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ASIA EXTREME: Scary Cell Phones, Computers, Trees, Apartments, etc.

Of the many popular genres in contemporary Asian cinema, none has experienced the kind of growth and success like horror, and over the last decade or so it’s grown into an impressive phenomenon that has racked up dedicated and loyal followers worldwide. Yet even outside of the fanboy crowd, the Japanese horror film, or J-Horror (and its Korean equivalent K-Horror), has become the subject of serious critical study, and multiple volumes have been written on the subject.

Though a more detailed study would certainly yield similarities between Asian and Western horror films, a quick, high-level comparison between the two reveals a few immediate distinctions. While Western (particularly American) horror leans towards the graphic and the gruesomely violent, their Asian equivalents tend to rely more on atmosphere and restraint (while at the same time being somewhat more perverse.) Whereas the source of horror in most American films is an individual (or group of individuals) out to inflict both pain and terror, J- and K-Horror films tend to be more supernatural-oriented; variations on ghost stories, or an avenging spirit, of which there is a long tradition in Japanese and Korean culture.

The film that kicked the whole craze off was Hideo Nakata’s RING (1998), which featured a videotape that, once watched, would kill you in seven days. One of the most commercially successful films in Japan, and a huge home-video hit everywhere else in the world, it became something of a blueprint for how to construct a J-Horror film (including the now overused ghost-woman-with-long-black-wet-hair character). As the popularity of these films grew, screenwriters and directors found themselves faced with the challenge of creating interesting variations on this theme, as well as finding new sources of horror. While some were clever, complex, and scary, others skewed heavily towards the silly and derivative. What follows is a list of five J- and K-Horror films that, while not always necessarily scary, offer a great deal of creativity and originality.

1) ACACIA (2003) – An adopted six year-old boy spends an eerie amount of time with an equally eerie acacia tree in the backyard of his home. When the boy mysteriously disappears, the tree begins to sprout leaves and flowers, followed by a series of increasingly spooky events around the house. Not terribly scary, it still is an effectively chilling and haunting film.

2) DARK WATER (2002) – From the same director as RING, this ghost story has more of a classic feel to it. A single mother and her daughter move into a new apartment in a rather dull but oddly humid building that comes furnished with leaky ceilings and its own raincoat-wearing ghost child. A deeply psychological film that is disturbingly claustrophobic, it’s one of director Nakata’s best. (See the original – the Jennifer Connelly Hollywood remake is not nearly as good.)

3) ONE MISSED CALL (2002) – A cell phone is the feared object in Takashi Miike’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek horror outing. Much like the videotape in RING, here a handful of teenage girls receive voicemails from themselves dated three days in the future that include words they will say just before dying. While low on chills, Miike does take some interesting pot-shots at the exploitive nature of television.

4) PHONE (2002) – Made the same year as ONE MISSED CALL, this Korean film is also centered on our most essential device. A new phone number leads to series of unfortunate (and rather nasty) events, and the culprit is not the cell phone itself, but the haunted phone number. Sounds silly, but this fast-paced scare-fest has more than a few surprises, as well as something to say about technology’s role in drawing us further apart.

5) UNBORN BUT FORGOTTEN (2002) – Easily the strangest entry on this list, this film also follows RING’s basic premise, but here we have a website that kills women fifteen days after looking at it, but only after first impregnating them. Oh yes, a titular fetus might have something to do with it. While its plot is admittedly somewhat over-the-top, Lim Chang-jae’s direction and visual mastery help elevate it to something more than the mere formulaic.