Tuesday, January 29, 2008

J-Horror

An article in NYT about recent Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films. I have so far seen only the first The Ring (which I thought was excellent).

I love horror films. More than any other genre they are far more suited to exploring subjective mental states under extreme situations (I am talking at the level of genre, not individual films), a subject that personally interests me very much. It is specially galling then to see so much crap being produced in the name of horror films. Rather than sensitively and intelligently tackling serious subjects of death, madness, despair and the feeling of utter helplessness when pitted against uncertainty and unsurmountably evil and malignant forces, these horror films instead trivialise these.

Anyway, here is a list of a few very good J-Horror films that I like. In order of preference...

Audition (Takashi Miike): It loses some of its shock effects on second viewing but sadness and despair remains. It is a penetrating (and very pessimistic) portrait of gender relations, specially of masculine desire, paranoia and guilt. It is gory but also poetic. Lines like "Words create lies; Only pain can be trusted" will have you running for a copy of Wittgenstein, that is, after you get over the impact.

Dark Water (Hideo Nakata): Horror movie as a tragedy, it is much better and much more effective than his more famous and now iconic Ringu series. The NYT article says that the American remake was very good too, though I remember it didn't get good reviews at that time.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon): This is actually a K-Horror but it shares a lot of same tropes complete with recurring images of a young girl with her hair over her face. The poster of the film is one of my favourites. Another version of the poster has this tagline: "Fairytales have never been this Grimm."

Ringu (Hideo Nakata): A popular horror film which is also very good. The Hollywood remake is excellent too.

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa): I need to see this again because I couldn't connect all the plot points the first time around but this definitely deserves a place in the list.

5 comments:

puccinio said...

Well I am not so sure whether horror films are inherently more capable of showing the subjective weakness of human beings. Needless to say I am extremely skeptical about horror films. Aside from a handful of films most of them seem to be...pardon the phrase...crap.

The problem with horror films is the inherent premise that they should frighten the audience, shock them and stun them. It has the aesthetics of an amusement park ride. Of course this is true with the idea of comedy as well, get them to laugh real hard, or tragedy, make them(especially the pre-pubescent girls) cry and breathe through their kerchiefs, but this is more symptomatic of horror films than these.

My favourite horror film is "The Night of the Hunter", it's not supernatural but then it's also not natural and it's genuinely frightening. Like the best Brothers Grimm stories. Like Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, it's horror is mixed with humour and even an odd kind of realism. Personally I find crime films more of an ideal genre to express these things.

Another favourite is...it's not a horror film really but if you have ever seen "Meet Me In St. Louis", it has this brief Halloween episode which is both chilling and sweet.

But then some go further and negate the idea of genre itself and simply show as you the helpless uncertainty in the face of nature without trappings...Bresson does it in so many movies. Then in his own inimitable way, Jacques Tati does the same in his films but somehow makes it entirely funny, well that's why he's better than Bresson by miles and yards. And of course Luis Bunuel whose films are so structured that the more scary it is, the funnier it gets...a quality Scorsese captured in ''After Hours''.

Getting back to J-Horror, the only films I like are Kiyoshi Kurosawa(no relation to Akira), the rest I can do without including the recent American remakes which are worse than the merely mediocre Japanese originals. Of course I have to leave out "Audition" since I haven't seen it.

Basically to be a great horror film-artist you have to be extremely good, that quality is there in say Tod Browning, James Whale, Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur and outside America Dario Argento(his early films at least).

Puccinio said...

Just one thing more I'd like to add. The reason why I think horror films are so much more difficult to make great films in is that they need strong visual styles that it it's a director's genre. The screenplay can't take you very far it's what happens on the set with actors that'll make or break the film.

That's why there's so many directors with stong visual styles to be found in horror films and for that matter crime films.

Madhuri said...

The New York Times article is an interesting piece - specially when he talks of the easy transportability of fear and at the same time inability of spirits to travel well. Though I haven't watched the movies mentioned there, going by the differences in Ring and Ringu, I think he may have a point - the Japanese version was far scarier and horrifying even though I saw it after watching the English remake. Same is true of Dark Waters - I thought the English movie was passable.
Still, I think it has less to do with the home-bound nature of spirits and more with technique and style. In Hollywood horror movies are given a second grade rating and are generally touched only by average directors barring limited exceptions. I think Scorsese could make a great horror movie, but he has hardly delved into the genre.

Alok said...

puccinio: I completely agree. I mentioned in my post too - there is just too much crap produced in the name of genre. Films which rely only on a few "gotcha" moments with some tricky sound effects and editing which you don't even have to go to a film school to learn. At worst they are inhuman, immature and they trivialize human experinence and other things which matter in our lives in the basest manner possible (like the recent cycle of "torture porn" movies).

The Night of the Hunter is in a class of its own. It is something very close to my heart. I can't think of any other film with which I have such a personal relationship. The other names you mention are all my favourites too. Roman Polanski made quite a few horror classics and even many his forays in other genres bear the same footprints.

Madhuri: In fact Scorsese's Taxi Driver uses lots of visual motifs from horror movies.. specially the way it portrays the nighttime new york city as hell and the lonely soul under damnation.

One reason why original Japanese films will always be more effective is the "foreignness" factor.. Once you cast a familiar actor, set him in a familiar setting the task gets a little more difficult.

puccinio said...

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Roman Polanski made quite a few horror classics and even many his forays in other genres bear the same footprints.
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Well I am in a minority when I say I prefer his other genre outings like "Chinatown" and "Tess" to his horror films. The only ones I like are "Knife in the Water" and more horror-comedy "The Fearless Vampire Killers"(the only film with both him and Sharon Tate) and I also like "MacBeth" very much, though it's inferior to both Welles' and Kurosawa's adaptations.

And "Repulsion" I always thought was dollar-book Freud. Although Catherine Deneuve is great in that.(but she was so much better in other movies like her films with Demy and Bunuel)

"Fearless Vampire Killers" is extremely underrated, the greatest horror-comedy since James Whale's "The Old Dark House"(in case you are interested it has Charles Laughton).

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In fact Scorsese's Taxi Driver uses lots of visual motifs from horror movies.. specially the way it portrays the nighttime new york city as hell and the lonely soul under damnation.
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Scorsese liked horror films but the expressionist touches of that film owes a greater debt to Film Noir and believe it or not Hollywood Musicals which had a great influence on "Raging Bull" as well. "Taxi Driver" was also greatly inspired by a Powell-Pressburger film called "The Tales of Hoffmann" variously called the first music video to the only great opera adaptation in cinema. That film is kind of a horror film in some scenes.