Asian horror has conquered a niche with a growing fanbase a bit all over the world. From creepy chillers to extreme violence, some of the freshest horror movies hail from such countries as Japan, Korea and Thailand. Yet quite a few titles fall through the cracks and remain virtually unknown even in their own countries of origin. Here I offer a list of the top ten underrated Asian horror movies, some hidden gems that deserve much more attention.
Ten Underrated Asian Horror Movies
Creepy Hide and Seek 3 (Hitori Kakurenbo Shin Gekijoban) – Japan, 2010
Also known as ‘Hide And Seek by Yourself’, Hitori Kakurenbo is a low key horror movie franchise in the best Japanese tradition. It features a game-like ritual of contacting the dead and involves some very ancient themes such as using a doll, gutting it and stuffing it with rice. The movie draws from real life, the practice of playing hide and seek with spirits having become something of a fad. It offers some insight into a culture that still cultivates ancient supernatural rites right in the heart of a highly technological environment.
In this movie, the third of an ongoing series, a teenage girl sets out to find her missing brother, while investigating she finds out he was involved in a site connected to the Creepy Hide and Seek game. As she delves deeper into the mechanics of the game she becomes more and more entangled with a ghostly entity.
This is a chiller through and through. The slow pace is perfect for this type of story that develops through increasingly threatening encounters between the living and the dead. There is hardly any melodrama and the very stripped down style of shooting makes the apparition all the more terrifying. The movie almost feels like a documentary on occasion, the juxtaposition of mundane things with a supernatural presence giving the very uncomfortable semblance of reality; we almost believe the ghost exists.
The illusion is reinforced by the whole legend around the game itself as there are plenty of people who have played creepy hide and seek and entire sites/blogs/forums dedicated to discussing the rules and exchanging self-proclaimed true stories. Creepy Hide And Seek shows what can be accomplished with a limited budget, its very limitations in this regard work to its advantage more than anything else. This is a series that perfectly assimilates ghosts to everyday life without losing their genuine creepiness.
The Uninvited (4 Inyong Shiktak) – South Korea, 2003
The Uninvited manages to mingle typical horror tropes with a psychological sensibility to produce a slow burner that is both chilling and sad. We follow a man whose memories are missing and a woman suffering from narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes one to drop asleep at any given moment. Together they search for solace in an urban wasteland of loneliness populated with ghosts. The approach is minimalistic with hardly any effects or jump scares to speak of. Instead, the movie starts off with a bang and then builds up pressure with each slow-paced scene until the final reveal. With that said, The Uninvited never strays from a certain ambiguity. It is at its best as it explores the massive apartment blocks that are so bereft of human warmth, the detailed attention given to indoor settings echoing the prevailing sense of loneliness.
Against this background of deliberate camera work there is some truly disturbing imagery with a few scenes of intense suspense that rival the best Korean thrillers. Much of the movie’s impact rests on the top-notch acting from the main leads, both of which do a wonderful job at playing broken people whose issues are so intrinsic to the horror proper.
Claustrophobic, at times beautiful, full of anguish but self-contained, quietly shocking: it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a different take on horror and one worth checking out if only for curiosity’s sake.
Gemini (Sôseiji) – Japan, 1999
Gemini is a strange movie. True to the title, the plot revolves around twins, namely two brothers one of which is a respectful doctor whose life gets completely turned upside down when his identical sibling throws him into a well and proceeds to impersonate him. What makes Gemini such a surprising viewing experience is not so much the premise as its execution.
The movie blends surreal imagery with traditional theatre techniques to create an oneiric atmosphere worthy of a nightmare. The period setting adds to this, the sprawling mansion where most of the action takes place is treated like a stage as is the well and everything else. Gemini overflows with technical prowess with tight cinematography that goes against the grain: most scenes are bursting with color and the light saturated palette serves to produce an oppressive atmosphere that exudes from every frame.
This is a movie that bridges the gap between classic Japanese horror with its formal approach and a more modern wave known for its distinctive weirdness. It is such a comprehensive effort that it even veers close to exploitation, albeit in a surreal way. The well motif that is so intimately connected with J-horror is here explored for all its worth with enough originality to stand on its own even when compared to Ringu.
Gemini is a hidden gem that has much to offer to viewers already familiar with Asian horror as well as to novices to the genre. It is something of a tour de force that delivers artistry, madness and chills.
Belenggu – Indonesia, 2013
A movie about a man haunted by visions of a bunny suit could easily end up becoming cheesy beyond belief but fortunately Belenggu is highly competent and actually scary. The movie rests greatly on the main’s performance as he struggles to come to grips with unexplainable events, his growing distress and confusion becoming the viewer’s. Shot for the most part in a derelict building in which the grit is almost palpable, Belenggu plays with light to heighten tension and impart a dreamy quality to rather squalid surroundings. There is an element of realism that brings into sharper focus the unreality of it all.
Things take a turn for the even stranger when a mysterious woman bursts on the scene. Her advent adds a layer of seduction and mania, imprinting a particular kind of dynamism to a very conflicted relationship between this free spirit and the main. This twisted romance does not detract from the horror element, it solidly backs it up with numerous arguments that go from very tight cinematography to an unusually effective blend of childish fluffiness and horror.
Belenggu is the kind of movie that toys with what it discloses to the viewer and takes this to a climax in an ending that is bound to be controversial and perhaps not as spectacular as it could be. Its manipulative nature may disagree with some but it makes for an engrossing and intense viewing experience. As an aside, the movie was helmeted by one of the few female directors in the Indonesian film scene.
Belenggu gives continuation to a particularly Asian type of horror that elevates strangeness to a form of aesthetics. This appropriation of the bizarre into the genre can produce uncanny results by blurring the line between perception and reality; Belenggu achieves just that.
The Wig (Gabal) – South Korea, 2005
The long-haired ghost is such a staple of horror cinema that it has devolved into a washed cliché. The Wig both reinvents and takes the premise to its logic extreme by giving us the story of a haunted wig. It sounds absurd but the execution makes it a deeply moving horror movie. We follow a young cancer patient who decides to check out of the hospital in order to spend some quality time with her older sister. As a gift, the older sister gives her a special wig made of actual human hair to cover up the baldness caused by chemotherapy. Right away one of the movie’s strongest points is made manifest, namely the sibling bond. It assures that The Wig provides the emotional element that fuels the horror proper.
Soon, the wig begins to change the girl’s behavior. The dynamics between the sisters is severely compromised as the younger one becomes assertive and flirty, even going as far as to seduce the older sister’s boyfriend. The transformation is drastic as she goes from a living cadaver whose cancer ravaged body is barely able to stand to a real beauty full of confidence and health. But of course it all comes at a very high price as it becomes obvious that something is very wrong.
Apart from the more conventional creepy atmosphere, The Wig explores the horror potential of a lethal disease. The girl’s emaciated frame is unflinchingly exposed in all its agony and the suffering she undergoes strikes a chord. The devastating effects of cancer are all there to be seen and that alone causes a feeling of deep unease.
The psychological aspect is also addressed and reaches its apex in the way the sisters interact with each other, there is a modicum of codependence that morphs into antagonism as the movie slides into darker territory.
At its core, The Wig is a quintessential horror movie in that it drives home fear by exploring the scope of human emotion.
Ab-Normal Beauty (Sei mong se jun) – Hong Kong, 2004
Ab-Normal Beauty is a unique mixture of psychological horror, coming of age and exploitation. It is also a story told almost entirely in the feminine, featuring a young lesbian photography student whose obsession with taking the perfect shot leads her into a downward spiral of madness. So right away, this is not your average Asian horror movie but quite an original effort.
Our lead is very talented but dissatisfied with her inability to convey something truly poignant through her art. She begins to seek out increasingly darker themes to capture on film until her photographs become a gallery of death and violence. Worse, she soon realizes that the shocking subject matter is overreaching the confines of celluloid and invading her psyche.
This photography angle is brilliantly presented as the movie delves on the technical aspects of playing with filters, framing, shooting and developing. The viewer’s perspective intersects with that of the camera so that we see the world from a twisted point of the view that is as beautiful as jarring. True to the title, Ab-Normal Beauty captures the beauty of the ab-normal, the aesthetical appeal of the grotesque.
It is also worth noticing that the homosexuality angle is presented in a positive light. All too often in Asian cinema gay characters are seen as deviants who need be assimilated into heterosexuality, Ab-Normal Beauty goes against the grain by giving us a lesbian couple whose dedication counters the destructive instincts that threaten body and mind alike.
The movie ends up going into a rather unexpected direction but it retains the same high quality. One thing to take into consideration, there is one long scene involving real animal cruelty so viewers who are sensitive to this kind of material should keep that in mind.
The Heirloom (Zhai Bian) – Taiwan, 2005
Taiwan is not known for its horror cinema but that is not to say it does not have something to offer when it comes to chillers. Case in point, The Heirloom: a take on the haunted house motif with plenty of creepiness. It tackles the very traditional narrative device of the unknown inheritance that ends up being deadly to produce a solid horror movie deeply steeped in ancient Chinese traditions.
Upon returning to Taiwan after living abroad for a number of years a young man finds out that he inherited a huge mansion from relatives he has never met. He ends up moving along with his reluctant girlfriend. Little by little, the secrets of the past force themselves onto the present with drastic consequences.
The mansion is almost its own character, its brooding corridors and oppressive size serving as the perfect backdrop to a story of ancestral sins. Everyone who comes into contact with it gets swept into a vicious cycle of horror. The haunting proceeds progressively enough but relentlessly so, building up to a spectacular reveal.
Above all, The Heirloom is a very Chinese movie. It draws from the rich and often disturbing magical practices that have been transferred from generation to generation as a dark heritage of sorts. By giving continuity to the past in a very modern way, The Heirloom becomes a fresh and relevant entry in the variegated world of Asian horror.
Cinderella – South Korea, 2006
Fairy tales are notoriously fertile ground for horror and Cinderella is no exception. This Korean movie takes some of the core elements of the traditional lore, such as the transformation from downtrodden to beautiful, and applies them to modern life. The plot revolves around a female plastic surgeon and her daughter, a happy family whose world is shattered when several patients start committing suicide after the surgical procedure. To make things worse, the victims are all friends of the daughter who suddenly starts to question everything and everyone around her.
The dichotomy between repulsive and beautiful runs across the movie along with the unhealthy obsession with body modification and the emulation of an aesthetic ideal that may very well be in itself deadly. Solid cinematography with strong colors hypes the suspense and gives an added intensity to the many bloody death scenes that abound in a production that knows how to balance the gore effect with a more traditionally Asian aura of creepiness.
The surgical setting alone is rife with distressing possibilities and these are explored very thoroughly. There is a well maintained balanced between the medical operation itself with its very tangible instruments to the nightmarish effects that blur the line between reality and nightmare.
Cinderella is not entirely linear and as the plot thickens it does so in a convoluted way that may eventually leave the viewer confused but that is part of its charm. A second viewing is helpful in order to come to terms with what precisely took place but this is first and foremost a take on a fairy tale with a dark oneiric substract that may be beyond rational explanations.
13: Game of Death (13 game sayawng) – Thailand, 2006
Game shows have been used as a premise for horror movies before, but 13: Game of Death stands out as one of the most interesting renderings of their exploitative potential. We follow a young man who is going through a very rough patch having just lost his job and accumulated more debt that he can hope to ever pay. So when he receives a mysterious phone call promising him the chance of winning a fortune if only he agrees to participate in a game he jumps to the opportunity. What starts out as a series of mundane tasks escalates into a frenzy of dangerous and bizarre missions that will force him to question how far he is willing to go.
With each new level of the game the stakes become higher until pulling out becomes impossible, leaving the lead no choice but to get to the final level and unmask who is behind it all. What follows is a crazy odyssey through the labyrinthic streets of Bangkok, all spiced with plenty of action, gore and truly shocking moments.
As much of a horror as a thriller, this is a fast paced ride that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. There is even some comedy thrown in and some social commentary that is perfectly blended with the horror proper. The omniscience of the media and pressing demands of a rapidly developing capitalist society are invoked in the game and the whole movie denounces the extremes that the modern world pushes on people. It does so in a most visceral way to the point that 13 snowballs into a veritable tour de force that deserves more attention if only for its original take on what is Asian horror.
Marebito – Japan, 2004
Marebito is a strange one. It breaks away almost entirely with all one J-horror related expectations to deliver a truly unique experience. The movie explores the essence of fear through a cameraman whose obsession to capture true terror leads him into the underground realms underneath Tokyo. Deep in the bowels of the city he finds a nightmarish underworld where urban legends may prove to be real. He stumbles on a naked girl chained to the wall of a cave and decides to take her home with him. Mute, mostly apathetic and lacking in any human skills, the girl becomes the object of an obsessive study as the cameraman proceeds to film her 24/7.
A disturbing relationship develops between the two and it only becomes more twisted as her true nature comes to light. The apartment becomes the stage for their interactions, a very unhealthy environment clogged with television screens and highly claustrophobic.
Marebito captures the urban anxiety of living in a very big city. Tokyo is displayed in all its cold glory as the ultimate concrete jungle populated by faceless crowds that fall prey to paranoia all too easily. Amidst the surreal darkness there is a very real feeling of disorientation, a loss of values before a cityscape that is ever capable of breeding monsters in each of us.
Never too linear, Marebito becomes increasingly less so as the movie progresses. There resides its strength and potential weakness: by opening itself to all sorts of interpretations it creates its own visual language that is not always clear. By drawing from references such as Madame Blavatsky’s hollow Earth theory and Lovecraft, the movie adds layers of significance to an already highly symbolic movie.
Marebito has its flaws and is far from perfect but it tries to bring something new to the table. It remains an oddity that is surprisingly relevant as it offers a glimpse into the seediest side of the Japanese psyche.
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