Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Noroi: The Curse is a strange little Japanese found-footage horror film whose plot defies succinct explanation. Let’s just say it involves a psychic little girl, a man in a tinfoil outfit, ectoplasmic worms, and demon called Kagutaba.

Similar to The Blair Witch Project, the movie is framed around the conceit of a documentary filmmaker having mysteriously vanished and left behind footage showing the events leading up to his disappearance. This particular filmmaker happens to be a paranormal researcher whose investigation of multiple leads introduces us to a lot of different story elements in the first hour. At first, some of those elements seem like loose threads, but soon the movie begins drawing the threads together into a web of intricate mythology. It’s like seeing a whole season of The X-Files condensed down into two unsettling hours.

The creepiest part of the movie comes when it ventures to the former site of Shimokage, a village turned dam where people in the neighboring town hang sickles over their doors to ward off evil spirits and where local historians dig up old recordings of rituals performed at the local Demon Shrine. There really is such a thing as demon shrines (oni jinja) in Japan, and while these places are not usually built around the tradition of “sorcerers” summoning demons as in the movie, just the idea of a remote place where demons are somehow worshipped makes for some spooky imagination fodder.

One thing Japanese horror has going for it is that it can draw from a deep well of history and culture that goes back thousands of years. America is a comparatively young nation with less of a mystique about it. When a university ethnologist in Noroi: The Curse presents a 200-year-old document with mention of an unknown entity, Kagutaba (whose name means “a tool capable of causing disasters”), it feels like a that could be found in real Japanese history.

This just scratches the surface of Noroi: The Curse. There are other creepy elements to this movie beyond the sight of the village priest donning his ritual Kagutaba mask. After all, this movie shares something awful in common with the previous entry on this list in that it evinces, shall we say, the same unorthodox taste in food.


Thirst (2009)

Everybody has their own favorite Park Chan-wook film. Others may prefer Oldboy, The Handmaiden, or even his English-language psychological thriller Stoker. But Thirst is the film that first really sold me on the director’s brand of twisted genius. It is a vampire movie par excellence.

The movie tells the story of a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun, who volunteers for an experimental medical procedure to cure a deadly disease, only to wind up infected with the disease and in need of a blood transfusion. His skin breaks out in boils and the only way to fight back the illness is to keep replenishing his system with new blood from comatose hospital patients. Worshipped by clamoring mobs as a survivor of the disease, he secretly subsists as a vampire, complete with superhuman strength and a sensitivity to sunlight.

The movie takes its time setting things up. In his new guise as survivor and savior, Sang-hyun enters the orbit of a sickly old friend who lives with his domineering mother and his put-upon wife, Tae-ju. Sang-Hyun is attracted to Tae-ju. This sets the stage for what’s to come.

Thirst is a film that rewards patience. It’s a vampire movie, one of my five favorites, but it’s also a kind of brutal love story whose twisty pleasures make it understandable why The New York Times would call Park Chan-wook “the man who put Korean cinema on the map.”


The Wailing (2016)

In January of last year, /Film’s own Jacob Hall wrote about how 2016 was a banner year for horror. It was also a pretty good year for South Korean horror, with the country delivering up not one but two genre entries that scored a 95% or better on Rotten Tomatoes (you’ll hear about the other film in a moment). Right now, The Wailing is in a precarious position where there have been talks of a Western remake involving Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions. People at the production company apparently think highly enough of the film that they have mentioned it in the same breath as The Exorcist and Seven.

It might just be every bit the masterpiece those films are. This is a film that unsettled me like no other in recent memory. The film conjures such a vivid sense of place with its rainy mountain village that, as I write this, that village almost seems more real than half the places I have visited on Earth.

The story follows a local police officer (Kwak Do-won) who is investigating a weird disease and a series of violent murders that have broken out in the village. Suspicion falls on a Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who has taken up shelter in a remote house nearby. South Korea and Japan have a fraught relationship; a 2014 BBC World Service poll showed that South Korea is the country with the second most negative perception of Japan in the world. One of the ways The Wailing deftly manipulates the local segment of its audience is by playing upon people’s xenophobic fears. The film initially demonizes the foreign stranger, only to make you wonder if it plans to subvert that stereotype because having him be the bad guy would just be too obvious..

The Wailing starts out looking like it is going to be a horror comedy like South Korean favorite The Host. Before long, it has descended into tragedy, a nightmare of possessed daughters and shaman rituals. The exorcism scene alone is a masterclass in cross-cutting.

Being deceived is a basic human fear, even when it comes in the form of self-deception. What’s interesting about The Wailing is how it uses audience manipulation as a way of commenting on the nature of human existence. If there is such a thing as angels and demons, spiritual entities capable of exerting influence over human behavior, then what’s scary is that a person might not always know enough to recognize the demons from the angels.

Continue Reading 8 Great Asian Horror Films That Hollywood Hasn’t Remade >>

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