Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand (Stone Bridge Press; 2006; $19.95; 212 pp; Softbound; illus.), by Patrick Galloway, is a very well-written primer for the fan who is fascinated with extreme Asian Cinema but doesn’t know where to start. |
Galloway aims at intelligent, discerning readers with the time, money, and persistence to hunt down some of these exciting, and often outrageous films. The book arrives on the heels of a spate of U.S. remakes of Asian hits, a trend which has drawn many to the original films, which are frequently, if not always, superior.
This is not meant as a definitive, encyclopedic listing and review of Asian horror, but rather films selected by Galloway that he believes will provide the budding cineaste with the most rewarding viewing experience. He states that the films selected had to 1) “have a certain unnerving quality,” but also 2) “be good.” He admits that Japanese movies, the J-Horrors, dominate the selections, more so because of their easier availability. He lets the reader know that acquiring English subtitled films from Thailand is, at least at the present, very difficult.
Galloway points out some of the cultural differences that influence Asian filmmakers. While we all have common ground as human beings, the Asian experience and understanding of religion, history, and the supernatural is very different from that in the West. Galloway believes it is these differences which allow the Asian filmmaker to go further than other filmmakers in their depiction of sex, violence, and graphic gore. He also points out that Asians are much more comfortable with ambiguity than Western audiences and don’t need everything in a movie explained.
After quick overviews of each country’s film history, and a few tips on where to get these films and what to look out for, Galloway gets down to business. He divides the films into seven categories: Family, Society, Technology, Confinement, Psychosis, Possession and Hell. Many of the titles are high profile films some of which will be known even to casual fans of Asian Cinema: Ichi the Killer, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Eye, The Ring, Pulse, Battle Royale, Ricki-Oh -- The Story of Ricky, Dr. Lamb, Oldboy, Ju-On: The Grudge, and Audition are fairly easy to find and have a level of notoriety that creates curiosity.
Although Galloway packs each entry with enough information and analysis to satisfy an academic, he’s never stuffy nor does he talk down to the reader. Instead, he has an intelligent but breezy and enjoyable writing style. As good writers should, he tries to grab the reader, leading off his film descriptions with often thought provoking or merely provocative sentences.
“Think the abnormally high teen suicide rate in Japan is a result of crushing academic workloads, extreme bullying, and a stiflingly repressive culture? Think again,” begins his look at Suicide Club. Visitor Q: “What do filmmakers Jean Renoir, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Paul Mazursky, and Takashi Miike all have in common?” he poses. Or, he might use dialogue like this from the film Living Hell (Iki-jigoku) to get our attention, “Couples who are fighting don’t usually eat their dogs or stick bugs into eye sockets.”
Sometimes Galloway introduces us to a film by plunging into the plot. At other times, he lines up the characters to give us a picture of the movie. But Galloway doesn’t just provide a mere plot recap and cast listing. There is history here, context, evaluations of elements on camera and off, as well as insights into the meaning and purpose of the films, all informed by his obvious passion for and knowledge of his subject and the culture from which it springs. He traces the lineage of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance back 2,000 years through the works of Shakespeare to Seneca the Younger. “Most critics,” he says, “compare the ultra noir thriller Tell Me Something to David Fincher’s Se7en, but how much better would the denouement of Se7en have been if we had actually gotten to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head in that box?” He calls Evil Dead Trap a hybrid U.S., Japanese and Italian horror exercise indebted to Dario Argento (and notes the Goblin-esque music), Sam Raimi and John Carpenter.
And if you think that only the more recent film offerings can qualify for this overview, note that Galloway includes Hell (Jigoku)(1960), Go Go Second Time Virgin (1965), The Joy of Torture (1968), Convent of the Sacred Beast (1974) and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975) among several other pre-1990 films with that special something. There are also a number of capsule reviews relating to the main features.
So, though intended more for the novice, the veteran viewer may still find this volume useful to keep on the shelf for handy reference. At the very least, they should find it an interesting and worthwhile read.