“Today there’s a kind of smart unsettling of the gender conventions of zombie, slasher and supernatural horror films. Horror is being retooled in amazing ways … so that fixed notions of gender and identity splatter,” says Bliss Cua Lim, UCI associate professor of film & media studies. Steve Zylius / UCI

Scary cinema: East vs. West

Dissecting the differences between Asian horror films and Hollywood remakes

Halloween and horror cinema go hand in hand. For some of us, scary movies are part of the once-a-year ritual. For Bliss Cua Lim, associate professor of film & media studies at the University of California, Irvine, they’re her academic area of expertise. She has taught such courses as Global Horror and Monstrosity in Asian Cinemas.

The difference between Hollywood and Asian horror films is a popular topic of discussion among movie buffs, critics and professors, spurred in part by Hollywood’s “Asian horror remake frenzy that began in the early 2000s,” Lim says. “By 2003, at least 18 remakes of films from South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong were either completed or in the works at various studios.”

These included DreamWorks’ remake of Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” as “The Ring” in 2002 and “The Ring 2” in 2005; Paramount’s remake of Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” as “The Grudge” in 2004; and Pandemonium’s remake of Nakata’s “Dark Water” in 2005. By the end of the decade, however, the trend was exhausted, due in part to market saturation.

Mainstream media portrayed this sudden interest as an homage to the Asian horror movies’ exceptionalism, but Lim sees it differently.

“In fact,” she says, “there was a financial and industrial incentive. I’ve argued that Hollywood remakes weren’t being done to celebrate Asian horror films. Instead, they tried to replicate the successful horror conventions of other national cinemas in Hollywood terms in order to penetrate increasingly important and profitable Asian film markets.”

When Hollywood studios remake a foreign movie, the need for subtitles is eliminated, which Lim views as “a deracinating act of cultural appropriation. The deracination at work in many of these Asian remakes was motivated by a desire to erase foreignness and the ethnicity of a cultural text to make a film more palatable to global audiences and more successfully marketed internationally.”

“The Ring,” a Hollywood remake of a Japanese horror classic, was a critical and box office success and also an example of how “Hollywood blurs the edges of cultural specificity,” according to Lim. “This movie changed not just the language, but also the setting, culture and race of the characters. It tried its best to suppress and erase the fact that it was a remake of a foreign film. There are narrative differences as well. Japanese horror movies are more episodic, less linear and chronological, more experimental in terms of storytelling.”

Audiences around the world expect horror films to trigger certain emotions: fear, disgust, fascination, etc. But within the context of a nation’s history and culture, certain embodiments of evil – vampires, ghosts, zombies, demons, aliens, mutants or haunted houses – can either heighten or dampen the terror.

Horror, like any genre, “is a social contract between the filmmaker and audience,” Lim says. “The conventions and expectations change over time. Today, there’s a kind of smart unsettling of the gender conventions of zombie, slasher and supernatural horror films. Horror is being retooled in amazing ways from the perspectives of critical race, queer and feminist theories, so that fixed notions of gender and identity splatter.”

Some examples, she says, are chilling recent horror films directed by women, such as “The Babadook” and the Persian-language “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” both from 2014, and the 2011 Filipino horror comedy “Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings.”

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