Thursday, October 23, 2008

Asian Horror Vs. Western Horror

It's been a long, long, long while since the last blog entry. I'd meant to follow upon that last post, but you know how things often get sidetracked or derailed. And since Halloween's round the corner and the Hungry Ghost Month was just two months ago, here's something I've been meaning to hurt your ears with.

The thing that I hear quite often about our Asian horror films is that our films are scarier, or at least it's more effective for us, because we have a rich tradition of the macabre, that we have the pontianak, the toyol, the woman in vengeful red, etc; that we have a rich culture of superstitions to draw from. (For more of what Malaysia has to offer in this respect, check out the latest tome coming soon from Amir Muhammad's Matahari Books: The Malaysian Book Of The Undead.) I hear this quite a lot even at my workplace, that being posted as the main reason why our films are much more interesting and scarier.

I feel that's a too simplistic way of looking at it. Let's face it, the western world has its own rich tradition of vampires, werewolves, banshees, incubi, etc. So why should it be any different or less scary? All the ghosts and ghouls are really just symptoms.

The real casue is simply that we, Asians, are unable to let go of life, so much so that we not only believe there is life after death, but that the afterlife is very much similar to the here and now. We believe that people can still crave for food after they're dead. We believe the dead crave the same necessities as the living, therefore the living make burnt offerings of houses, cars, servants, clothes, DVD players, mobile phones, to the dead.

Quite simply, we want to believe things will go on as they are even in death. The netherworld exists on the same plane as the living one. Spirits with unfinished business don't have to do any "crossing over." They're here right now. When the dead and the living exist in the same sphere, then often the past and the present overlap. In Ringu, things from the past never really left, and when conditions are right, both worlds blur into one another.

Something like Alejandro Amenabar's The Others subscribes to this concept, but there is a difference. In the western world, there is a distinct line drawn between life and death, whereas in Asia, that line doesn't exist. If The Others were an Asian horror film, the battle between the living and the dead wouldn't end just like that. They'd still be grappling with each other for the same space. In the end, someone has to vacate, and by that, I don't mean just leaving the house physically.

Because we believe the afterlife is the same as the living world, and that we want the same basic necessities, then something like Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Kairo (Pulse) makes perfect sense in that context. The sphere of the dead is overcrowded, so the living has to vacate the physical world to make space for the dead.

So is it any wonder that western remakes of Asian horror films often fail miserably?

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