2023’s been a great year for horror in general but here’s some of our best picks for the standouts that came out of Asia.
This list is of course incredibly subjective so let us know what your faves were from the year.
Here they are in no particular order.
GHOST STATION (SOUTH KOREA)
Based on the same-titled web toon by Horang, this one was just something I came across and decided to watch on a whim. The brisk pace that clocked in at about 80 minutes wasn’t a disappointment at all but a surprisingly thrilling ride into the spectral mythologies of South Korean wraiths.
Despite some middling flaws with narrative continuity and some scenes that feel downright deus ex or forced, the story of hungry young tabloid reporter Na-young who wants to find a scoop so she can rise up in the ranks entertains and intrigues.
Slowly, as our heroine finds herself tangled in a series of mysterious deaths revolving around a seemingly cursed train station, the supernatural spooks and thrills escalate. The more facts in the history of the curse she unravels the closer to legit danger she is pushed.
Never mind that the film could have benefitted from some quieter, thoughtful moments for character development, we’re hied off with the brisk pace of director Jeong Yong-ki who favors a rapid fire approach to horror filmmaking harks back to the fever pace of Western gore indies.
Kim Bo Ra, who plays our heroine Na-Young, brings a sense of zeal to her role that takes her from just gross tabloid reporter hunting for a scoop to defiant activist unearthing both the literal and supernatural secrets of the corrupt in her world.
The mystery deepens and the body count rises as more pieces of the cursed station unravels. With suitably chilling visuals and body horror as well as classic haunted tropes brought to life Ghost Station’s performances are highly commendable, and the cinematography was clearly made by a solid fan of the genre.
Watch Ghost Station on Prime Video.
RAGING GRACE (PHILIPPINES)
This is a horror movie just like Bryan Singer’s 1998 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil was a horror movie.
There are no supernatural or cosmic forces to blame here. No need, as the evil is alive and well in plain old humans in director Paris Zarcilla’s story about undocumented Filipina single mother Joy struggling to survive and raise her third culture kid, Grace, as an overseas contract worker in what’s still a pretty racist England.
Using the atmosphere and the tropes of a haunted house, the immigrant experience becomes a commentary on neo-colonialism through the lens of classic horror. Full of furious sleepwalking and surreal visions of guilty atrocities, the overtones of the malevolent evil inherent in the “white man’s burden” though can be pretty heavy handed.
Kipling verses serve as chapter partitions, the tone of rage against the dehumanization and rhetoric versus immigrants or people of color, there’s the old white guy who’s learned a smattering of native phrases to better control his underlings.
Max Eigenmann (as young mother Joy) and Jaden Boadilla (the titular kid Grace) carry this movie’s weight of metaphor and vested emotion through their nuanced and applause-worthy performances. Both breathe dimension into both the first act and the frenetically intense third act, making us root for them as they battle to simply get from day to day.
Watch out for Joy's searing soliloquy in the finale, a repudiation of who really needs whom in the master/servant matrix.
Zarcilla, who’s Filipino and British himself, absolutely felt like he was exorcising some pretty heavy demons here. And his abjuration shines through in this debut feature—prickly in its grasp and sometimes stuttering in the narrative structure, there's clear effort in differentiating the values of Filipino and UK cultures, despite their vast financial gap.
Especially apparent in the second act when Joy and Grace are transitioning into the deal that gets them settled into the “haunted” house, taking care of a bedridden old man that might just spell their salvation.
More an evocation of feeling and condition rather than a true haunted horror movie, there’s still plenty here to enjoy for any genre fan tired of the usual jump scares and looking for something provocative with something to actually say.
Watch Raging Grace on VUDU
THE HUNGER (THAILAND)
The highs and horrors of the food industry have been garnering a lot of screen time the past few years.
Standouts like The Menu and The Bear, as well as reality shows like Taste the Nation, are shedding light on the heroes of the kitchen. And consequently what they go through to produce the exquisite plates served on high-end tables or community diners.
Which is where Thailand’s celebrated filmmaker Sitisiri Mongkolsiri comes in with his own searing critique of snobbish food culture and its system of enablers. The Hunger is at once a peek into what Anthony Bourdain called the “culinary underbelly” that’s pretty universal and a critique of its inherent toxic environment through a very Thai lens.
As we follow talented young cook Aoy from her humble beginnings manning her family’s corner noodle resto serving the hoi polloi, to a surprise admission into Hunger, one of the most elite fine dining locations in Bangkok, we see her humanity deteriorate as her cooking skills evolve by light years.
The battle between Aoy trying to keep her values against the charming evil of Chef Pete and the upscale lifestyle (as well as the immense financial gains) he represents is at the heart of this gnashing and sometimes literal blood-on-the-tiles recipe against what the spirit of food represents to each of them.
Just like it unraveled in Whiplash, this master and apprentice hazing escalates and escalates as Aoy battles her own limitations in the hellish kitchen. The denouement is damn intriguing, especially with the mouth-watering visuals, even if the way to its sizzling mountaintop isn’t that innovative with some tired threads.
Stuff like authenticity versus excellence or heart versus sophistication, tend to bring down the fullness of the message. You can see how predictable that love is the secret ingredient that makes all the difference in this sharp critique of how absurd our foodie and culinary culture has become.
Though the ideas and the genre way they’re presented aren’t anything new, what makes this a compelling watch is Mongkolsiri's scathing methods to his mayhem. Cooking up a good meal may not be what you think it is, but it sure beats the heck out of feeding the rich even richer food that will never satiate their greedy desires.
Watch The Hunger on Netflix