By Kaleigh Fleming
There is often a push for more women-centric films on social media platforms these days. Films that pass the Bechdel test, films where women are the central characters, and especially films where women aren’t on display simply for the pleasure of a heterosexual, cisgendered male audience.
We strive for female characters who are strong in the sense of character depth, rather than physical strength. In other words, she should have presence. She should be someone with a personality, someone whose presence goes beyond the female sidekick, the male gaze, and the stereotypical kickass-woman type. Unfortunately, it is this ‘kickass-woman’ who many filmmakers seem to think ticks the box of having a female character who will ‘appease the feminists’, Western cinema makes a couple efforts to include one or two films featuring female protagonists (amongst hundreds of films per year with the usual male protagonists), and then they sit back expecting a pat on the back. The fact of the matter, however, is that there has always been women-centric cinema, it just doesn’t really exist in Hollywood. Instead, it exists — thrives even — in Asian horror. Most specifically, Japanese and South Korean films.
Let me break it down real quick: modern Asian horror films almost always feature female protagonists. There is rarely a male love interest and most, if not all, of the relationships explored in the films are those between women. Asian horror raises many questions about how women are treated in society, but also in the film industry. If there’s a genre that succeeds so well with women as protagonists in nearly every film, why is there such a lack of females in other genres? In the West, the film and acting industry (including the theatre) has always had more females than males who audition for roles, and yet speaking parts for males outnumber speaking parts for females by almost 70%. This means that only 30% of women get speaking roles in cinema, even though there are 2.25 male actors to every one female actor. And it doesn’t get easier. Roles begin to drop off for women over the age of twenty-nine. After the age of forty, 80% of leading roles are given to men (also over the age of 40). These statistics persist, even though women purchase half of movie tickets in the United States. Suffice to say, there is an audience for female speaking roles — it’s at least half of the demographic. And in case anyone’s still on the fence about misogyny in the film industry, consider this: Western horror is “the only film genre where women appear and speak as often as men.” It appears that horror gives women a platform, regardless of its origin, and yet the women in Asian horror still come out on top.
Asian horror has risen as a genre that is almost entirely female, persisting in its femininity in a blatantly misogynistic world, both in the West and in Asia itself. More and more women are speaking out against this misogyny, and unfair working conditions in both societies. Women in the West are refusing to answer dieting questions, and female idols in Asia are calling out the love ban, which is a contractual prohibition from having romantic relationships, lest their male fans ‘feel betrayed.’ They are rebelling against the notion that they are the property of their fanbase. These are feminist issues, and the questions is, really: what are we going to do with the issues that arise from outdated societal practices which are affecting women today? Asian horror films don’t necessarily provide answers to society’s problems but, like the ghosts they feature, they make us uncomfortable. They show us that something is wrong, and they make it difficult for us to forget.
East Asian horror films, unlike many of their Western horror equivalents, explore far deeper issues than how to end up as the (often desired) “Final Girl” trope: the virginal brunette who has kept all her clothes on throughout the film and, as a reward, is the last character left alive at the end of a slasher film. While female protagonists in Asian horror do, often, represent many qualities of the Final Girl, Asian horror still manages to explore different, more engaging themes. The Asian horror protagonist is not virginal to offset the sexually objectified blonde woman who is often the first to die; she is not brunette to express intelligence, rather than sex (two often-seen extremes of a female character that often seem to have no in-between); she simply has bigger issues to be concerned about. Asian horror explores these ‘bigger issues’ in themes such as shame, suicide and homosexuality to name only a few, and what happens to women in East Asian societies — especially women who fall outside the norm of societal expectations: a husband, a family, children — or a career. A family or a career are often mutually exclusive.
In Dark Water, the entire film revolves around a mother’s relationship with her daughter, and her attempts to keep custody of her throughout a messy divorce. This movie features only two prominent male side character: her ex-husband and a man who comes to her aid when no one else will. This rare male/female relationship never tips over into the sexual and, therefore, smashes the ridiculous assumption that men and women cannot just be friends. There is no indication that he does this for any reason other than kindness. There are no sexual undertones, and there never needs to be. The mother and daughter in this film and the female ghosts are enough to keep the viewer’s attention without the aid of these male characters. Despite its lack of male protagonist, it is one of the most popular Asian horror films to date. Dark Water’s mother-daughter relationship is one of the most realistic and touching I have ever experienced in horror, or in any film. This film does not shy away from unusual or difficult family situations, and the fact that the mother must fight impossible odds to stay with her daughter despite being the best parental candidate shows how repressive society is to women. Despite the emotional abuse and harassment her ex-husband displays towards the mother throughout the film, the overruling law is almost never on her side. No one questions when women are ‘acting crazy’, because society expects them to. Society makes it easy to look away from feminist issues.
So, what happens to those women who have found themselves, for whatever reason, overlooked, or on the outside? Asian horror rarely shies away from the harsh answer to this question, whereas other Asian films and dramas would rather treat these issues lightly, or even sweep these issues under the rug.
Asian horror focusses on these women who fall outside of the expected ‘norm’. Often, there are themes, such as homosexuality, which are not exploited the way they are in Western horror. In the Whispering Corridors series, Wishing Stairs, the most prominent relationship is between Yun Jin-sung and Kim So-hee. The film explores the rather one-sided love between the two. “All I want is you,” So-hee says to Jin-sung, only to pass it off, afterwards as a joke. The film explores how that tenuous relationship holds up (or doesn’t) under the pressures of jealousy and a love that must be repressed. The Whispering Corridors central plot points are often homosexual or homoerotic relationships in all-girls schools, and how they are viewed within that female environment. They don’t shy away from how society often pits girls and women against one another, which is unfortunately a very prevalent issue, not only in films and in books, but in real life as well. We never want to be ‘like other girls’.
The women in these films should theoretically fit into the female-centric environments depicted in these films, but they don’t, because they somehow deviate from the ‘norm’. It is this alienation that makes this character the perfect candidate for the Asian horror film, rather than — as in Western horror — her body, or her willingness to be explorative, sexually. So-called ‘deviance’ in Western horror tends to involve lesbian scenes that do not further the plot, nor do they have any purpose other than as a lure. That is why these scenes are often depicted in the trailers of Western horror films — to attract the (incorrectly) imagined male audience. The fact is that horror movies audiences are mostly female, despite the stereotype of horror fans being white, cis-gendered males. Karyn Kusama, American director of the Western horror film Jennifer’s Body says that this film was “designed with both feminists and 15-year-old boys in mind [which] may be one of the best ways for a young male audience to experience a female story without feeling like they have been limited by a female perspective.” See the problem here? Yeah, me too. Kusama makes the gross assumption that 15-year-old boys can’t (and shouldn’t) be feminists, but also that all male viewers are heterosexual. Asian horror creates films where the story is assumed to be good enough to engage people of all genders.
Many believe that women are often in horror films because they are more emotive than men. This makes them either more emotive as a ‘victim’ or “more likely [than men] to experience the deep emotion needed to become such a vengeful spirit”. But of course men can experience deep emotions, and of course they can experience fear and be victims, but it is women who are allowed to display these emotions in our society — one of the many regrettable components of our patriarchal world.
The better question, then, might be: why do ghosts in Asian horror only ever come to women? The answer seems clear: women are often the only ones who notice. They are so many parallels between the East Asian ghost, and their living, female counterparts — the protagonist (who represents all women in society — East Asian, Western, and everywhere). After over a decade of contemporary Asian horror, it is safe to say that these ghost/woman parallels are not accidental. This is because women and ghosts in Asian horror share the same plight of being misunderstood and being, somehow, ‘on the outside’, whether it is on the outside of society, or on the outside of human understanding, or even the physical world. Ghosts in Asian horror seek out women because they are both in the same position: overlooked, and ignored when they make people uncomfortable. Just the wind, just faulty plumbing… just a woman. At least until they become too big, too vengeful, too horrifying to be ignored.
In films like Shutter, the ghost seeks the help of the female protagonist in order to exact her revenge on the man that wronged her. Without the protagonist Jane’s help, it is unlikely that the ghost’s tragic story would have ever been heard. The ending is devastating not only because of the trauma the living characters undergo, but also because the ghost’s revenge is never exacted, because she, in many ways, is still in love with the man who destroyed her. This is not typical ‘strong female character’ material, but the ghost, Natre, is one of the strongest female characters in terms of who she is. She is a lot more memorable and devastating, both in the feelings of horror and empathy she pulls from the audience, than any kickass woman type who is supposed to tick the box.
Asian horror realises that a woman’s deviance is not the core ‘oddity’ of her personality, but rather an aspect of it that is both her deepest self, as well as the thing which causes society to cast her out. She cannot separate herself from it. Coinciding with this entrapment, the ghosts in these films are often rape victims, girls who died from a botched abortion because of the shame her pregnancy would have brought on her family, or they committed suicide because of one or many societal pressures placed upon her. These societal pressures are often in place because of patriarchal ideas and rules. Abortion is legal now, in most East Asian countries, but it wasn’t always. It is, however, still very expensive, and not all women can afford it. Rape is often kept quiet. Both the women and the ghosts have been repressed by rules made in a patriarchal society, and they suffer for it.
Ultimately, there are no solutions yet, and East Asian horror films do not re-invent the LGBT genre. They, like their Western counterparts, suffer from the fact that they often end in heartbreak, even in 2017. It is unfortunate but, as stated, Asian horror doesn’t provide the answers. Instead, it offers exposure to these issues in a world where homosexuality is sometimes still treated as a joke or a caricature or, worse, a disease — something to be cured or eradicated. The girls in these films are anything but jokes or caricatures, and the audience is urged to take them seriously, and to hurt for them, because they are designed to break our hearts. These films portray strong, realistic female characters who do not need (and in fact, often could not even use) physical strength against the things that oppresses them. They do not even need the ghost in the film to be ‘the enemy.’ In many cases, they either slip into the ether with their incorporeal counterparts, or they never fully escape the ghost’s oppressive presence. The difference between Asian and Western horror, however, is that the Western ghost rarely has a purpose at all. It’s just there for the jump-scares and so, Western horror is rarely frightening. Asian horror is, because the ghost represents something that is very real, for women everywhere. Here, the ghost represents the pressures and obscurity that society forces on women. The truth is this: women-centric cinema is going strong, and it exists right here, in Asian Horror films. And if they make us frightened and uncomfortable, maybe that’s something to consider outside of the safe belief that ‘it’s just a movie’. After all, if we’ve learned anything from horror films, it’s usually the people that deny the existence of the oppressive forces who don’t see it coming for them. Right?
Kaleigh is a current JET from Canada, currently living in the beautiful prefecture of Ehime. She spends most of her time watching short horror on YouTube, trying to make friends with stray cats, and reading pretty much anything she can get her hands on.
3) Yūrei “Andrew Black and the Mask of Reason”