- Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema
A volume in the “TransAsia: Screen Cultures” series edited by Koichi Iwabuchi and Chris Berry, Horror to the Extreme assembles eleven essays on the horror cinema of East Asia, which the contributors tackle from a variety of angles. Reflecting the interests of this volume’s editors, Jinhee Choi and Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Horror to the Extreme seeks to not only address the issues of marketing, industrial production, and consumer behavior (in connection to textual analyses of specific films), but also observe the “mutual transformation of screen culture” taking place among Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, and other Asian cinema (p. 3). Among the essays Korean cinema receives the lion’s share of the analyses, with five essays by Jinhee Choi, Chi-Yun Shin, Robert L. Cagle, Hyunsuk Seo, and Kyung Hyun Kim. For the purpose of this review, I will focus on the essays specifically concerning Korean cinema.
While the contributions by these five authors demonstrate very different approaches, there are unexpected commonalities among them. For instance, they take up Euro-American reception and marketing of Korean cinema as a starting point or subject of inquiry. I found it fascinating that both Robert Cagle and Kyung Hyun Kim not only chose Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) as a case study in a collection about horror films, but they also cite the negative reviews of the film as a prime example of why many American/Western viewers find Korean cinema so challenging and, in some cases, disgusting. Chi-Yun Shin in her chapter, “The Art of Branding,” explores the home video distribution company Tartan’s marketing of certain Asian genre films with their “Extreme Asia” label. Having interviewed Tartan employees and traced their marketing campaigns, Shin appraises with admirable straightforwardness and without any hint of scholarly condescension how Tartan disseminated a constructed imaginary about Asian films that has had a much wider influence than is usually recognized. Her analysis is highly suggestive. I hope that Shin eventually expands her study to examine interactions among marketing strategies, consumer reception, and the changing orientations of filmmakers themselves that have resulted in the celebrity status for some Korean films/filmmakers but not others. For instance, she opens and closes her essay with references to two Kim Ki-duk films from very different stages of his career. It would have been fascinating had she traced the shifting reception of Kim’s works by Euro-American critics and consumers from the maker of “gross-out . . . horror and sex show[s]” in “art-house clothing” to an exemplary Asian—indeed, “Oriental”—auteur (p. 94).
Jinhee Choi’s chapter, “A Cinema of Girlhood: Sonyeo Sensibility and the Decorative Impulse in Korean Horror Cinema,” examines the Whispering Corridors series (Yŏgo koedam, 1998–2009) and A Tale of Two Sisters (Changhwa, hongnyŏn, 2003) by adroitly combining an awareness of the structural dynamics [End Page 317] of the Korean film industry and historically well-informed analyses of these cinematic texts. Choi describes the appeal these films have for Korean teenage female viewers, as they “[provide] symbolic solutions to teen problems and thus vicarious pleasure to teenage audiences” (p. 44). Her analysis of Two Sisters’s highly stylized yet compulsively attractive mise-en-scène and twisted narrative structure, focusing on the main character’s internal conflicts, is also effective, although the concept Choi emphasizes, “decorative impulse,” does not really make a full-fledged entrance.
Robert Cagle’s chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the South Korean: Violence, Morality, and the South Korean Extreme Film,” is impressive and somewhat problematic. It displays considerable theoretical sophistication and analytic skill, as we can see, for instance, in his careful reading of the climatic scenes from Oldboy. However, his core argument—that Korean “extreme” cinema “undercut the basic belief system at work in the Hollywood film” and “reject the moralistic distinctions between individuals or groups that structure the Hollywood picture . . . ” (p. 142)—is undermined by his invocation of that hoary...