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Asian Horror Frightfully Successful

21 Jun, 2005 By: Dan Bennett

The Ring raised the awareness of Asian horror filmmaking.

In 1954, when filmmaker Mizoguchi Kenji released his superb Japanese ghost story Ugetsu, critics raved and a classic was born. It certainly wasn't the first or last time Asian filmmaking and the supernatural world would partner, though.

Indeed, during the past 10 years, Asian horror became hot. And the strong run is not limited to big-name titles such as Ringu, the spooky Japanese film that was re-made as The Ring, and perhaps made retailers think twice before test-viewing any mysterious new videocassettes with uncertain origins.

The landscape of Asian horror covers a wide geographical area — Japan, China, South Korea and other countries have all contributed. It also covers several niches within the genre, from splatter-fests to intense psychological thrillers to stylish art-house films that also make toes curl and eyes close as the action intensifies.

As the Halloween selling season approaches, numerous Asian horror titles will hit the marketplace, both new and vintage, even if much of the vintage stuff is 10 years old or less.

Extreme Asian Tartan Video has its Asia Extreme line, described as “a premier collection of stylish international cinema from the proven Asian horror genre, which shocks, scares and astonishes in equal measure.” Tartan says it has sold more than $50 million in Asian product, claiming it is the U.K.'s leading independent film genre.

“Tartan Video started the Asia Extreme line a number of years ago in the U.K., and it took off,” said Tartan Video president Tony Borg. “The owner of the company didn't really see anybody address this product on a regular basis, so he got in early. Then Asian horror took off just after that, so it was perfect timing.”

Tartan's Asia Extreme line covers horror, martial arts, erotica and other genres, but many of the 60 titles are horror-based, and even those that are not have a Halloween kind of vibe, such as the wild Oldboy, scheduled for Sept. 23.

“The Asian horror films we're seeing now evolved in many ways from the anime and manga genres that became so popular,” Borg said. “So that audience is embracing them. You have a lot of differences between Asian horror and traditional horror. The horror of the characters comes not from someone coming at you, with a chainsaw, for instance, but the terror comes from within the characters. Perhaps they are still afraid of a previous terrifying experience, or feeling guilt about something they have done.”

An abundance of strong female characters populate the films, Borg said. Story and character development is stronger, and endings are a surprise.

“A lot of horror films present maybe three possible endings, and you guess ahead of time,” Borg said. “With some of the Asian horror, it's the fourth ending that you never considered that happens.”

Retail is embracing such titles given the success of many Asian horror films in theaters, Borg said, and Tartan is promoting titles at comic-book festivals and other gatherings where there is a natural audience.

“This is product that deserves its own section, maybe alongside anime and manga,” Borg said. “That's our next step, reaching out to retail to create such sections.”

On July 19, Tartan Asia Extreme releases Wishing Stairs, part of its “Whispering Corridors” Trilogy. That trilogy includes Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori, one of the recent more popular Asian horror films, an almost instant cult favorite. The Korean title Wishing Stairs is the story of an urban legend involving a staircase behind a dance school. It was directed by Yun Jae-yeon, one of the few women to direct an Asian horror film.

Then July 26 Tartan Asia Extreme releases Sorum, a Korean title that enjoyed a theatrical run in arthouses. The story follows the lives of a group of disenfranchised people living in a haunted rundown apartment complex.

Hip to Asian Horror

Other Asian horror titles available for Halloween include Ventura Entertainment's release of the Yakuza-horror title Gozu, while Lions Gate Home Entertainment bows Audition: Uncut Special Edition Aug. 23. During the theatrical run, the film was touted as one of the most audacious of the new wave of Asian horror titles.

Veterans of the horror-title circuit are hip to the possibilities of Asian horror. Elite Entertainment, releasing horror since the laserdisc days, last year released the much-followed Japanese horror title Uzamaki and followed up recently with Marronnier, distributed by Koch Entertainment.

“The Asian horror market is just booming,” said Vini Bancalari, president of Elite Entertainment. “These are filmmakers who know how to push the buttons of their audience. They use quirky camera angles and an off-center approach.”

It's the kind of adventurous treatment of the genre that attracts true fans, he said.

“Maybe we've just become too jaded to the standard tricks of the horror genre,” Bancalari said. “In so many horror films, when somebody closes the refrigerator door, we know somebody else is going to be standing behind them. With Asian horror, the surprises are much more sneaky, unexpected and creative than that.”

Though some critics suggest the Asian horror market has completed its 10-year run of ingenuity and box-office success, others say there are still markets remaining to be tapped.

“We'll continue to explore the region for good entries in the horror market,” Bancalari said. “There are various films from Taiwan that give us reason to be excited. Every country and every director has a different take on style, so that will keep things fresh.”

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