Just in time for Halloween, Palisades Tartan has grouped together three of the most successful Asian horror films of recent years in one region 2 DVD collection. Although terms such as ‘essential’ are woefully overused when it comes to such compilations, in this case it certainly rings true, as the three titles are arguably among the most important and influential examples of the modern Asian genre – not least since two of them have been the subject of markedly less successful Hollywood remakes. The films in question, “Audition”, “Dark Water” and “The Eye” also provide a showcase for three highly acclaimed directors in the ever prolific Takashi Miike (still best known in the West for his infamous “Ichi the Killer”), The Pang Brothers (who recently headed for the US themselves with “The Messengers” and a remake of their own “Bangkok Dangerous”) and Hideo Nakata, whose “Ringu” launched the new wave of Eastern horror.
First up is Miike’s “Audition” which, simply put, is a masterpiece, not only of horror, but of modern Japanese cinema. The film stars Ryo Ishibashi (also in Sono Sion’s edgy classic “Suicide Circle”) as a middle-aged widower whose best friend sets up a fake film audition to try and find him a new bride. Although a beautiful and quiet young woman (played by the gorgeous Eihi Shiina, recently in the glorious “Tokyo Gore Police”, a very different kind of new age Japanese horror) catches his eye, her demure façade masks a terrifying secret, as the poor man soon finds out to his cost.
Inevitably, much of the press for “Audition” has focused upon its truly shocking gore scenes, with the last act being impossible to watch without squirming, especially for male viewers. However, the film is arguably even more unsettling and effective before it plunges head first into torture and mutilation, with the often rather cavalier Miike proving himself an expert at building slow burn tension, slowly and subtly alerting the audience to the fact that there is something very, very wrong with the mysterious girl. At the same time, she emerges as a sympathetic figure in her own right, thanks to revelations about her past and since Eihi Shiina is note perfect in the role, balancing a ruthless iciness with hints of humanity that challenge the viewer as to whether she is wholly a predator or victim. Indeed, possibly the most memorable and eerie scene in the film is not a visceral one, but a quiet shot of her sitting patiently, head bowed in her dark, empty flat, simply waiting for the phone to ring.
Scares and blood letting aside, the film also works as a fascinating character study, and as an intellectually stimulating and haunting exploration of modern gender roles, playing upon themes of male domination and the violent disruption of social order. All of this combines to make “Audition” an absolute must-see – at least for those who can stomach the gruesome events which drag it screaming to its horrifying conclusion.
“The Eye” was directed by the Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide, and though basically similar in terms of set up to “Ringu” and “The Sixth Sense”, offers a far more humanistic and culturally grounded take on the subject, and has itself been followed by several increasingly eclectic sequels, not to mention countless rip offs and an utterly ineffectual Jessica Alba starring Hollywood remake.
Malaysian actress Angelica Lee (recently in the likes of “Missing” and the Pangs’ “Re-cycle”) stars as a young woman called Mun, who is awaiting a cornea transplant, having been blind for most of her life. After the operation, her life takes a turn for the creepy, as she starts experiencing strange and threatening visions of dead people, and sees the face of another girl in the mirror. Turning to her psychiatrist for help, she attempts to unravel the mystery of the cornea donor’s death, and to free herself from the terrifying curse.
Where “The Eye” really succeeds is in that the Pangs aim not only for straight scares, which they certainly pack in plenty of, including a now classic and much imitated elevator scene, but also for character. The film is an oddly melancholy affair at times, with the ghosts being a tortured and wretched bunch rather than mischievous imps, and with there being a considerable emphasis on character development. The film also makes good use of Asian ghost lore and the Pangs’ own Pan-Asian background, switching between locales and delving into cultural beliefs. Though meandering, the plot does not follow the expected route, and builds towards a satisfyingly karmic ending whilst at the same time managing to capitalise on the tension which has been subtly growing throughout. As a result, despite its familiar sounding premise, “The Eye” actually defies expectations, and is one of the few modern Asian ghost films to successfully combine horror and heart.
Hideo Nakata’s “Dark Water” sees the highly talented director serving up a traditional haunting that while not as well known as his “Ringu” films, is arguably better crafted and more emotionally affecting – and which is certainly far superior to his own shambolic Hollywood outing “The Ring 2”. The film was actually based upon a novel by “Ringu” author Kôji Suzuki, and was recently remade in the West, starring Jennifer Connelly, though predictably to lesser effect.
The plot follows a single mother called Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki, also in the epic Japanese “20th Century Boys” trilogy), who moves into a decrepit, leaky old building with her 6 year old daughter, still in the middle of a tough custody battle with her husband. It doesn’t take long for things to start going wrong, with financial and emotional troubles besetting the unfortunate woman, while a large, sinister damp patch appears on their ceiling. Soon enough, her daughter is seeing things and acting strangely, leading Yoshimi to suspect there may be something sinister going on in the apartment above.
“Dark Water” is an expert combination of the supernatural and more grounded and depressing fears, as Nakata generates a creepy atmosphere of isolation and despair that exudes from almost every frame. The film is as moving as it is frightening, with it being impossible not to feel for the downtrodden Yoshimi as she struggles not only with ghosts, but her own personal demons. The building works almost as a character in its own right, being rundown, shadowy and threatening in a chillingly claustrophobic manner, and this really pulls the viewer into the story. Although things do move at a leisurely pace, the film is never less than gripping, and Nakata throws in a good numbered of well judged frights to help maintain the tension.
The film perfectly rounds off the “Asian Horror Essential Collection”, providing a different brand of chills to the other two films, and giving the set a valuable sense of variety. Really though, all three are superb films that any self respecting fan of Asian horror should own, and serve as an excellent reminder of why the form has risen to such worldwide prominence and popularity during the last decade.
Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata, Danny Pang, Oxide Pang (directors)
CAST: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Miyuki Matsuda, Renji Ishibashi, Hitomi Kuroki