When it comes to scaring the life out of cinema goers, Asia’s filmmakers have the good fortune to be able to draw on a deep well of bone-chilling, nerve-jangling storytelling traditions. Not only do they have a ready-made audience weaned on tales of demons and spirits, but there is a seemingly unfathomable pool of stories to be retold in countless grisly and ghoulish ways.
Hollywood has woken up — rather late in the day considering the region’s cavernous archive of creepy classics — and has been churning out remakes. But why settle for Tinseltown’s wraithlike copies when you can recoil into the dark corners of your sofa at the sheer malevolent genius of the real deal? And our three all-time Asian horror movie masterpieces are so original … well, it’s plain scary.
Dear readers, we hope you have a terrifying time and suffer nightmares for weeks. Enjoy.
Onibaba (Japan, 1964)
Bedtime stories were probably banned in director Kaneto Shindo’s house, such was the man’s penchant for telling twisted, sordid and terrifying tales. Here he turns to 14th century Japan, and to a world at war. Two women (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to survive, eking out a meager living by killing wandering samurais and selling off their armor. But it’s like nature itself rails at their depravity and wills the pair to their doom. Shindo frames the action with windswept fields and draws his audience into the shadows that death stalks. There are single moments here — of a woman in a mask, of a scream — that are impossible to remove from your mind no matter how hard you might try.
Ringu (Japan, 1998)
Hideo Nakata for a long while was the modern-day champion of Japan’s horror traditions and here — as with many of Shindo’s works — there’s a sense that if you look through the horror you might find the director bemoaning a society that’s lost its way. Or you could just sit back and get scared witless. A television reporter (Nanako Matsushima) finds herself drawn into the case of a cursed videotape that unleashes images of pure and menacing evil — and signals impending doom to anyone who watches. There’s one scene here — we’ll say it involves a ghost and a TV, and nothing more — that shreds nerves no matter how many times you watch it.
The Eye (Hong Kong, 2002)
The Pang brothers — Oxide and Danny — worked and lived in Bangkok for a long time and the Thai obsession with ghosts left its mark on their debut feature. It’s a chilling tale of a woman (Angela Lee Sin-je) who goes in for an eye operation and never sees the world in quite the same way again. The film smolders away as the forces of darkness gather around her and the tension amps up. But once the infamous lift scene comes along — as good as it gets in terms of making an audience squirm — all bets are off and the young lady’s life spirals out of control. A brilliant start by the boys that, sadly, has never come close to being matched.