Frightfully entertaining

When it comes to horror, Asia's filmmakers and moviegoers prefer the home-spawned variety

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 4:36pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 4:36pm

Leong Po-chih had already given audiences enough creeps to last a lifetime when the possibility of working in the horror genre reared its head again - and, like many of the characters in such films, the director couldn't resist the temptation of heading back into the darkness.

Leong has spent plenty of time figuring out exactly what frightens us all: producing the neon-drenched slasher antics of Sylvia Chang Ai-chia and Simon Yam Tat-wah in a very Hong Kong - and a very 1980s - He Lives By Night (1982), presenting Jude Law as a vampire who almost has a conscience in the award-winning The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998), and turning Judd Nelson into a serial killer in 2000's made-for-TV Cabin by the Lake.

Many countries in Asia have these traditions that are full of stories of karma, evil intentions, demons and spirits
Alvin Tse, HKIFF programmer

However, for his latest effort, the director was searching for something a little different. And so Leong's Baby Blues arrives this Halloween in full-blown 3-D and with the director delving into a very Asian horror aesthetic. "The appeal of Asian horror is the unknown," he says. "It's not just a fear of the dark - it's like looking into another world. It's something that is also part of the culture here. Then there is the other type of horror here which is the pure blood type."

From the trailers at least, Baby Blues seems to chart a course between the two with a plot centred around a family that moves into a new house and finds a disturbing-looking doll waiting to do its worst. "What people see in those eyes are their worst fears," the director reveals. "They are their own sins. I think that's unusual."

Searching for the "unusual" is what the history of Asian horror films is all about, from the darkly macabre Japanese offerings of the 1950s and '60s, to the more recent explorations of sheer terror that have emerged again from that nation, as well as South Korea, Thailand and here in Hong Kong.

"There are certain types of horror films. There is the traditional type, which works on fear. That fear of the dark, the fear of the unknown. It's not so much what's in the dark, but what's in your head," Leong says.

"Then there's the other type where it's half scary with its violence and you often don't know whether to laugh or scream. But here in Asia, while people sometimes mix fun and fear, the audiences like real horror."

Leong points to Japanese master Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964) and 2003's A Tale of Two Sisters from South Korea's Kim Jee-woon as examples of just how creative the Asian horror genre can be, thanks to storylines traced back to ancient folk tales, even though one remains traditional in its telling and one modern. "You find there are more of these stories - and acceptance of these stories - here in Asia," he says.

Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) programmer Alvin Tse agrees. "Many countries in Asia have these traditions that are full of stories of karma, evil intentions, demons and spirits," says Tse, who each year puts together the HKIFF's Midnight Heat section. "That gives filmmakers a lot of material to work with and a ready-made audience waiting for these films."

There are also the uniquely Asian takes on horror staples - as seen in the likes of Ricky Lau's Mr Vampire from 1985 (see breakout) - which filmmakers have tailored to suit local tastes. "These are very different from what a Western audience might expect. Asian filmmakers have always been quick to mix local elements into their horror films," says Tse, who highlights the flashes of comedy in that film, as well as its use of martial arts.

It was Mr Vampire - and other similar productions - that inspired Juno Mak's directorial debut Rigor Mortis, which has been touring festivals around the world and helping once again to rekindle international interest in horror, Asian-style. "I think audiences are captured by the creativity they see in these films," says Tse.

While horror junkies will cite specific images that have over the decades helped define the genre in Asia - for some it's the mask from the 1964 Japanese classic Onibaba, for others any time Philippine great Lilia Cuntapay creeps around the fringes of a scene - Tse heads straight to the impact Hideo Nakata's Ring had on its release in 1998 when looking to explain just how influential the creativity of Asian filmmakers can be.

"That film changed everything," he says. "They took normal, everyday objects - the television, the VCR - and made them terrifying. It was genius and it really changed the landscape for horror films. The scene where Sadako climbs out of the TV is I think the scariest scene in Asian horror. It only lasts one minute but feels like seven. It is something you never forget."

Pak Do-sin presents the Midnight Passion programme at the annual Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) and each year he's approached by filmmakers offering the latest in horror. The process, he says, gives him a chance to chart trends in the genre, and to see the differences between what is being created in specific global markets.

Pak's own exposure to horror films began when an illicitly gained VCR tape of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) put the fear of god into him in his early teens, but he has since witnessed the reemergence of Asian horror from the 1990s. "It was a force in the 1960s but as box offices in the region declined, so did horror films," he says. "In fact before the late 1990s, it was rare to try horror especially here in Korea as domestic films in general really struggled."

But as the Asian marketplace has grown, so has the demand for domestically produced films, pushing horror back into the spotlight.

The Banjong Pisanthanaku-directed Thai sensation Pee Mak is a good example, Pak says. Drawing on a ghost story much used over the years - a soldier returns home to find his wife is not all that she first seems - the filmmakers threw in some comedy and a cast of popular young stars. It is now the biggest-grossing Thai film of all time.

"It is commercially aware," says Pak. "They won't win Academy Awards for what they've done, but it's a great way to kill some time. It highlights again that Asian filmmakers are more adventurous in what they try, instead of just showing brutal scenes. European audiences seem to like more brutality - here it is about a more spiritual side of things."

There are, of course, some exceptions, and Pak recalls programming Pang Ho-cheung's blood-splattered Dream Home alongside Kim Jee-woon's ultra-violent I Saw the Devil - and watching the Korean director leave the cinema ashen-faced. "The director said to me 'My film is nothing compared to this'," says Pak. "But that's the best thing about Asian horror films - they always keep you guessing, and wondering what you'll see next."

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