On Chinese Horror: Part I

Painted-Skin-27This year’s Zhong Yuan or Ghost Month, took place in August, and Xia Yuan is not until December. Nevertheless, with the crisp scent and keenness of the autumn air, I feel the delicious anticipation for the Western festival of All Hallow’s Eve. Today I’m going to tell you a little about Chinese horror and Chinese attitude to ghosts, and throughout the month I’ll be writing about the Chinese horror genre in various art forms.

Many diaspora Asian cinema enthusiasts, who grew up on fantastic Hong Kong zombie movies and Japanese horror, have said to me that there aren’t any good horror movies from mainland China. This is true, to an extent. In recent history, the Chinese in the mainland have had more than enough real horror in their lives, from the Rape of Nanking, to the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution, to invent any more.

Modern China’s condemnation of fantasy or any non-realist genres, as nothing but pulp, has also prevented the literati from extrapolating the horror of these real life events to fictional horror genres and exploring issues there.

Mainland China wasn’t totally devoid of good fictional horror. Apart from the demons who lived in caves, etched in my memory by the 1986 TV adaptation of Journey to the West, my other earliest memories of ghosts were from a classic TV series of the same year, based on 聊斋志异 (“Liao Zhai Zhi Yi”), “Strange Stories Told By the Hearth”, the 18th century collection of ghost stories written down by Pu Songling. For the Chinese, this classic is the staple of Chinese horror, but was little known in the West, until 2008, with the release of the film Painted Skin, an adaptation of the most famous story of the skin changing fox demon in the book.

Watching an episode now, the series has definitely withstood the test of time, with well researched period sets and costumes, sound scripts, combining classic story telling with modern cinematography. The Hammer-esque, sensational visual styles with the ethereal elements of mists and flying Chinese spirits, highlighting emotional climaxes with traditional songs. To this day, I have vivid memories of being terrified by the series’ opening sequence. A lonely figure, a single lantern in the night, traversing a dark, wind swept field, to sounds not of this world.

In the last decade, with the growth of the Chinese cinema industry domestically and internationally, and increased collaboration with Taiwan and Hong Kong, the mainland has produced a slew of visually stunning films based on classical horror stories. The trendsetter was Painted Skin (2008) from seasoned Hong Kong action director Gordon Chan. Painted Skin Resurrection followed suit in 2012, with mainland’s budding artist Wu Ershan, of Beijing Film Academy stock, in the director’s seat.

With series such as Zhang Ji Zhong’s 2011 Journey to the West, discussed in my FSMTSB Talk, we can see a much bolder approach to the creation of fantasy settings, gothic costumes and portrayal of the magical. This is certainly also visible in Painted Skin Resurrection.

Whilst male, taurine demons tend to make their way into Wuxia and action stories, classical Chinese ghost stories tend to focus on fox spirits. Overwhelming female, very often temptresses luring men into sin, occasionally tragic heroines. The blue green skinned hopping zombies in Qing period officials uniform, seem to be a creation of Hong Kong cinema, which has prided itself in its masterful choreography, cinematography and extremely daring approach to plot invention. And these lugubrious ghouls certainly have both ancient and social origins.

In the next few weeks I shall talk about the few little known socio-psychological mainland Chinese horror pieces from the Noir era and the 1980s; other horror stories from the Chinese literary cannon; tropes in Pu Songling’s stories and their adaptation in recent mainland as well as Hong Kong cinema, and with World Zombie Day on the 11th of October, Jiang Shi, and the Chinese zombie movie.



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