for the ghosts.
All it takes is one ringing phone, one computer screen, and one missing computer disk, and five minutes into Pulse, young Taguchi has already hanged himself. As SNL‘s amateur film critic Aunt Linda might say, ‘Gaaahhhhh, how depressing!’ When Asians tire of their fear of gadgets, that start getting scared of all the wires, beeps, bleeps, and buzzes that connect the gadgets together. Fear of the power grid? Infrastructure terror? Why not? If a phone can be haunted, then so can the switchboard.
The horror genre has a long tradition of ill-advised transplants. Remember Body Parts? In The Eye, directed by the imaginative Pang brothers of Bangkok and Hong Kong, it’s a cornea transplant that goes awry, leaving lovely young Mun, who undergoes the operation, traumatized by visions of ethereal grim reapers and yes, a yurei of her very own to drive her nuts. A big lesson of Asian horror films: Whenever possible, avoid Hong Kong hospitals.
Talk about a bad hair day. In Korea’s The Wig, the agent of evil is… wait for it… a wig. You’d think Koreans have enough to worry about given the impending threat of total nuclear annihilation waiting just over the mountains, but still they find time to work themselves up into a tizzy about evil hairpieces. With any luck, John Waters will remake this one and commission a soundtrack from the B-52s.
There are plenty of haunted houses all over the world, and you can find lots of them in Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and Japan. (China seems somehow immune.) In the original Grudge (needlessly remade as a Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle), the haunted house features a different kind of Japanese ghost: the bug-eyed boy. He’s just as scary as a yurei but usually not as deadly. Actually, for such a modern country, Japan has quite a bit of tatty and rundown real estate. See The Neighbor No. 13 for another example of ‘Japanese homes you should not rent.’
Most Asians take great pleasure in long soaks in deep bathtubs, but along with that relaxing tradition comes some serious hydrophobia. Dark Water is but one example of how dripping water in a rundown apartment (more crummy real estate) is just the kind of thing that can give an angry ghost ideas. Rain scares Asians, too, and sometimes they run into tunnels to escape a downpour, but that’s problematic because tunnels scare them just as much.
The manga-based Death Note series of films presents yet another scary threat: the deadly diary. Simply write down the names of people you’d like to kill, and poof, they die, thanks to the help of two ‘reapers’ who have visages not unlike the cartoon Joker of Batman fame. Of course, the Death Note diaries come with a complicated set of rules that lead to all sorts of wild plot twists, but to think paper can kill… wow. And this from the people who gave us origami and 1,000 paper cranes of peace.
Fear of needles is certainly universal, but leave it to Takeshi Miike, the Japanese auteur of the horrific and the man responsible for more vomit on the floors of Japanese movie theaters than anyone else, to take pinpricks to the limit in Audition. This time around, the vengeful woman isn’t a ghost but a real live human, and boy oh boy does she have a way with surgical implements as she seeks out revenge on the pervert who tried to take advantage of her virtue.
Revisit the original Godzilla, and you’ll find that it’s actually a political piece railing against the unchecked spread of nuclear testing. In later years, the charismatic lizard goes really green in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. This is why Japan is so clean. The cultural message is that if you litter, the trash will come back and kill you, and it works! We should try it in this country. In more recent times, Korea has had its own riff on illegal dumping in The Host, where a diabolical slime creature emerges from the toxic waters of Seoul’s Han River. Note that the American military is accused of ordering the toxic dumping. Figures.
High School Students
Remember Gogo, the cute Japanese high school girl who almost decapitated Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1? Well, that’s nothing. Despite all the public politeness and the well-pressed naval-inspired school uniforms, Asian high schoolers are maniacs, advancing quickly from simple bullying to gang rape (All About Lily Chou-Chou), neighborhood terror, and murder (Blue Spring). And for those students who can’t take the pressure, there’s always that uniquely Japanese method of escape: group suicide (Suicide Club). These kids are crazy, and in some cases, most notably at Korea’s deadly Volcano High
, they also have superpowers and are definitely not to be messed with.