Horror high: 32nd Tokyo film festival unveils a new brand of Asia’s scariest movies
The film fest, being held from October 28 to November 5, is delving deep into the culture of making scary movies in Asia.
Nearly 70 years after the world embraced Rashomon, a digitally-restored version of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece was screened for an international audience at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival. The 1950 classic still drew a packed audience. While late Kurosawa was making a triumphant return to the Japanese screen, today’s Asian directors were brewing a silent revolution at the festival in another widely-followed aspect of world cinema — the horror film genre.
The film fest, being held from October 28 to November 5, is delving deep into the culture of making scary movies in Asia. Under its Crosscut Asia category, the festival has gathered 10 films to show the strides made by the continent’s filmmakers towards quality genre films. “The selection reflects the popularity and high standards of horror films made in Asia,” says festival director Takeo Hisamatsu.
Asian New Wave
Independent filmmakers such as India’s Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad, who co-directed Tumbbad — one of the most impressive horror films in world cinema last year — are giving a new direction in genre films by borrowing from history, culture and tradition. Led by fresh talent from India to Indonesia, Asian directors are making the world take note of their horror films.
While Tumbbad, a period drama about a hidden treasure and demon, premiered at the Critic’s Week parallel programme of the Venice film festival last year, Indonesian director Joko Anwar is sweeping awards at festivals worldwide with Satan’s Slave (2017) and A Mother’s Love (2019), a new production that is part of the Tokyo festival’s Crosscut Asia.
Asian cinema is witnessing a steady rise in the quantity and quality of genre films. “We were used to the comedic, ghastly movies made by big studios. With the emergence of independent cinema, we are seeing a different kind of horror films,” says Sigrid Andrea P Bernardo, a filmmaker from the Philippines.
Bernardo’s Untrue is about a young couple whose love is unsettled by the visions of a strange woman. “The film embraces many themes such as love, revenge and dealing with our own demons,” says the director.
Barve agrees. “Even in Tumbbad, it is humans who scare away ghosts, not the other way round,” he says. “I have always been intrigued by how filmmakers have abused the horror genre to simply give cheap thrills to audiences. In fact, horror or fear comes in countless layers and textures like love and has as much potential to mesmerise viewers. Unfortunately, horror is largely confined to ghosts and ghouls, and one can blame both big budget production houses and B-grade producers all over the world.”
Folk, Myth & Fear
The Entity by Filipino director Erik Matti, another horror film at the Tokyo festival, opens with a scene from a college where Luis, a boarding student, is visited by his twin sister Manuela. Moments later, he gets a call from his father asking him to come home because Manuela has just died. “The film explores the constant cycle of domestic abuse and impunity that our history as Filipino people endured for centuries,” says Matti, who believes history holds the key to playing on contemporary cinematic techniques.
In The Long Walk, a film from Laos directed by Mattie Do, an old man is seen repairing a rusting motorbike. In the following scenes, he quietly euthanises several sick women. Do, the only woman filmmaker in the horror film genre in Laos, casts non-actors randomly chosen from streets and markets, and handles rural poverty, disease and migration as tools of a new cinematic language. “Films set in rural spaces of the developing world often glamorise poverty. They tend to portray village life as meditative simply because it is not urban,” she says.
Asia’s huge repertoire of folk and myth have helped the continent’s filmmakers develop the horror film genre to their advantage. At the 2010 Cannes film festival, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul surprised the film world by winning the Palme d’Or for his drama, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
In Tokyo, Indonesian director Anwar’s A Mother’s Love is inspired by his country’s urban legend of Wewe Gombel, a woman who becomes a ghost and kidnaps children after she died childless. “This is a scary story, but at the same time heartbreaking,” says Anwar, whose new movie is part of HBO Asia’s six-episode horror anthology series Folklore. Two episodes, featuring A Mother’s Love and Japanese film Tatami by Saito Takumi about a young crime fiction writer discovering his family’s horrifying past, are part of the Tokyo festival.
Motel Acacia, an entry in the Asian Future programme of the Tokyo festival from the Philippines, has been hailed as a horror film in the league of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Set in a cursed hotel used for exterminating immigrants by the government through a bed haunted with the spirit of a Filipino tree demon, the film is directed by Malaysian-born Filipino director Bradley Liew.
The film, which had its world premiere in Tokyo, is produced by Bianca Balbuena, known as the producer of celebrated Filipino director Lav Diaz’s films. Diaz, whose movies run to extraordinary lengths, himself has a film in Crosscut Asia, the 283-minute sci-fi thriller, The Halt, set in Manila of 2034 AD where volcanic eruptions have caused the disappearance of sunlight leading to catastrophic consequences.
The Asian directors of horror films believe there are many things to learn from fear. “The cavemen were insulated from many perils out of fear alone and helped them evolve,” says Tumbbad director Barve. “Every horror trip has rewarded mankind with a new discovery.”