A Programmer's Chronicles 21
by Gertjan Zuilhof
I don’t remember the first time I noticed it. I was brought up with a faith and without superstition. I lost my faith as a child and never thought much about superstition. Not when I came to Asia either. When a dragonfly flew in from the tropical night and a serious young film maker commented that the visit by his ancestor was not a good sign, I probably didn’t take it seriously. A joke. A folk tale. Now I know better. That ancestor in the form of a dragonfly is real. Just as much in Asia is real.
Also in the films. In fact, precisely in the films. We usually call them horror films, but then you tend to think of fountains of blood and flying limbs. Ghost movies sound a little better but in the end I basically think the term horror film from my youth isn’t that bad at all. It all comes down to fear of the unknown, the nonexistent and the incredible. Not of the chainsaw.
In terms of quantity it is undoubtedly the most dominant Asian film genre and that quantity also tends to attract quality. With the exception of mainland China (the supernatural resists scientific socialism), all Asian countries at present produce large quantities of horror films. That includes a lot of rancid B-movies, but also very creative phenomena, the spicy stories of which are plundered as far away as Hollywood. The stream of American remakes (The Eye, The Grudge I and II, The Ring I, II and III etc.) paradoxically enough indicate the obstinacy and uniqueness of the genre. The changes made in the original by the remakes, or quite often the complete deconstruction, point to very specific character of the genre, deeply rooted in culture, religion and superstitions. Without knowledge and above all faith in the context, the films don’t really work. In this way, the remake takes us back to rediscover the original.
Even though the most recent Asian ghost films are not really suitable for remakes. Take The Screen At Kamchanod by Songsak Mongkolthong from Thailand in which film screenings are specially organised for ghosts (watch trailer on YouTube). That takes a greater belief in ghosts than a western audience could possibly show. Or Yes, I Can See Dead People by Lee Kwong-Yiu from Hong Kong. The young protagonist sees so many wandering corpses in his apartment building that you really do have to be open to the idea of ghosts (watch trailer on YouTube)
Just as commercials are a source of income all over the world for independent film makers, plus of course in Japan pink movies, at present many young and talented Asian directors are making horror films alongside their art-house projects. For instance Rotterdam directors Amir Mohammad (Susuk), James Lee (Histeria) and Ekachai Uekrongtham (The Coffin) all very recently made clearly genre-related ghost movies (all three still awaiting their premieres). The Coffin also has an interesting provenance. Uekrongtham wrote the first version and won a Hubert Bals Fund Award in Hong Kong with it. But he did not manage to get the prize-winning story produced. It was only when a producer suggested to him bending the project towards the horror genre, that it was possible to make the film. Of the hundred films expected to be made in Indonesia this year, at least half are sure to be horror films. The rules of chance suggest that at least one or two will be interesting.
The makers of remakes, the re-makers, admire the mysterious power of the Asian horror film but also fear its fatalistic implications. That is why the remakes, despite their budget and state-of-the-art special effects, are inevitably less exciting and ominous than their examples. In order to explain this, I propose the following probably controversial hypothesis: Asian ghost movies are so effective, dark and unpredictable because the makers really believe in ghosts. They know what they’re talking about. The fear is real. The many stories of film makers in this genre about mysterious issues that happen on the set confirm this.
Seen in this way, Asian horror films are more than just a pair of scary stories. They emerge from a deeply non-realistic culture and also comprise a wealth of craftsmanship and design creativity. There are very few other genres in which the set and the production design play such an important role. That’s why the form of a film programme probably does not do justice to all that creativity and an exhibition could possibly be much more exciting. Not a very serious art exhibition, but nor should it be a ghost house in the fairground. More something between art and fairground, which is where film came from, after all. The Haunted House or Haunted Hospital etc. is one of the most common locations in a horror film. Think of The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu) and all those hundreds of others. And realise they really exist. The Thai VPRO Tiger Award 2008 winner Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) wrote on Facebook that he was staying in a Haunted Hotel in Phnom Phen. On questioning, he replied seriously that he was staying in the old colonial Renakse Hotel and that he had been pushed down in his sleep the previous night by a ghost. His party wanted to change hotel, but: “actually, like all haunted things, it’s very beautiful when it’s not too busy being haunted”.
If you can interact with ghosts like that, you can also make horror films differently and look at them differently. We therefore have the idea of making a selection from the flood of Asian horror films for a special programme during the coming festival under the title Hungry Ghosts. That Haunted House also has to come of course. An exciting programme and undoubtedly an intriguing exhibition. We’ll keep you informed of progress.