Asian revenge horror can be one of the most gruesome sub-genres that also offers a cool peek into how a variety of cultures deal with retribution. Scratch the surface of most top shelf Asian horror and there’s usually an undercurrent of vengeance that propels monster or protagonist.
Behind seemingly relentless and senseless acts of violence are compelling reasons that involve violations of body, mind, or spirit, but also strong connections to honor or “face” being besmirched. Something tied to social cache and, hence, spiritual wellness.
From the wrathful spirit Sadako in The Ring (1998) revived and passed along through a videotape after such a great crime perpetrated on a young woman, to the avenging drunk set free after 15 years of captivity in Park Chan-wook’s masterful Oldboy, notions of recovering honor fuel many of the best Asian revenge movies.
Beliefs about gaining or keeping honor may have their nuanced variants in every Asian culture. Whether it’s the Thai ideal of “nap teu,” the concept of “dangal” in Filipino, “myeong-ye” in Korean, or “meiyo” in Japanese, the only sure thing is that horror fans can revel in watching the dishonored wreak righteous havoc.
Here are some of our picks for the best Asian revenge horror movies directed by or about Asians in the last decade.
UMMA (2022) – A mother’s love is all you need. Forever.
It is a terrible thing to be haunted by those you love, even though said loved one was an abusive, absolute wretch of a human being.
“Umma” means mother in Korean and when a distant uncle comes to the farm where Amanda and her daughter Chrissy are living, raising bees and poultry, bearing the remains of Amanda’s mom, their lives are disrupted in not just the many ways that grief can, but also because of more sinister, supernatural happenings.
Though director Iris K. Shim’s execution of ambitious themes and big ideas on Umma can be hit or miss, Sandra Oh, as single mother and Korean immigrant Amanda, carries the weight of the film on her terrified shoulders, kicking off our Asian revenge horror list in a simple yet quite intensely emotional fashion: a mother’s disappointment.
Amanda’s uncle warns that she must honor her mother by enacting pre-burial services in a traditional Korean ceremony due to departed loved ones. Or else? Umma’s spirit will never rest. Ever so helpful uncle reminds Amanda, “Each day her pain will turn to poison and seep into you.”
But when Amanda flashes back to all the ways that her mother maltreated her, leading her to still live with a phobia of electricity for one, she flat out refuses to hold the funeral rites. I mean, why would she?
Despite a lack of jump scares and traditional ghost story staples a horror fan might expect, the movie does run on strong tropes of the immigrant experience. Birthed from intergenerational trauma mixed with images from Korean folklore, those things you thought you’d left behind in the old country.
It also tackles how such strong hate and notions of what’s required to honor your elders can be unconsciously passed on to your own children. Umma falls squarely into Asian revenge, especially since it involves a Gwiskin, or a Korean ghost, that has a blood debt involving honor or “myeong-ye.”
There’s a dramatic and intense five-minute scene where Amanda talks to her mother’s ghost. If you’ve ever had to go through the heartache of dealing with the loss of a parent, such outpouring of resentment and bitterness, then this will definitely trigger your pain centers.
Watch Umma on Prime Video.
LIVERLEAF (2018) – Battling bullies with honor-bound Asian revenge tactics
Bullying is awful. So awful, that in director Eisuke Naito’s teen horror drama, the results and motives of such violence have a catastrophic effect on the lives of everyone. Especially the youths involved.
Haruka Nozaki (Anna Yamada) is the new girl in a new high school. Just an ordinary student in a small town in a Japanese province. Nothing much out of the ordinary except that the teachers at her junior high are as checked out as can be waiting for the semester to end.
That they’re letting the students run unchecked is an understatement. In one scene a teacher simply continues to write on the blackboard without a care as the classroom behind her explodes into arguments and a vicious brawl.
Against the greater chaos of laissez faire administrators and a student body gone amok, the escalating bullying of the timid new-girl-in-school Haruka goes unnoticed. It starts off with small enough hazing, stolen shoes from her locker and the like, but then heightens into dead bodies and a house in flames.
I mean, this isn’t Battle Royale but the intense ways that people die is just as satisfying and puts this one squarely within the Asian revenge horror bullseye. See, it’s when Haruka decides to retaliate, standing up for herself and for her family’s besmirched honor, that things go the way of Grand Guignol plasma spillage.
As Haruka goes on a rampage versus bully leader Taeko Oguro and her minions, cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya renders the scenes against the snow-covered white of the Japan countryside into downright beautiful pastorals.
In one of the best kills, I could only applaud as a strawberry blonde character is battered righteously for her cruel acts upon Haruka’s family and person. Liverleaf is based on the manga, Misumiso by Rensuke Oshikiri.
Watch Liverleaf on MUBI.
THE WAILING (2016) – Sleepy village disguises deep retribution angst
Director Na Hong-jin’s (you’ll see his name later on this list, too) movie about gruesome murders in a rural Korean town is less a horror detective movie as it is the collective experience of an exorcism of evils and sins thought long buried by the local folk.
You wouldn’t think the bumbling and slightly incompetent police officer Jong-Goo would be the perfect guide into this descent into Asian revenge horror. But when he is tasked to investigate a sudden series of baffling and violent deaths in the small villages of a mountainside town that could be explained by poisonous wild mushrooms, we quickly are won over to his not quite top shelf detective methods.
Jong Goo is almost capable as an investigator. But not quite. The village of Gokseong looks to be the center of the deaths and since the mushroom theory is a flimsy one, Jong-Goo’s superiors ask him to find any leads.
Some villagers point to a Japanese stranger, a hobo, living on the outskirts that was spotted at the crime scene a few times may hold some clues. The fear of the outsider possibly committing these mysterious murders also stirs up old hatreds of South Korea’s colonial past under Japanese occupation.
As Jong-Goo uncovers layer after layer of clues, things get weirder until even his daughter is eventually dragged into it, seemingly possessed. Soon, the villagers demand that their homes’ honor be defended and that shamans get involved to alleviate whatever haunting Asian revenge spirits may be hovering in their town.
As the fear of black magic, possession, zombies, and folk demons lead the movie and our hapless detective into ever darker avenues, the absurd and horrific happenings climax into a satisfying paroxysm of terror that resolves it all in true Asian revenge movie fashion.
Na Hong-jin’s maximalist style serves him well here as plot twist after plot twist feels climactic and escalate the story with the violence index along with it.
Watch The Wailing on Prime Video.
NOCEBO (2022) – The hauntingly high price of fast fashion
Something ails UK fashion designer Christine (Eva Green) and only the new Filipina house help Diana can alleviate her pain through traditional Cebuano folk medicine.
The opposite of a placebo, a nocebo is a non-harmful substance or procedure that nonetheless causes a toxic side effect on the patient simply because of their belief that it’s dangerous.
As the film unravels the mystery of Amanda’s affliction, how this movie is on our Asian revenge horror list becomes apparent. Almost predictably so, after the second act.
A Filipino-Irish co-production, director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriters Ara Chawdhury and Garret Shanley breathe life into the story of a mysterious ailment that eventually unravels as a revenge plot intertwined with the plight of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), the high price of manufacturing Western fast fashion, and the power of Filipino black magic specifically the Visayan “barang.”
Opening with the mysterious sickness that afflicts Christine, it’s something none of the doctors she’s consulted can specifically diagnose, yet the symptoms of perpetual enervation, nightmares, and crippling nausea are undeniable.
She even has to wear a bulky CPAP mask to help her sleep apnea. Christine can’t effectively work and walks around in a perpetual brain fog. It bothers her daughter Bobs and strains her relationship with her husband Felix (Mark Strong).
It’s only until the new stay-in nanny Diana, played by Chai Fonacier, arrives and offers to help Christine out of her funk with folk remedies that her pain is alleviated. “Something is hidden inside of you, Christine. Something you hide from yourself,” Diana declares using her folk healer abilities, diagnosing her boss’s sickness as an emotional one, something she’s repressed leaking into the physical.
Plagued by a head scratching pacing problem and sometimes trying too hard for an atmosphere of dread, it’s really Green and Fonacier’s performances playing out their power dynamic to a fiery resolution that makes this a cool horror story.
With shades of class struggle and family crises, the way the story turns out forces both women to confront what turns out to be a shared past of blood and dishonor. Something still haunting both of them. Christine with her mystery ailment. Diana with her festering grief.
How the women work it out in the messiest way possible eventually ropes in and affects even Christine’s young daughter Bobs in a real unexpected twist. The images of insects and animals used as folk horror visuals combined with gruesome events taken from real headlines are what elevate this to top shelf horror revenge viewing.
Watch Nocebo on Netflix.
THE MEDIUM (2021) – Support your local shaman’s vengeance initiative
In Thailand, becoming the chosen avatar of a goddess isn’t really such a great thing despite the powers and status of a shaman it confers. Especially problematic, if you refuse the divine privilege when you’re chosen.
Shot as found footage, the premise is that a documentary team from a big Bangkok network is working on a series of profiles on the shamans of Isan region.
The shaman Nim is one of them. She is a medium of the goddess Ba Yan, an ancestral spirit protecting the local village and giving them favorable harvests, bountiful fertility, and fortunate blessings.
Nim only became a shaman after her sister, Noi, refused to accept the role. Noi instead converted to Christianity. Trouble starts when Nim has to go to the funeral of Noi’s husband, Wiroj. Her brother in-law’ death is just the latest in a mysterious and unfortunate trend of deaths that have befallen the men in Nim’s family.
As the documentary team captures everything, what first looks like a series of unfortunate deaths progresses into depraved acts of Asian revenge while multiple people are possessed. Is Ba Yan really a good divine spirit or something more sinister?
It all ends with a deeply surreal and yet resonantly effective climax of zombies and demons versus shamans and Buddhist holy men. Like a magical duel that must be beheld to truly be believed, something akin to watching spiritual nuclear war play out in a Thai cave.
Director Banjong Pisanthanakun is also the guy responsible for 2004’s excellent Shutter and co-wrote The Wailing, so we’re in very good hands.
Watch The Medium on Shudder.
What other Asian horror revenge movies would you recommend? Drop your favorite titles in the comments section.