Though increasingly marketable since the turn of the millennium, ‘Asian horror’ is neither a homogeneous category nor a regionally inclusive label. The term ‘Asian horror cinema’ has been largely used to refer to scary movies produced by a handful of East Asian countries including Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, erasing crucial cultural and historical differences between these film traditions and overlooking the emergence of noteworthy occult media in regions such as Southeast Asia. Rather than taking the term ‘Asian horror’ at face value, taking a brief historical foray into a particular subgenre – films and TV shows featuring female ghosts – reveals tensions between cultural specificity, cross-cultural influence and accelerating globalisation as domestic media industries both compete and (grudgingly?) cooperate with global Hollywood.
For viewers attuned to the fault lines between local nuance and international appeal, ghost films can unsettle western preconceptions about the horror genre. In the Anglo-American context, a threatening monster has long been regarded as the defining element of ‘the horror film’.
In Asian cinema, however, monstrous figures abound in art and indie cinema, not just horror flicks, and elicit a range of emotional responses not limited to terror, such as empathy and nostalgia. Some of Asian cinema’s most fascinating female spectres are anachronistic revenants who return to haunt the present — betrayed sweethearts, queer schoolgirls and resentful children foremost among them.
The 1964 omnibus Japanese art film Kwaidan (Ghost Story), exemplifies the fusion of culturally-specific folklore and worldly cosmopolitanism that animates what we now call Asian horror. In reworking the Japanese motif of the vindictive spirit (onryou), Masaki Kobayashi’s film adapts the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish folklorist who moved to Japan at the end of the 19th century.
A Kwaidan episode entitled ‘Black Hair’ – about a devoted wife abandoned by a heartless samurai – exerts lasting influence. Ghostly women with long black tresses obscuring their faces are prominent in the hugely popular J-horror films Ringu (The Ring) (Japan, 1998) and Juon: The Grudge (Japan, 2003), that launched Asian horror’s pivotal moment of global visibility in the early 21st century. Black hair as the mark of monstrous-beautiful femininity continues in contemporary Malaysian and Singaporean films about the pontianak, a female ghost of childbirth.
Ghost films offer potent historical allegories, whether in their narratives or their conditions of production and circulation. In the 1987 Hong Kong film Rouge, a spectral prostitute’s missed encounter with her faithless lover nostalgically inscribes a local Hong Kong identity threatened by the impending handover to mainland Chinese rule. The spectral sibling in A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea, 2003) and the lesbian ghost in Memento Mori (South Korea, 1998) register the off-screen impact of the South Korean government’s lifting of protectionist policies in 1986, as domestic blockbusters went head-to-head with Hollywood imports by drawing on the distinctive subcultural sensibility of Korean adolescent girls (sonyeo).
At the turn of the millennium, slick Southeast Asian horror movies like the self-exoticising Nang Nak (Thailand, 1999) and so-called ‘pan-Asian’ co-productions attempted to combat Hollywood dominance through technically polished movies with both local and international appeal. An early pan-Asian horror anthology, Three (2002; re-released as Three… Extremes in 2004) tried to maximize its drawing power by packaging a trio of short films by prominent directors from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan.
In the wake of the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the downturn experienced by several film industries in the region, pan-Asian initiatives involving co-productions, co-financing, and talent-sharing between neighbouring countries flourished. Filmmakers dreamed of challenging Hollywood dominance by consolidating key Asian film markets into a vast regional audience numerically comparable to that of the US domestic population.
Today, the push-and-pull between Hollywood media conglomerates’ attempts to command lucrative Asian markets and local resistance to or complicity with those efforts continues to play out, this time on the streaming platforms that trounced theatrically-released movies during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a crowded online video market, Netflix hopes to emerge as the global winner of the post-pandemic streaming wars. This means airing addictive shows tailored for domestic, regional, and international audiences worldwide. (Shout out here to Tale of the Nine-Tailed (2020), about a mythic Korean fox spirit or gumiho, a horror-melodrama series loaded with genuine creepiness and unexpected narrative turns.)
This is where a new transnational (read: not entirely Asian) horror series like Trese (2021) comes in. An animated adaptation of a Filipino graphic novel with a cult following, the detective-horror series emblematises Netflix’s attempt to establish itself as a global streaming media giant with niche appeal in a country that boasts one of the highest percentages of heavy online users in Southeast Asia.
Asian ghost films can unsettle western preconceptions about the horror genre
Influenced by supernatural US TV shows like The X-files, Trese reworks Philippine folklore to offer a social allegory of police brutality, corruption, and human rights violations under the Duterte regime. Showcasing the gritty urban geography of metropolitan Manila, cases unfold in districts such as Ongpin in Chinatown, the haunted Balete Drive in Quezon City, the nightclubs of Malate and the posh suburbs of Makati. Amid a bevy of supernatural characters, spectres stand out, such as the white lady (a wronged female ghost) murdered for a second time in the pilot, and the vengeful foetus or tiyanak that haunts a movie studio in episode three.
Netflix’s gambit appears to have paid off, with Trese garnering top ratings in the Philippines in the weeks following its release in June 2021. The animated series’ beautiful, moody cityscape and its blend of urban legends and precolonial animist practices offsets its uneven, poorly-paced writing. (To be fair, this might be due to its unusually short six-episode season, a possible sign that Netflix hedged its bets.)
Though publicity hyped its Filipino and Filipino-American cast, writers, and producers, Trese’s historical significance lies in its transnational behind-the-scenes origins. Despite being billed as ‘the first Filipino animated series to debut on Netflix’, the majority of its animation artists were not based in the Philippines. Trese is produced by Base Entertainment (headquartered in Indonesia and Singapore), crafted by two animation studios, Lex+Otis and Tiger Animation (based in Los Angeles and Seoul, respectively) and distributed by Netflix (headquartered in California with offices in 10 countries, including the Philippines).
Recalling the old adage about joining forces with rivals you can’t beat, media outfits in Southeast Asia and Korea attempt to take a piece of the pie even as Hollywood conglomerates expand their hold on Asian markets. How these trends impact Asian cinema’s future female spectres remains to be seen.
Bliss Cua Lim is a professor in film and media studies at University of California, Irvine