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Horror Meisters of Asian Cinema

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Looking for a good scare? For spine-tingling paranormal thrillers, vengeful ghost stories, gruesome urban legends and supernatural horror comedies, curate an Asian horror movie marathon with the filmographies of the best contemporary Asian directors working in the horror genre.

From trailblazing J-horror filmmakers still thriving in the genre to Thai and Indonesian horror specialists who are refreshing the game, the 13 horror meisters profiled below are responsible for some of the scariest and most intriguing horror movies out of Asia in the past two-plus decades.


Thai cinema is known for horror films, and that reputation largely began with Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom's eerie 2004 horror Shutter about a photographer whose photographs reveal ghostly images. A hit in Thailand and beyond, Shutter inspired several remakes including a Hollywood version (directed by Japanese horror filmmaker Ochiai Masayuki). Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom's next joint effort in 2007, Alone is again a chilling tale of supernatural haunting and karmic retribution, this time about a woman haunted by her conjoined twin sister. Following segments in the 4bia, Phobia 2 and The ABCs of Death anthologies, Banjong Pisanthanakun's first solo feature Pee Mak in 2013 proved to be another benchmark Thai horror film. Based on the famous legend of Mae Nak, Pee Mak became the highest-grossing Thai film of all time, and inspired a boom of horror comedies. Drawing from Thai folklore, Banjong Pisanthanakun's most recent work The Medium about a cursed shaman family took the top prize at BiFan and dominated the 30th Suphannahong National Film Awards. Notably, The Medium is a Thai-Korea production co-written with The Wailing director Na Hong Jin and actor Chantavit Thanasewee, the star of Banjong Pisanthanakun's Hello Stranger and One Day – because he occasionally directs hit romcoms too.


Taiwanese horror films have been in the limelight in recent years, and the trend traces back to Cheng Wei Hao's The Tag-Along in 2015. The spooky thriller is inspired by an urban legend about a little girl in red and folklore about forest spirits that lure people astray. The Tag-Along became Taiwan's highest-grossing horror film in a decade at the time of release, and its 2017 sequel The Tag-Along 2 did even better at the box office. The success of The Tag-Along series paved the way for other Taiwanese horror movies drawing on urban legends and folk traditions, such as the spin-off The Tag-Along: Devil Fish, The Rope Curse, The Bridge Curse and Incantation. Outside of the two Tag-Along films, Cheng has married horror and supernatural elements into other genres – psycho-thriller Who Killed Cock Robin builds to a shockingly grisly conclusion, sci-fi crime mystery The Soul deploys eerie visions of witchcraft, and the absurdist mini-series The Pond circles back to a near-death experience at a mysterious pond. Cheng Wei Hao's recent blockbuster Marry My Dead Body isn't a horror film – but it does involve a ghost and ghostly traditions.


It may not be first instinct to think of Fruit Chan as a horror director, as he made his name as the champion of social realism with the "1997 Trilogy" and "Prostitute Trilogy" of award-winning films. However, the genre that the Hong Kong auteur has consistently returned to over the past two decades is horror, starting with his most representative Dumplings in 2004 about the gruesome extents one will go to for the sake of everlasting youth. Save for an ill-conceived 2009 English-language remake of Nakata Hideo's pre-Ring film Don't Look Up, Fruit Chan's horror stories, including segments in the Tales from the Dark and Tales from the Occult anthologies, have emphasized rich visuals and social themes. His most recent feature-length film Coffin Homes is a satirical horror that combines supernatural scares with the truly scary reality of Hong Kong's astronomical housing prices.


Herman Yau's filmography may cover just about every genre under the sun, but the jack-of-all-trades Hong Kong director does his most iconic work in horror. In the 90s, he unleashed the notorious stomach-turning cult classics The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome, both starring Anthony Wong as a killer who kills in the most monstrous manner. Yau directed the first six films of the classic Troublesome Night series of Hong Kong ghost stories, as well as the 20th installment Always Be With You for the franchise's 20th anniversary in 2017. Also in 2017, Yau and Wong tackled horror together again for the grotesque paranormal thriller The Sleep Curse. A hidden gem: Yau's 2007 Gong Tau is a wonderfully campy throwback to the gory black magic exploitation films of Shaw Brothers.


Jang Jae Hyun has the shortest filmography of the directors on this list, but he has already emerged as a specialist in Korean occult horror. Expanding on his short film 12th Assistant Deacon, the writer-director made his feature debut in 2015 with The Priests, which was pitched as Korea's first exorcism film. Combining Eastern occultism and Western exorcism, the unnerving supernatural thriller follows two priests trying to save a possessed teen. After serving as a screenwriter for Lim Dae Woong's psychological horror House of the Disappeared, Jang Jae Hyun returned to the director's chair with 2019's Svaha: The Sixth Finger, which follows a cult-busting pastor who comes upon a mysterious group linked to a series of murders and whispers of a girl born as a demon. Expected to be released in 2023, Jang's anticipated third film Exhuma is an occult thriller gathering the top-drawer cast of Choi Min Sik, Yu Hae Jin, Kim Go Eun and Lee Do Hyun as people tasked to exhume and relocate a cursed tomb.


Joko Anwar is a key name in the recent rise of Indonesian cinema. Though comfortable in a range of genres from crime thriller to drama, Joko Anwar is best known internationally for horror. His 2017 occult horror Satan's Slaves about a haunted family with a chilling tradition topped the domestic box office and secured distribution in over 40 territories. The 2022 sequel Satan's Slaves 2: Communion has done even better, and now stands as the third biggest Indonesian film of all time. In between, Joko Anwar wrote Kimo Stamboel's The Queen of Black Magic and directed Impetigore which calls on Indonesian folklore and black magic. Impetigore notably swept six prizes at the Citra Awards including Best Film and Best Director. Besides continuing to build the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe, Joko Anwar has announced the new horror film Grave Torture for 2024.


Kimo Stamboel first made his breakthrough as half of The Mo Brothers directing duo with Timo Tjahjanto, together helming the slasher film Macabre and crime actioners Killers and Headshot. As a solo director, he has specialized in horror, starting in 2019 with the supernatural survival horror DreadOut based on the video game and the occult blockbuster The Queen of Black Magic based on the 80s Indonesian horror film of the same name. Kimo Stamboel has continued to play on supernatural terrors and black magic in the 2022 horror thrillers Ivanna and Jailangkung: Sandekala, the web series Blood Curse and his most recent Sewu Dino about a thousand-day hex. Sewu Dino is to date the highest-grossing Indonesian film of 2023, and among Indonesia's top ten biggest domestic films of all time.


The scariest ghosts in Kurosawa Kiyoshi's films are those of the mind. The Japanese director's horror thrillers connect to an unsettling fear and darkness of the human psyche. Following early genre efforts like the haunted mansion scarefest Sweet Home and the slasher The Guard from Underground, Kurosawa's first film to garner international acclaim and establish the style he would become known for is 1997's Cure, a psycho horror starring Yakusho Koji as a detective investigating serial killings linked to a young man with uncanny powers. He would continue to collaborate with Yakusho for many films including the paranormal horror Séance, the techno horror Pulse and the psychological mystery horror Retribution about a detective chasing an apparition while investigating serial murders. Since 2016's French romantic horror Daguerrotype and psychological crime thriller Creepy, Kurosawa has moved farther away from horror – his most recent film is the Silver Lion-winning wartime spy drama Wife of a Spy. However, the director returns to roots with the upcoming French revenge thriller Serpent's Path, which is a remake of his 1998 V-cinema title Hebi no Michi.


If there's any single film that put J-horror on the international map, it would have to be The Ring. Nakata Hideo's 1998 classic emphatically introduced Japanese horror movies to the world, scaring the heck out of everyone in the process. Its success led to a long-running series of Ring films including a 2002 Hollywood remake, and greatly influenced the horror genre at large. The Sadako films are still coming to this day – Nakata himself directed the 2019 Sadako reboot. Though the long-haired ghost may seem cliched and meme-y now, few films can match the original Ring when it comes to slow-burning dread building to a terrifying climax. What makes Nakata Hideo's horror films scary isn't the long-haired ghost but rather his ability to create an encompassing mood of fear and foreboding. Nakata has directed many more horror and supernatural films outside of The Ring series, such as Dark Water, Kaidan, The Complex, Ghost Theater, Stigmatized Properties and It's in the Woods.


After The Ring, the most well-known Japanese horror franchise is Ju-on or The Grudge. Shimizu Takashi started Ju-on in 2000 as low-budget straight-to-video films about a home cursed with the raging grudge of a vengeful spirit. Following the blockbuster success of the first theatrically released Ju-on in 2002, the series grew into a global horror franchise complete with an American offshoot series of films, the first two of which were directed by Shimizu. Specializing in horror, Shimizu has fed on all kinds of fears over the years, from a haunted house ride (The Shock Labyrinth) to a giant rabbit (Tormented) to a child whisperer (Innocent Curse) to virtual reality (Immersion). More recently, he introduced the "Horror Village" series of films – Howling Village, Suicide Forest Village and Ox-Head Village – set in notorious haunted locations in Japan.


Shiraishi Koji started making horror films in the early 2000s, including installments of Honto ni Atta! Noroi no Video, a pseudo-docuseries investigating videos of paranormal phenomena. This pseudo-documentary style of paranormal investigation and found footage would become Shiraishi's signature in later works including his 2005 breakthrough Noroi: The Curse, Occult, Cult, Shirome and Cho Akunin. Most recently, he's taken the fake horror documentary to a new level of mastery and meta by jumping into the fray onscreen in Welcome to the Occult Forest, Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi and Never Send Me, Please. Shiraishi also works in other subgenres of horror – extreme cinema fans may know him best for the 2009 splatter film Grotesque, which achieved notoriety for being banned in the U.K. He even directed Sadako vs Kayako, the campy 2016 crossover of The Ring and Ju-on franchises.


A writer on Shutter and Alone, Sophon Sakdaphisit made his directorial debut in 2008 with Coming Soon, in which an evil spirit from a horror movie enters the real world. His sophomore effort Laddaland, inspired by urban legends of a haunted housing estate in Chiang Mai, was one of Thailand's biggest movies of 2011 and swept six awards at the 21st Suphannahong National Film Awards. Venturing into teen horror territory, 2014's The Swimmers is about a love triangle gone fatally wrong, while a broken teenage promise returns to haunt a woman's daughter in 2017's The Promise. Teens making bad decisions also drive the 2019 Netflix series The Stranded about high schoolers on a deserted island encountering strange incidents that reference Thai myths. This year, Sophon Sakdaphisit's twisty occult mystery Home For Rent has topped Thailand's box office with the tale of a family being terrorized by sinister forces after moving into a new home.


Before going blockbuster with Train To Busan, Yeon Sang Ho made his start in animation with dark indie films that exposed the horrifying nature of humans – The King of Pigs, The Fake and Seoul Station, which depicts the harrowing start of the zombie outbreak in far more terrifying manner than Train to Busan. Outside of the zombie apocalypse, the Korean director has gotten under the skin and into the psyche with supernatural horror in the mystery thriller series The Curse about a girl who brings death and Netflix's dark fantasy hit Hellbound, which brings fiery Hell upon humanity. Next up, besides the second season of Hellbound, Yeon Sang Ho is also directing Netflix's Parasyte: The Grey, a live-action series adaptation of the sci-fi horror manga Parasyte.

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Published October 25, 2023

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