The notoriously dismal January-February movie season this year found better-than-expected financial success in horror films and thrillers, showing the genres aren’t just for fringe audiences—or at least if they are, it’s a pretty large fringe. Yet many of these successful U.S. films aren’t as original or as frightening as horror films and thrillers from Asia—particularly Japan, whose exports have become popular among adventurous DVD collectors. Taking notice, Hollywood has begun to remake and import its horror from the east, the latest example being the just-released The Ring 2.
Director Hideo Nakata has established himself as the king of remade Japanese horror, having made the Japanese hit Ringu that spawned the U.S. hit The Ring as well as other films with upcoming remakes—Dark Water and the crime thriller Chaos (Kino International, $19.95). The Ring 2 marks the first time he remade his own film.
Ringu 2 hasn’t made it to stateside theaters or DVD yet, so it can’t be compared with the U.S. version, but a look at both versions of The Ring reveals where the original has rubbed off on Hollywood filmmakers (including several identical shots) and where it differs. The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski, accepts the Hollywood philosophy that horror movies need to have regular physical scares instead of simply a creepy atmosphere—or, in the case of Ringu, loud sound effects. This results in added action, most notably a ridiculous chase sequence involving a horse on a ferry that concludes with a hilarious shot that would have been at home in last year’s Starsky & Hutch.
Nakata isn’t the first Japanese director to remake his own film for Hollywood. Producer Sam Raimi—who is also bringing the Pang brothers (The Eye) to Hollywood to direct Scarecrow—had Takashi Shimizu remake Ju-on: The Grudge in Japan with American actors as The Grudge. While neither film is that strong, the making-of featurette on the remake’s DVD is worth watching for its comparisons of the fast-working Japanese crew with the Hollywood norm. Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy—which received the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prize (second place) last year and opens locally in April—also has a remake in the works.
While the recent remakes involved films that didn’t rely heavily on special effects or abundant gore for their scares, a cult following has developed around shock films. The king of this genre is Takashi Miike, a prolific madman known for making three to seven films a year when most directors are considered fast and lucky if they manage to make one. With a Miike film, audiences don’t know whether to be shocked with admiration or shocked with disgust. If you can, rent the Audition DVD (currently out of print) and listen to Miike’s commentary on the final sequence of the film—not necessarily for his insights into technique, but to hear him laugh as he talks about how the realtime torture sequence is disgusting, and hypothesizes that screenwriter Daisuke Tengan was on drugs while writing the dream sequence.
While Miike’s work is too extreme to find mainstream American success, Kiyoshi Kurosawa hasn’t made much impact in the United States because his focus is on everyday life rather than shock. His best film, Cure, finds a detective struggling with his wife’s mental disorder while investigating a mysterious series of murders committed by different people after they come into contact with an amnesiac drifter. Kurosawa gives the murders a disturbing, detached feel by shooting them in matter-of-fact long shots that look like normal, everyday events until a character fires a gun, someone unexpectedly flies out a window, or another act of violence disturbs the setting. We’re used to films warning us with ominous close-ups and drawn-out suspense, and it’s actually more shocking when a film denies us that comfort zone.
Asian thrillers and horror films come from a foreign culture that may throw off American expectations, and as the filmmakers experiment with new scare tactics, the results are often unexpected—and, if we’re lucky, terrifying.