Good horror can be difficult to come by in China. Two friends I asked informed me simply that Chinese horror “isn’t scary,” and besides, broad censorship rules prohibit films promoting “cults or superstitions.” That’s why when Alien: Covenant screened in China the alien wasn’t in it, and why Hong Kong produces the only flicks worth watching.
That said, I’ve compiled five Chinese-language horror films for the season:
1. The Eye, 2002 (Dir. The Pang Brothers)
The Mandarin title for The Eye — 见鬼; “seeing ghosts” — is a better indication of its kinship with the American horror-thriller classic, The Sixth Sense. Mun (Angelica Lee) receives a cornea transplant, but begins to experience complications: marauding ghosts of the recently deceased, including a child who recently jumped from the balcony of Mun’s apartment building, and an elderly man with a severely concave skull. The encounter with the latter in an elevator is the film’s most arresting scene. That bit is available on YouTube and worth a watch, if only to get you in the mood for the entire thing.
2. The Midnight After, 2011 (Dir. Fruit Chan)
A group of strangers board a minibus emerging from a tunnel in the middle of the night in Hong Kong, to find that they are the only people who remain but for a few shock-troops in gas-masks, who are evidently Japanese. It has zombies (sort of) and plenty of gore.
The Midnight After is kind of an enigma. Adapted from an online graphic novel written by a Hong Kong netizen named Mr. Pizza, Chan titled his take on the viral digital text “那夜凌晨，我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅VAN.” The Midnight After is satirical to a fault, a carnival of horror tropes and miscues, over-indulgent on violence and anemic on logic. Ultimately, Chan’s more interested in tongue-in-cheek political commentary than mass appeal of any stripe, which is why the film does a little better on Douban (5.8/10) than Rotten Tomatoes (26% like it). It’s not for the widest audience to be sure, but Chan’s puppets are hapless in their attempt to rationalize their way through the most irrational film imaginable, so that when you’ve finished Midnight you feel you have earned your right to hate it.
The Midnight After is currently available to stream on Netflix in the US.
3. Dumplings, 2004 (Dir. Fruit Chan, also)
Dumplings (饺子) is grotesque. If not for the irredeemability of its plot — in which former reality television star Mrs. Li turns to Mei, a former state-trained abortion provider, and Mei’s “home-made” dumplings filled with unborn and (mostly) undeveloped fetuses in a bid to regain her former beauty and thus recapture the gaze of her philandering husband — Chan’s ability to shoot and cut drum-tight scenes might have redeemed the film in general. In any case, Bai Ling as Mei steals the show with a practiced nonchalance that plays well against Mrs. Li’s appropriate disgust, which the audience shares in abundance, not that it does Mrs. Li any good.
I cannot say I’m willing to recommend this film. More than 26,000 people awarded Dumplings 3 or more stars on Douban, however, so if I’m gross at least I’m obviously not alone.
4. A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987 (Dir. Ching Siu-Tung, a.k.a Tony Ching)
A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂) is exactly the kind of film that manages to get approved, not to mention re-released and remade, in China: short on gratuitous or realistic violence, while what little supernatural or gothic aspects abound are wrapped tightly in the familiar garments of “tradition” and approved cultural matters. Apparently, no cults or superstitions are allowed unless those superstitions and cults have roots in canonized source material, as is the case here.
Featuring an unmotivated tax collector who finds himself in a haunted temple seduced by a spirit, and later attempts to save the demon that has enslaved her, the work falls very neatly into the tradition of Hong Kong horror, perhaps captured best by Rick Lau’s Mr. Vampire (僵尸先生) and its proliferation of sequels. The effects are terrible, if that kind of thing delights you, but the spooky ambience is exactly right for the season in a way that fetus-eating housewives and highly-politicized cinematic tracts are not.
5. Ab-normal Beauty, 2004 (Dir. The Pang Brothers)
Ab-normal Beauty (死亡寫真) tracks horror themes closer to The Eye than the few films that make it through to China. Art student Jin develops a fascination with photographing the dead and dying after she witness an accident outside of her home. Her obsession attracts the attention of another, who terrorizes her with VHS videos sent to her home. Ab-normal Beauty, like The Eye (the other Pang Brothers film on this list), is more explicit in its adherence to horror traditions across Asian cinema, especially Japan, and even horror cinema from the United States.
Cover photo: Still from The Eye (via Zombievamp)