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Niyati Bhat — Unstoppable Women, Nightmarish Cities: Asian Horror Cinema

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A still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

In Asian Cinema, the genre of horror acquires more political and volatile language than any other. There are larger themes such as identity crisis, violence against women, struggles with sexual orientation and political commentary that Asian filmmakers are trying to deal with through the aesthetics of horror. Asian Horror no longer harks back to ancient myths or Grimm’s fairy tales; the genre substitutes reality for horror at a psychological level. It is safe to say, Asian Horror has stepped away from scream queens into a wholly new territory with Western Spaghetti, apocalyptic narrative, narratives of personal trauma and history, violence and abuse.

I encountered horror quite late in life. I wasn’t scared of demons and ghosts but of my mother who could show up in the living room any second and take away my right to watch horror mysteries with their explicit scenes. At the time, Bipasha Basu was the scream queen of Bollywood; the heroine of an astounding total of nine horror films. However, post Raaz (2002), one of Basu’s most popularly acclaimed films, the quality of horror films in Bollywood could be marked like the graph of a sinking heartbeat. In the last two years, horror has tried to make a comeback in Bollywood with tropes that have been done to death — haunted house, a ghost with a painful back story and a couple who wish to save each other from that supernatural.

Phobia, India (Dir. Pavan Kirpalani, 2016)

Ragini MMS (2011) director Pavan Kirpalani is back with Phobia, a psychological thriller which has emerged as a cure for the dying (quality) horror cinema in India. The use of explicit content in Phobia is not to merely to excite the viewer without reason or logic but to evoke the fear of sexual violence that is the looming horror of our larger social world. The film’s first shot is of a painting that depicts a hand at one end of the frame attempting out to another set of hands at the opposite end of the frame. This pans out to the art exhibition that showcases the works of the central character, Mehak. She has an exceptionally lively personality for an artist whose paintings speak otherwise. An eerie vision of a taxi with smoke coming out of it startles her. Later in the night, she falls asleep in the taxi that is driving her home. The driver forces himself onto her while she screams.

The next shot shows Mehak thrown on the roadside while strangers surround her. This incident pushes her to lock herself in her apartment for months following which she is diagnosed with agoraphobia—paranoia of public spaces. Virtual reality therapies fail and Mehak is taken to her friend’s secluded apartment to begin healing. The horror story begins in this apartment as Mehak grows increasingly paranoid of the world inside the apartment itself. ‘Where is it safe to be in a metropolis?’ is the question that we are left to answer. The supernatural incidents of crawling creatures, blood, a murderer chasing someone in the apartment that only Mehak sees eventually turn out to be her visions of the future assembling up to the climax where it turns out, it was her friend Shaan who was the unassuming perpetrator.

The last scene of the film is that of the bloody and injured Mehak struggling to escape the building after locking Shaan in her bedroom. The camera closes on her hand trying to reach out to the people celebrating Diwali in the premises. They respond by giving their hands for support just as in the painting in the first shot. Precognitions have been a storytelling tool in Japanese cinema and their use in Phobia indicates towards a larger socio-political issue of gender violence.

Phobia uses the film’s spatial dimensions as the female body, the metropolis and the apartment. Post the Nirbhaya rape case in India in 2012 which led to uproar over women’s safety in the country, the film poses pertinent questions about the safety of the female body. The body of the woman is the site of fear as much as the apartment and the city. The crime whenever committed is committed onto the woman’s body regardless of the space.

Mehak’s character amplifies the psychological state of the woman in metropolis through the aesthetics of horror. The city spaces that are constantly alienating and isolated only feed that horror. But in the end, the female body is not merely a site of sex and violence. She retaliates with force, refusing to be violated and it is revealed that she fought the taxi driver with all her might, pepper-sprayed him and survived; just as she survives her friend Shaan’s attacks and agoraphobia. The bottom line of this horror film is that women are resilient enough to fight their way through the physical and psychological demons. This takes away the genre’s constant subjugation and infliction of the supernatural over the female body and gives the authority to the female body itself. If she doesn’t like what is happening to her, she will retaliate and it’s not going to be pretty.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Iran/America (Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

The Iranian western horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a vampire love story with a feminist touch. The secret recipe of a horror film, Alfred Hitchcock famously said, is to “torture the women!” Ana Lily Amirpour’s film is a response to Hitchcock, where an outcast vampire avenges these tortured women.

A Girl is set in an unnamed industrial town referred to as Bad City, where a young female vampire falls for the only ‘seemingly nice man’ in town who isn’t afraid of her. The girl listens to English post-punk and Iranian rock in her tiny room in the day. At night, she heads out to help women in danger in the streets and avenges those who have been wronged. Amirpour’s vampire wears a hijab-cape hybrid chador and is a fierce protector of a prostitute, Atti. The elements of horror appear in the most brutal and gratifying scene where the girl murders Atti’s pimp for exploiting her. It marks a major shift for the horror genre which creates demons that prey on female characters.

There is voyeurism in this film, sexual perversion and even screams but the tables have been turned because the cry is that of the man about to die at the hands of a girl, and the voyeuristic gaze is that of the girl and the sexual perversion by a man never goes unpunished. The female characters look out for each other; and pass the Bechdel test when the girl says to the prostitute after looking at a world map in her room, “You don’t like what you do. You are sad. You don’t know what you want.”

The displacement of the narrative which belongs to no city and yet every city we know provides a blank canvas on which Amirpour paints the story of morally grey areas of life. Everything makes sense and sometimes nothing does. The soundtrack becomes a part of the narrative and breathes new life into the scenes. After the vampire girl and Arash, the protagonists of the film meet, the song “Death” by White Lies plays in the girl’s room and the scene surrenders to the music creating a trance-like atmosphere without changing the frame or even moving the camera.

The next sequence is of a cross dresser in a cowboy costume, with a painted face, dancing with a balloon in his hand to the song “Sisyphus” by Federale evoking the myth of Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology punished for endlessly using everyone to his benefit. Amirpour uses this song for the hauntingly beautiful dance sequence to pay tribute to love. It also reflects back on the scene itself, which is not essential to the plot but its presence creates a transition for the film’s mood to oscillate between horror and romance without abruption.

There is one more dance scene in the film: Atti dances for Hossein, Arash’s heroin addict father who has paid her for the night. The song “Chashme Man” (“My Eyes”) plays on the radio as Atti dances. Her movements in the frame are controlled by Hossein’s gaze. For a second, the frame fixates on her torso eliminating the face and allures the viewer to her as she dances in front of a light reflecting onto the camera. The placement of lamp right behind Atti resonates with her situation. She sees darkness in front of her eyes but not the light. Hossein drugs her, which prompts the vampire girl to arrive and kill him.

Atti helps the girl to dispose Hossein’s body, and return to her individual life. But there is a catch. Arash has thrown his father out of the house with money after his withdrawal from drugs. He has also taken away the pet cat as the father kept referring to it as Arash’s dead mother. After Hossein’s death, Atti gives away the cat to the girl. Later, Arash knocks at the vampire girl’s door and asks her to run away with him. Just then Arash spots the cat which he had rescued in the beginning of the film in the vampire girl’s room—the feline creature acts as a sutradhaar (connecting link) between the characters taking the story to its climax. The cat also witnesses a strange circle of death as anyone who had come in contact with the cat and committed a crime eventually met with their death, be it Hossein or the pimp, Saeed.

A Girl concludes with scene similar to the concluding scene of the South Korean film, Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009), with two lovers in a car. Both the female vampires have committed murder but the motives differ vastly. The films also end differently. For the vampires in Thirst, the only salvation is death but in the Girl, the vampire has proven to be Arash’s salvation.

As Arash makes up his mind about moving forward with the girl, he sits in the car and plays the song “Yarom Bia” by Kiosk (“Come, My Sweetheart”) which is a cover of the hit 1988 Tajik song popularly played at weddings. The music, thus, leaves a cue for a brighter future for the protagonists. The music by Kiosk also brings forth the element of Iranian cultural angst expressed in this band’s songs as it twists the manner in which you view the entire film. The song packs socio-political criticism into the film as you replay it in your head to see it from the point of view of both Iran and horror cinema as the site of the violence, the Bad City desperately in need of the girl in chador.

There is a similar dance sequence in Phobia where Mehak’s friend Shaan brings her dinner on her first night in the apartment, puts on the song “Roke Na Ruke” (“Unstoppable”) on the laptop and coaxes her to dance along. As Mehak stands up to dance, the camera shifts to the Shaan’s gaze prompting us to think about his intentions. He opens the door and leads her to dance in the hallway so she can be comfortable about being outside the apartment. At first, Mehak gives in but soon runs back inside, angry and doubtful about Shaan’s real motives behind bringing her to the apartment. As Shaan again attempts to resume their sexual relationship, Mehak’s character delivers a gutting monologue that every woman who has ever been touched against her wish would want to say to her perpetrator: “You are the one who is rotten, dirty and sick!”

Dumplings (2004) & The Midnight After (2014), Hong Kong (Dir. Fruit Chan) 

Speaking of sick, Hong Kong director Fruit Chan sent cinephiles into a state of shock with a delirious horror film Dumplingsin 2004. The film follows the meeting of a former TV actress who wants to be young again and a former abortion doctor turned chef who makes her dumplings with a secret ingredient as a cure for her ageing. The film is remarkable and disgustingly so in its use of foetuses as the secret ingredient of youth. It is a satire on China’s one child policy, black markets and of course, the obnoxious and demanding entertainment industry.

Dumplings was a part of Three Extremes collection of horror films from Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. They opened the genre towards the themes of nightmare scenario which Fruit Chan continues to use in his work.

After Dumplings, Fruit Chan’s second remarkable horror film The Midnight After emerges as a satire that uses the populist tropes of the genre with a sharp political commentary that mediates on the past and the rapidly changing present that we are too self-absorbed to notice. In The Midnight After, Chan uses David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” to reflect on the absurd post-apocalyptic plot woven around the city. Through cinema, Chan has explored Hong Kong’s spatiality through the incredible. Ackbar Abbas coined the term ‘space of disappearance’ for Hong Kong as the city where “imperialism” and “globalism” are imbricated with each other. And it is the incredible which is used as a point of intervention by the filmmaker to talk about the absurd history and its implications on Hong Kong and its citizens.

A minibus with 17 passengers heading to Tai Po from Mong Kok finds the Tai Po area devoid of human beings after passing through a tunnel. The mystery of the missing population is never solved but we are left with these passengers’ stories as morality takes a back seat during the ‘end of the world’ situation. The nightmarish scenario is an allegory for the fear that exists in Hong Kong since its transition from a British colony into a Chinese territory.

By situating the characters in the ghost town where time has leaped to 2018, it is the year after the highly anticipated 2017 elections. It suggests that Hong Kong is losing its identity in an attempt to move forward without really paying attention to the present. Situating the lost minibus and its passengers in the deserted Tai Po indicates that by waiting too long for a certain future, the city is quickly losing its morals and everything that makes it humane. This identity crisis is what will be the doom of the city.

Through “Space Oddity,” Chan takes a dig at the western world that continuously marks Hong Kong as a space where culture is absent. It situates the city and its survivors in juxtaposition with Major Tom from the song who is left in isolation. Bowie’s song doesn’t help the characters to solve the mystery because they do not realize that the song is not a code for a solution but simply a metaphor for the isolation that they can’t escape.

Fatal Frame, Japan (Dir. Mari Asato, 2014)

The Japanese film Fatal Frame uses Sir John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia” (1852) and Ophelia’s song from the Shakespearian tragedy Hamlet as the canvas to project the story of lesbian relationships in a missionary school in rural Japan. The film has ‘scenic locations, eerie voices and haunting photographs of lovers who committed suicide because of lack of acceptance’ acting as tropes to the story of doppelgangers separated for life. Every teenage girl in the school falls hypnotically in love with the central character Aya and later begins to disappear creating a whodunit mystery for the film while the question of being a lesbian is threaded to Ophelia’s song of suffering and death.

Goodbye Dragon Inn, Taiwan (Dir. Tsai Ming Liang, 2003) 

The Mayasian-Chinese director Tsai Ming Liang’s quiet film, Goodbye Dragon Inn also runs a narrative of the Taiwanese past. The film follows the story of the last screening of the classic film Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) at the historic Taipei Cinema before it closes its doors forever. The film viewers among others include an old actor from the film, a Japanese tourist, another old man who claims that the cinema hall is haunted, the projectionist and the woman at the ticket counter. When the film ends all we see is an empty cinema hall. The film ends on an open-ended note without disclosing whether the characters we witnessed are real or merely ghosts haunting the building. The film with its long shots and minimal dialogues leaves us wondering about Taiwanese Cinema’s transitions into the new waves as the grand old stature crumbles and the new turns the old into a ghost.

As much it is about the blood and gore, vampires, zombies and exorcisms, if one digs deeper into the list of Asian Horror Cinema, one could locate films that use the aesthetics of horror as a motif for issues of gender and politics. From Hong Kong horror’s nightmarish concerns about the city’s identity crisis to Bollywood’s concern about women safety to the Taiwanese horror’s silent meditation on the loss of essential past, and Japan’s study of female sexuality and lesbian relationships through Shakespeare, the Asian Horror Cinema is not holding back anymore. It’s a sure indication that we have reeled into better times.

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Niyati Bhat
Niyati Bhat is a Kashmiri writer and photographer, currently pursuing her research in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Interested in a plethora of subjects, she mainly writes about literature, cinema and exile. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including Scroll, Coldnoon, Mithila Review, Hindustan Times and Al Jazeera.