Monday, October 16, 2006

The Sun Isn't Always Rising

The big boom for Asian horror may be past us, with the diminishing returns for American remakes, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a great many interesting and frightening films to choose from. There are enough, in my opinion, that my next couple of posts will most likely be dedicated to Asian horror cinema. First, though, I wanted to give a little primer to the uninitiated. Most likely you've seen the Grudge, or the Ring, either in it's American form or it's original Japanese, or both. But if you haven't, there are a few things that will be off putting to most western viewers.

First off, you should forget most of the preconceptions you have as a westerner about horror films. I say this because, at heart, our horror films have a very strong Judea-christian, catholic core. The horny co-eds who have premarital sex and use drugs are killed, while the virginal babysitter is left physically unharmed after her descent into figurative hell. This isn't the case in most eastern horror films, since Christianity doesn't have as strong a foothold. What they do have, is Buddhism, and while you don't need to be an expert on the teachings of Buddhism, it is helpful to know one thing. In Shinto Buddhism hate-and other negative emotions- are considered contagious, as an almost physical ailment. Think of Princess Mononoke, where Ashitaka confronts the boar god who is consumed with rage. The touch of the Boar god scars him, and that scar continues to grow throughout the film. The implication being that eventually this hate and rage would kill Ashitaka. And so you have the more common theme of the horrific events spreading from person to person instead of a singular monster hunting down a specific group, as seen in Ju-on(the Grudge, in America).

Often this idea coincides with another theme, which is the fear of technology. It may sound odd, since so many of our technological advancements come from this part of the world, but it makes sense when you think about it. This is a country that has firsthand experience of the nightmare that technology can bring. And really, science has been at the core of Japanese horror cinema since Godzilla. And so you get many many films dealing with our modern technology run amok, as seen in the Ring movies, One Missed Call, and quite memorably in the two cyberpunk Tetsuo films. Think a mash up of David Cronenberg's fascination with bodily modification, David Lynch's Eraserhead(more in style than actual substance), and some of Clive Barker's more disgusting, darker fantasies.

You should also know that this knowledge won't really prepare you for some of the stranger things in eastern cinema. Japanese films in general seem to have a dreamlike quality, an internal logic that the filmmakers don't seem to think you need to know about. It might just be my inexperience with the culture, maybe if I were a local it would all make perfect sense, but as it is many things will not be explained to you. For my part, I enjoy that more than most horror movies that explain why things are happening to the point of diminishing the creepiness. Still, sometimes a little logic helps. It's also pretty easy to confuse this obtuseness with intelligence, making a film seem more intelligent than it really is.

Pulse, directed by Kyoshi Kurosawa(no relation to Akira, but an excellent director in his own right), is probably one of the best examples of all that I've mentioned thus far. The plot concerns a website that is becoming a cult phenomenon among the younger generation, but it also happens to be a gateway for ghosts to enter the land of the living. Or something like that, it isn't really spelled out for you, but that's the basic gist. The movie is more focused on the melancholic aspect of the dead, since what they're really doing isn't killing people, but infecting them with their loneliness until they eventually fade out of existence. The movie has all of the major Japanese horror tenets, with the curse being passed from person to person, and it all centering around technology, but it doesn't execute any of them the way you'd expect if you've seen a lot of Japanese films. Many people find it boring, but it actually scared me more than any other J-horror film simply because it never did what I expected it to. Plus it didn't have creepy-haired ghost women or pale-faced little children. That's a plus. A warning, though, the movie really does live up to the 'infuriating lack of information' trend I mentioned earlier, with many events kind of vague, but it's still a great movie. I wouldn't shy away from recommending the American version, either, which gets rid of some of the vagueness and melancholy in order to impose it's own invented(but still interesting) back story.

So, check this one out if you have the time, it's readily available on DVD, and tune back in tomorrow when I go over a couple of my other favorite Asian horror films. As for Kyoshi Kurosawa, it isn't really a horror film, but he directed another fairly creepy gem called Cure, which I would urge just about everyone to check out.

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