5 of the best and scariest Chinese horror films to watch
- China’s censors have long made a mockery of the country’s horror genre, toning down monsters and forcing laughably bad plots
- Luckily some films exist that show the macabre creativity of Chinese directors
Audiences in China who are eager for a viscerally scary cinematic experience at Halloween often look to overseas productions, as the country’s film censors frown on anything that promotes cults and superstition. China’s communist socialism is underpinned by Marxism and dialectical materialism, which advocate respect for the natural sciences and empirical inquiry – the antithesis of everything paranormal.
To pass the censors, ghosts in legendary Chinese stories are often turned into wicked spirits or characters from folklore on the big screen to tone down the netherworld connotations. One example was when the book Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Qing dynasty novelist Pu Songling, was adapted to television and cinema; the female lead character – Nie Xiaoqian, a ghost siren – was turned into a waifish elf.
That’s also why so-called ghost films made in China often offer a sensible and scientific explanation at their conclusion which explains all the supernatural happenings away. The contrived twist leading to a penny-dropping finale is either the discovery of mental illness in the haunted lead character or a Freudian explanation where all the apparitions and disembodied voices are boiled down to dreams.
The plots of Chinese ghost movies are so contrived that they often turn into farcical comedies, inducing peals of hysterical laughter instead of horrified screams from the audience. In spite of the draconian censorship rules, however, Chinese moviemakers see horror flicks as a money-spinner as they can be made on a low-budget and generate quick returns.
Amid the reams of lousy Chinese ghost movies, we have dug up five rare gems which are surprising not only for having slipped through the net of censors, but also for showing the macabre creativity of Chinese directors.
1. The Possessed (2016)
Without a famous director and cast, The Possessed required just 70,000 yuan (US$10,000) to make. Shunning typical horror movie tricks like gore and ghastly visuals, the director Ma Kai, a senior high school graduate and part-time actor working at Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang province, creates a suspenseful narrative filled with unexpected plot twists.
Dubbed as China’s Blair Witch Project for its documentary style that follows two teenagers investigating fortunetelling in the countryside, The Possessed features a cast and crew of ordinary people including property agents, welders and restaurant workers. The film was screened twice at the 2016 First International Film Festival in Qinghai province where it earned the Best Artistic Originality award and the praise of the festival’s chairman Wong Kar-wai.
2. Ling Hun Zhi Zha Dian (2016)
Scoring 6.3 out of 10 on Chinese movie rating site Douban, this film revolves around a girl who runs a paper offering shop. With yinyang eyes which allow her to see ghosts, the girl burns paper offerings at night to placate revenants who are deterred from leaving the human world for reincarnation due to unfulfilled wishes.
Featuring no big special effects, the story was praised for its tender portrayal of the revenants’ desires and wistful attachment to the human world.
3. The Chrysalis (2012)
Made for two million yuan, The Chrysalis did well in Chinese cinemas, earning 11.9 million yuan at the box office. It depicts a kidnapping and murder happening on Valentines’ Day, and has a score of 6.5 out of 10 on Douban.
Online critics praised the film for its sensible story, a rare departure from the clichéd plot devices about mental illusion or dreams often used by Chinese horror movie directors.
Taiwanese actress Sandrine Pinna gave a stellar performance as one of the two lead female characters. She went on to star in many Chinese advertisements, movies and TV series.
4. The Lonely Spirit in an Old Building (1989)
This legendary Chinese ghost film was used as a yardstick by young Chinese horror movie directors against which to measure their works. Made for 700,000 yuan, its box office take was five times its investment. It was directed by Beijing Film Academy graduates Liang Ming and Mu Deyuan, who studied in the same class as famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
Rumour had it that an elderly heart disease patient died from shock when watching the movie, which portrays the morbid adventures of a recordist and an actress who went to capture sound effects in a soon-to-be-demolished old building. The capture of ghoulish voices on the recording led to a series of fatalities.
The movie was most memorable for the spooky screeches in its musical score made by composer Qu Xiaosong, from Guizhou province, who made the dreadful sounds by grating saws together.
5. Enigma at St. Paul Hospital (1990)
Set during the Chinese civil war in Chengdu, this film depicts how an investigation by Communist officials into Nationalist weapon stores led them to an eerie hospital with strange happenings.
Online critics praised the movie for its macabre music, ghastly shots of the hospital’s morgue and the enigmatic portrayal of the morgue’s warden.
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