New Asian Female Ghost Films

A review of The New Asian Female Ghost Films: Modernity, Gender Politics, and Transnational Transformation, by Hunju Lee.

Hunjun Lee’s dissertation explores the textual, intertextual, and contextual aspects of what she calls the New Asian female ghost films, which revolve around prematurely dead women’s revenge and were produced in Japan, South Korean, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand after the release of a Japanese horror film titled Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998). The monstrous feminine in these Asian films, Lee argues, is a hybrid construction of the generic conventions of Western horror films and the cultural traditions of female ghost stories in these Asian countries. Relating her (inter)textual analyses to the socio-historical context in which these Asian horror films were produced and distributed, Lee further argues that these films are symptoms of the local people’s anxieties about their countries’ drastic transformations resulting from the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s.

The dissertation includes eight chapters and a conclusion. The Introduction begins with a critique of American media’s stereotypical reading of contemporary Asian horror films. First, regarding almost all Asian horror films as mere imitations of the Japanese horror film Ring (1998), American critics have neglected each Asian country’s particular cultural and cinematic traditions. In addition, overemphasizing the differences between Asian and Western horror films, American critics treat Asian horror films as “authentic” texts and completely deny their ties with Western horror films. What is more important is that American media tends to masculinize Asian horror films by highlighting issues of excessive violence and cruelties, thus appealing to male spectatorship. Highlighting the role of gender and sexuality conspicuous in these films, Lee proposes to adopt a feminist perspective to analyze these films. Lee then further explains the theoretical frameworks used in her dissertation and summarizes the contents of all chapters.

Chapter 2 reviews Western theories on the genre of horror films, especially focusing on issues of monstrosity. Lee first reviews the general anthropological (monstrosity as categorical transgression), psychological (monstrosity as repressed desires), and socio-political approaches (monstrosity as disruption of dominant social norms) to horror films.  Lee then moves to psychoanalytic feminist criticism of horror films, discussing issues of the pre-Oedipal, maternal, abject, gaze, identification, and spectatorship prominent in horror films. However these psychoanalytic feminist criticisms have limitations, such as isolated analyses of gender and ahistorical perspective. Emphasizing issues of culture, society, ideology, history, race, and identity, Lee proposes to use alternative approaches to analyze horror films, such as gender ideology, postcolonial and Post-Freudian studies.

Chapter 3 reviews theories on cross-cultural cinematic remake. Questioning ideas of pure originality and authenticity, Lee advocates using notions of intertextuality and transtextuality to analyze film remaking. Highlighting the impossibility of faithful remaking, Lee argues that film remaking is an endless process of transformation with no clear point of origin and it is actually a product of cultural reciprocity. Lee goes on to point out that more than any other genre, horror film is most frequently remade across different time and space.

Chapter 4 begins with a critique of some problematic ways of defining and categorizing contemporary Asian horror film. After clarifying the miscellaneous terms of Asian horror film, Lee again proposes to use a term she coined to name the genre discussed in her dissertation: New Asian female ghost film. She then discusses the main features of this genre, such as the cinematic hybridity that involves Asian countries’ cultural/cinematic traditions, the American slasher film, and postmodern horror films.  Certain contextual factors also contributed to the formation of the New Asian female ghost film, such as issues of colonialism, postcolonialism, modernization, the rise of feminist discourse in Asian countries, and the pan-Asian popular culture and transnational filmmaking.

Chapter 5 discusses cultural traditions and the socio-historical conditions in which Asian female ghost films were born and developed. For instance, Confucianism is probably the most influential moral system in Asia, regulating the behavior and protocol of family members on a daily basis. Many female ghosts in Asian horror films are usually portrayed as conformists, victims, or transgressors of Confucian ideology.  In addition, Buddhist ideas of life/death cycle, reincarnation, moral judgment and retribution, ghost pacification, and funeral rituals are quite prevalent in Asian female ghost films. Lee continues to argue that Asian countries’ modernity also contributed to the formation of Asian female ghost films. As these countries quickly move forward with modernization projects, their “shameful” historical memories and pre-modernity, such as superstition, shamanism, folktales, legends, and mythologies, were repressed but returned in female ghost films.

Chapter 6 focuses on the impacts of Asian crisis on the emergence of the New Asian female ghost films. Asian countries underwent dramatic social, economic, cultural, and political transmutations resulted from the Asian crisis in the late 1990s. The New Asian female ghost films, Lee argues, were symptoms of local people’s anxieties about the undesirable transformations their countries were struggling with. For instance, the definition of women’s roles was changed in order to better cope with the financial crisis. Because of the high unemployment rate, Asian women were expected to be “strong and wise mothers” devoted to their domestic roles as they were in pre-modern times. This changed social discourse and was embodied in the figure of the monstrous maternal ghost. Lee goes on to argue that during the period of the Asian crisis, local film industries did not decline, but rather flourished. It was in this socio-historical context that the genre of the New Asian female ghost film emerged.

Chapter 7 is a case study of four New Asian female ghost films: Ju-On (2002, Japan), The Eye (2002, Hong Kong/Thailand), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, South Korea), and Shutter (2004, Thailand). Lee analyzes these films’ prominent textual features and motifs, their intertextual connections with Western horror films, and the social-historical conditions represented in them. Chapter 8 is a case study of the four American remakes of Asian horror films:  The Grudge (2004), Shutter (2008), The Eye (2008), and The Uninvited (2009). Against the popular approach that regards these films as simple distortions or Americanization of their Asian originals, Lee aims to analyze the multidirectional and intertextual nexus in the process of transnational film remaking.

Hunju Lee’s dissertation offers a systematic and nuanced study of what she calls the New Asian female ghost films that flourished in the international market since the late 1990s. Highlighting the textual, intertextual, and contextual aspects of these films, Lee’s dissertation makes significant contributions to feminist theories and transnational film studies.

Daisy Yan Du
Assistant Professor
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
University of Miami
y.du@miami.edu

Primary Sources

A Tale of Two Sisters, directed by Kim Ji-woon, 2003, South Korea.
Ju-On, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2002, Japan.
Nang Nak, directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, 1999, Thailand.
Shutter, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom, 2004, Thailand.
The Eye, directed by Oxide Pang Chun & Danny Pang, 2002, Hong Kong/Thailand.

Dissertation Information

University of Massachusetts Amherst. 2011. 283 pp. Primary Advisor: Anne T. Ciecko.

 

Image: Screenshot from Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata, 1998, Japan.

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