During the last decade, Asian horror cinema has seen a surge in popularity throughout the world, especially in western countries. Traditionally, Japan has dominated the Asian horror cinema, but recently Hong Kong and South Korea have emerged as major powerhouses in the genre. Majority of these movies have enjoyed international success. Moreover, many of these movies have been adapted and remade by Hollywood. As the genre continues to grow, there is a need to understand the social conditions, cultural values, and cinematic traditions which influence the horror movies from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. In particular, this paper examines the subject matter, style, and cinematic technique of Asian horror movies, particularly J-horror, K-horror, and the horror movies from Hong Kong.
The recent international success of Asian horror movies, such as The Ring (Ringu, Japan, 1998), A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, South Korea, 2003), and The Eye (Gin Gwai, Hong Kong, 2002) has generated a worldwide interest in the Asian horror cinema. Majority of the Asian horror movies are heavily influenced by the cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and traditional folk-lore of the Asian country producing the movie. For example, Audition (Ôdishon, Japan, 1999) explores a twisted case of traditional Japanese gender roles, A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, South Korea, 2003) is based on an ancient South Korean folktale, and Dumplings (Gaau ji, Hong Kong, 2004) highlights an ancient Chinese practice to achieve eternal youth. On the other hand, movies such as The Host (Gwoemul, South Korea, 2006) take influence from Hollywood monster movies, while movies such as One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, Japan, 2003) follow the pattern of typical Hollywood thriller/slasher films. Hence, this paper will present an analysis of Asian horror cinema by analyzing the mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound of nine Asian horror movies, including A Tale of Two Sisters, Audition, Dumplings, I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, One Missed Call, The Eye, and The Host.
First, I will define mise en scene, cinematography, editing, and sound. Mise en scene (French, “put in the scene”) in a movie has many components. It refers to everything that goes into the composition of the shot, including the composition itself: lighting, shots, camera angles, color, framing, character placement, set design, and sound. The director of photography, costume designer, set designer, production designer, cinematographer, and other film crew works together to join all these themes and create the mise en scene of a film. Cinematography involves the shooting techniques, editing means selecting scenes and putting them together to form a sequence, while sound includes the background score and sound effects in the movie.
Dumplings (Gaau ji, Hong Kong, 2004), disturbing yet fascinating, is a work of art. It is not a horror movie, but it is horrifying. Through the use of exceptional acting, eye-catching cinematography, deep dialogues, bright colors, haunting sounds, and spine chilling music, director Fruit Chan has subtly portrayed the price humans are willing to pay for a virtue that fades with time: youth and physical beauty.
The practice of eating placenta and aborted babies to get eternal beauty is common in China, dating back to thousands of years. Set in Hong Kong, Dumplings tells the story of Mei (Bai Ling), a mysterious, trashy, dumpling chef whose special dumplings are known for reversing the aging process. Mei is a former abortion doctor who moved to Hong Kong from mainland China and frequently travels back to bring aborted fetuses to fill her dumplings. Mrs. Lee (Miriam Yeung), a retired actress, who is desperate to regain her degenerating beauty and her husband’s attention, visits Mei’s apartment to sample the dumplings.
Dumplings is film making at its best. Chan utilizes realism to slowly reveal a disturbing practice. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is perfect. Every scene is extra-ordinary: crafted with careful camera movements. The subtle difference between the beautiful and the disgusting is best demonstrated by the fantastic cinematography and is mirrored in Mrs. Lee’s flawless skin, soul-less eyes, and indifferent facial expressions.
In the beginning scene when Mei is making the dumplings, the fast transition between medium shots and oblique angles suggest that something is not normal with these dumplings. Moreover, the music throughout the movie is very hauntingly melodious. In the scene when Mrs. Lee tastes Mei’s dumplings for the first time, Mei sings “the waters of Lake Hang are rough”. The editing in this scene is perfect as the sound of Mrs. Lee chewing the flesh is so sharp and clear. The best part is at the end of the scene when the camera focuses at the wall picture of two babies, hinting at the irony of the secret ingredient in the dumplings being the human fetus.
The camera work is fabulous, we don’t see the disturbing things happening, yet we know what is actually happening. When the camera focuses on the transparent dumplings, there is a hint of red and pink, revealing the tiny fetus that went into the dumpling. Also, the use of bright colors, specifically red, is very powerful. Red has always had a special significance in China, symbolizing good luck, vitality, and a long life. Red is deliberately prominent in the movie, as Mrs. Lee’s dresses, Mei’s pants, Mrs. Lee’s fancy handbag, and the chopped meat is red. Moreover, the use of red is very symbolic, hinting towards the main goals of the two major characters: Mrs. Lee’s and Mei’s desire for eternal youth and beauty.
Audition (Ôdishon, Japan, 1999), a Japanese psychological horror, is one of the masterworks of director Takashi Miike. Miike, often considered the controversial and the bad boy of Japanese cinema, has portrayed sex, violence, sadomasochism, and gender roles in Japanese society through the melodramatic story of a traditional Japanese male and his femme fatale. Aoyam (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower who tries to search for a new wife through an audition. He falls for Asami (Eihi Shiina), a meek, elegant, and demure girl. But Asami, a victim of incest, trauma, and abuse hides a dark, brutal, and sadistic personality behind the façade of an innocent, demure, and modest young woman.
Audition has many layers, starting as a romantic comedy but later developing into a dark, horrific, and graphic thriller. The mise en scene is best exemplified through the dream sequence, which is deliberately left open ended for interpretation. The lighting, the camera angles, and the colors used throughout the dream sequence leave a lonely, cold, and creepy impression. The dream sequence shows a glimpse into Asami’s abused past. The sequence also reveals Asami’s sadistic personality, as she tortures her ex-lover and keeps his body in a sack. When Ayoma wakes up, he finds Asami sleeping right next to him. But when he falls asleep again, the dream sequence continues. Hence, through clever editing, Miike plays with the minds of the audience, as we are left to figure out whether the happenings in the movie are a reality or just a dream.
In Audition, cold colors are used throughout the movie. The colors, mostly white, grey, black, and blue are carefully selected to create mystery and suspense throughout the movie. With regards to cinematography, Miike has used a dynamic combination of technical aspects to blur reality and fantasy. In one of the scenes where Asami and Ayoma make love, Asami disappears without any explanation. However, in the end, Asami is back in bed. This creates confusion, as whether Aoyama is having hallucinations, everything that happened was a dream, or there are problems with the temporal space within the film.
Oldboy (Oldeuboi, South Korea, 2003), directed by Park Chan-wook, is a psychological thriller with a theme of revenge. The story takes place when a drunken man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is arrested on his daughter’s birthday. He is taken to the police station where his friend bails him out. But while his friend calls his home, Oh Dae-su is abducted and locked in a room for 15 years. After his release, Oh Dae-su is raging with madness and emotions. He meets a young girl at a restaurant and eats a live octopus (symbolizing the intensity of his emotions). Then, he falls in love with the girl and they make love, later realizing that the girl is his daughter.
The first and most powerful technical element that I noticed Park used throughout the movie is the framing technique of the pictures on screen. Park has used fast and variable framing rates for capturing the scenes which makes the movie the feel of a video game. The director has used surrealism and the scenes feel like a roller coaster ride. Since the movie is adapted from a comic/anime series, Park has used mise en scene similar to comics, resulting in fast, dark, and fascinating visuals. The mise en scene, cinematography, editing, and sound are best shown in the scene when Oh Dae-su cuts his tongue with scissors to atone for his guilt (incestuous relationship with his daughter). The director has used the prop scissors to demonstrate Oh Dae-su’s extreme regret at his actions and his intensity for begging for forgiveness. While Oh Dae-su is cutting his tongue, the background music and the sound of scissors create an extreme emotional effect. The cinematography in this scene is excellent as the camera takes close up shots of Oh Dae-su’s pain filled eyes and shaking hands. When Oh Dae-su kneels to cut his tongue, he is shown through a bird’s eye shot, maximizing the effect of his pain and suffering. With regards to lighting, Oh Dae-su is always shown in a different shade than the other characters, thus symbolizing his unusual life and circumstances.
On the whole, Oldboy has excellent cinematography and editing. However, one of the problems is that the storyline is sometimes hard to follow and seems very unrealistic (burning in revenge for something that happened in high school). Hence, even though the plot is somewhat disappointing, the mise en scene and camera work are near perfection.
Thirst (Bakjwi, South Korea, 2003) another Park Chan-wook movie, tells the story of Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a devoted Catholic priest who volunteers to be a test subject for a medical experiment in Africa. The experiment fails but Sang-hyun is miraculously brought back to life, transformed into a vampire. He returns to perform his service where he meets a childhood friend Tae-ju and his wife Kang-woo. Sang-hyun and Kang-woo start a love affair and plot to kill Tae-ju. The movie explores several issues related to human ethics and morality, such as dedication to religion vs. pursuit of worldly desires, challenging marital relations, and the conflict between the purity of the soul and the carnal desires. The movie is a combination of genres: drama, romance, thrill, and violence.
The cinematography in the movie is artistic and employs gorgeous visual elements. Park’s use of mise en scene in Thirst is beautiful. He uses space as an element to portray the personality of the characters. For example, Sang-hyun’s personal space reflects simplicity, minimalism, and ascetic. On the other hand, Tae-ju’s personal space is colorful, cluttered, and chaotic. Tae-ju’s space is a reflection of her personal life, as her physical beauty is being lost due to an unhappy marriage. Park also portrays the mise en scene through costumes and makeup. In his role as a priest, Sang-hyun wears plain white clothes. But after transforming into a vampire, Sang-hyun adopts the appearance of a bad guy. Similarly, as Tae-ju falls in love with Sang-hyun, her physical appearance is changed as she adopts a bright style, hinting towards the newly found happiness, love, and freedom in her life. Also, the director has made fantastic use of music as Tae-ju’s background music expresses longing and a desire for love.
A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, South Korea, 2003), is a psychological horror film. It is based on a traditional Korean folk tale. The mise en scene, cinematography, editing, and sound are excellent. In the movie, twin sisters Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Soo-yeon (Gun-yeong Mun) return home from a mental hospital and start living with their father and evil step mother. As soon as they move in, strange things start happening in the house. The director Kim Jee-woon plays with the minds of the audience and slowly reveals the reality that Soo-mi suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and Soo-yeon is actually a figment of Soo-mi’s imagination. Jee-woon’s direction is brilliant, as he moves the camera slowly in the beginning to retain the suspense but camera work gets very fast towards the end in order to reveal the twists.
The cinematography in A Tale of Two Sisters is excellent. The camera work is excellent; mostly Jee-woon uses long shots. In the scene when the step mother enters and shatters Soo-mi's delusion, the use of a 360 degree shot maximizes the twist. The movie uses a balance of colors to create confusion and suspense. The bright colors of the twin’s dresses and low lighting in the house subtly reveal the mystery.
The Eye (Gin gwai, Hong Kong, 2002) takes us through the life journey of Mun (Angelica Lee), a blind woman whose life changes after she has a cornea transplant. Interestingly, Mun starts to see unusual things, a gift from her new eyes which previously belonged to a lady who could see ghosts and spirits. In the beginning of the movie, Mun is shown walking down a pavement with a walking stick in her hand. The scene uses medium shots to draw focus on Mun and her black glasses, sensitively revealing her blindness.
The mise en scene makes use of the sense of touch and the sense of hearing. The opening credits show the transition of text from braille to written words while one of the hospital scenes shows a close up of Mun’s ears to signify her new power of hearing the spirits. The cinematography in The Eye is wonderful. Throughout the film, Pang brothers make us see the world through Mun’s eyes, make us hear the spirits through Mun’s ears, and feels the ghosts through Mun’s feelings. Also, the colors used in the movie are mostly gloomy, which add to the sensitivity of the storyline.
One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, Japan, 2003), is another horror movie directed by Takashi Miike. It is very different from Miike’s other movies, especially Audition. One Missed Call follows the pattern of typical Hollywood slasher movies. It has a similar storyline and narrative structure as The Ring. The plot of the movie is about a curse transmitted through cell phones. A few days before their death, the characters in the movie receive a voicemail in their own voice sent from their own cellphones. After one character dies, the next contact in the cell phone becomes the target.
One Missed Call is horrifying and the cinematography achieves this effect by the use of tracking shots and close up shots. For example, in one of the scenes, the camera closes up on the billboard “Your Phone, Your Life”, subtly hinting to the mysterious relationship between the cursed voicemails and the deaths. The main element of mise en scene is the cellphone, which is the medium of death in the movie. The fantastic use of sound adds to the thrill and horror, for instance, the scream of the girls and the sound of the ringing cell phone.
I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010) is a psychological thriller, based on the theme of revenge. The plot of the movie is very unconventional. The story is about Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), a murderer who kills the pregnant girlfriend of special agent Joo-yeon (Byung-hun Lee). This burns the fire of revenge in Joo-yeon, who sets on the path of chasing the killer. But Joo-yeon enjoys chasing the murderer more than punishing him, highlighting some psychological problems in himself. Thus, Joo-yeon catches Hyung-chul but releases him, repeating the process again.
The mise en scene in the movie is used through misogynist violence and the emotional intensity of the revenge. Thus, through mise en scene, the film explores the human psyche of driving pleasure and feeling a sense of power from imposing physical and emotional torture through revenge. The cinematography and editing are very good. For example, in one of the scenes where the father is crushed with a ring bell, the use of long shot creates a more dramatic effect.
The Host (Gwoemul, South Korea, 2006) is South Korea’s monster movie, similar to Hollywood’s Godzilla, Jaws, Aliens, and Tremors. The movie is a combination of several genres: action, family, drama, comedy, thriller, and horror. The movie is about a giant monster/creature formed due to the leak of toxic materials in Seoul’s Han River. The monster jumps out of Seoul’s Han River and threatens the life of Koreans. The monster captures a young girl and the movie shows the struggle of the girl’s family to rescue her. The family is joined in their efforts by Korean and American military, Korean and US government, and health care professionals. All the parties try to rescue the girl and put get rid of the monster in their own way.
The storyline, acting, mise en scene, and editing are excellent. The strength of the movie is its cinematography. The movie has fantastic visual representation of the terrifying, apocalyptic world similar to Hollywood monster movies. Moreover, the movie portrays great political satire. Also, the special effects and the monster effects are well done. For example, the scene in which the monster emerges from the river is intense, fast, and uses a variety of shots to create a dramatic effect.
In conclusion, the Asian horror movie genre, which includes horror thriller, and suspense films made in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore, has been gaining huge popularity around the world. Although most of these movies are influenced by their region’s traditions, history, religion, culture, and folklore, a vast majority of movies follow the cinematic style of Hollywood horror movies. Thus, by analyzing the mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound of nine Asian horror movies, including A Tale of Two Sisters, Audition, Dumplings, I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, One Missed Call, The Eye, and The Host, this paper has shown that even though the movies differ in visual styles and content, the basic technical elements are similar to Hollywood movies.
A Tale of Two Sisters. [South Korea: Janghwa, Hongryeon.] Dir. Kim Jee-woon. Perf. Moon
Geun Young, Im Soo-jung, Yeom Jeong-ah, and Kim Kap-soo. B.O.M. Film Productions Co, 2003. DVD.
Audition. [Japan: Ôdishon.] Dir. Miike Takashi. Perf. Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun
Kunimura, Miyuki Matsuda, and Toshie Negishi. Vitagraph Films, 1999. DVD.
Dumplings. [Hong Kong: Gaau ji.] Dir. Fruit Chan. Perf. Bai Ling, Miriam Yeung, and Tony
Leung Ka-fai. Applause Pictures Ltd., 2004. DVD.
I Saw the Devil. [South Korea: Akmareul boatda.] Dir. Kim Jee-woon. Perf. Lee Byung-hun,
Choi Min-sik, and Chun Ho-jin. Showbox/Mediaplex. 2010. DVD.
Oldboy. [South Korea: Oldeuboi.] Dir. Park Chan-wook. Perf. Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, and
Kang Hye-jung. Show East. 2003. DVD.
One Missed Call. [Japan: Chakushin ari.] Dir. Miike Takashi. Perf. Kou Shibasaki, Shinichi
Tsutsumi, Kazue Fukiishi, Anna Nagata, and Renji Ishibashi. Kadokawa Pictures. 2003. DVD.
The Eye. [Hong Kong: Gin gwai.] Dir. Pang Brothers. Perf. Angelica Lee, Lawrence Chou,and
Chutcha Rujinanon. MediaCorp Raintree Pictures, 2002. DVD.
The Host. [South Korea: Gwoemul.] Dir. Bong Joon-ho. Perf. Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong,
Park Hae-il, Bae Doona, and Go Ah-sung. Showbox/Mediaplex. 2006. DVD.
Thirst. [South Korea: Bakjwi.] Dir. Park Chan-wook. Perf. Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin, and Shin
Ha-kyun. CJ Entertainment . 2009. DVD.