Asian Horror Films for Veterans and Newcomers

I’ll consume horror in just about any medium: film, fiction, games, video essays. I’ve gotten so comfortable in the genre that I’ll willfully watch horror movies by myself, which I have no doubt a number of people would consider concerning. But, it’s because of this that I have, to date, watched over a hundred horror and horror-related films, both American and foreign. After awhile you start to see stylistic differences in the two—from writing to pacing to the actual scares. I find that I’ve really enjoyed just about all of the Asian horror films I’ve watched for the way the stories differ so greatly from conventional Western horror, the unsettling ambiance, and the frequent use of slow-burn suspense. These are four horror films from different countries in Asia that left a lasting impression on me.

woman with her hand up to cover her face

One Missed Call (2003) - Japan 

Anyone who doesn’t live in a cave has heard a thing or two about Japanese horror films, the two most famous being Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge. Ringu paved the way for J-horror, and Ju-On followed shortly behind. These movies popularized the image of pale ghost girls dressed in white with long black hair — a horror trope that has arguably been beat to death. One Missed Call came out the year after Ju-On and undoubtedly aimed to piggyback off of its predecessors' success. Reviews of this movie criticized it for rehashing some concepts from previous films, but I find that, out of the three mentioned here, it’s the one I’d want to go back and re-watch. The movie is a slow burn, but I, and the friends I watched it with all agreed that the high tension in the third act of the movie paid off for the pacing, even in spite of its old CGI effects.

Shutter (2004) - Thailand 

Shutter was my first foray into Asian horror, and it did not disappoint. This movie follows the standard horror trope of people seeing strange images in developed photographs, and the event that frames the movie—a hit-and-run—is also somewhat typical. However, the way the movie unfolds as the protagonists attempt to figure out just who the person they hit is and why they are being haunted by them takes some pretty sharp and unsuspected turns. Shutter takes its minor details—like the male protagonist’s severe neck pain after the car accident, which I’ll say now is not due to whiplash—and then later explains them in a very startling way, which is really satisfying. The movie’s big reveal is both disturbing and shocking (though I’d note that there is sensitive content that could possibly be triggering), but it ends in a way that feels deserved.

The Host (2006) - Korea

The Host is a South Korean horror film that focuses on a titular monster. The movie was directed by Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho of Parasite fame, and also stars one of Parasite’s lead actors, Song Kang-ho. This film is framed by an event in which formaldehyde is poured into a drain that leads into South Korea’s Han River. In the following years, there is a rise in sightings of a mysterious creature and the river’s fish begin to die. In typical monster movie fashion, the creature soon rises from the river and begins to terrorize the people surrounding it. Through the movie we follow a family as they attempt to save their daughter who is taken by the monster. What sets Bong Joon-ho’s films apart is the spectrum of tones he is able to pull off while still keeping the movie cohesive. You’ll be scared, but there are also laughs to be had.

Port of Call (2015) - Hong Kong

Port of Call is the newest film on this list, and the only one that isn’t strictly horror. I saw this movie in my peripheral on an airplane ride back from South Korea. The person sitting next to me had turned it on and I ended up watching along (which is, admittedly, probably bad airplane manners). I couldn’t hear what was going on, but since the film is in Cantonese, there were subtitles. This film is gritty and gruesome, and I’d imagine people who are into art house films would like it. It’s definitely a slow burn, and its various characters are deeply complex. The movie doesn’t have a main protagonist, but rather moves from character to character at different points in time. When I later researched the film, I discovered that it is based on an actual murder in which a sixteen year old girl’s body was found, dismembered, in Hong Kong. Port of Call is not for the faint of heart and the horror stems from something that is very much real—the human psyche.

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