The Phantom Female in Asian Horror

Written by Ren Zelen

While Western horror filmmakers continue to imagine female characters as falling between sexy slasher fodder or ‘kickass-final-girl’, Asian horror has long been offering a far richer and nuanced portrayal of female characters on film. Asian female horror protagonists go beyond the male gaze, the female sidekick, the stereotypical badass-woman or the Final Girl.

You may not have noticed, because the stories are so engrossing, that in fact Asian horror films feature predominantly female protagonists. We rarely see a male love interest and many of the relationships explored in the films are those between women. The Asian horror protagonist simply has bigger issues to contend with than romance or sex.

It is a documented fact that, in contemporary Western film, it is only in the horror genre that women have screen time and speaking parts equal to men. However, women in Asian horror have the better deal regarding roles offering depth and personality. While they acquire some qualities of the Final Girl, these films portray realistic female characters who rarely perform displays of physical strength to thwart the threats against them.

We may wonder why the female protagonist is so prevalent in cultures that have been notoriously repressive to women? In a culturally misogynistic world, Asian horror has developed as a genre that is largely female-centric. These films raise many questions about how female autonomy is seen as threatening to a traditionally patriarchal society and what happens to women who fall outside the norm of society’s expectations. Through their protagonists, these films explore themes such as alienation, identity, shame, suicide, and sexual deviance.

shutter 2008

The Phantom Woman

Another question we might ask is: why do ghosts in horror usually manifest to women? The answer would seem to be that it’s usually because women are the only ones who are listening.

Often the ghost/woman parallels are not accidental. Women and ghosts in horror often share the same plight – they are ignored, misunderstood, or ostracised when they disturb the status quo. Women who try to express extraordinary experiences, insights and perceptions are labelled as crazy, hysterical, or just ‘imagining things’.

In horror movies generally, when women (alive or dead) who are trying to communicate are reviled and unheeded, this 'failure of discourse’ usually leads to an outburst of another form of communication which proves to be much worse, and which becomes too violent and too horrifying to be ignored.

One example of this inter-relationship may be found in the film Shutter (2008) (an Asian/Western collaboration directed by Masayuki Ochiai), where the ghost Megumi (Megumi Okina) seeks the help of the living Jane (Rachael Taylor) in order to exact her revenge on Ben (Joshua Jackson), the man who has seriously wronged her.

Jane is Ben’s partner and is oblivious to his prior wrongdoing, but Megumi manifests to her and eventually the ghost’s tragic story is revealed as Jane seeks for the truth behind bizarre events.

The ending is devastating, not only because of the trauma of the living characters, but also because the ghost is tragically still in love with the man who destroyed her. This is not a typical final-girl story and is memorable both in the feelings of horror it elicits from the audience and the feelings of sorrow and sympathy.

whispering corridors 1998

Outside the Norm

Confucian ideals of womanhood have been pervasive in Asia for almost two thousand years. Since the Han Dynasty, parables about the selfless wife and humble daughter-in-law became embedded in education in China and the surrounding regions. Unsurprisingly then, East Asia also generated a system of stories depicting women seeking revenge after they have been victimised because they have not abided by these norms – women who have been maligned simply because of their biological qualities.

Asian horror cinema has proved to be the perfect medium through which this restrictive image of femininity can be challenged. What could be further from the Confucian feminine ideal than a woman who terrifies men by grotesque physical deformity, biological otherness, supernatural potency or violent rage?

Asian horror focusses on women who fall outside the expected norm. These may include aspects such as homosexuality, which are not exploited in the way that they often are in Western horror. In Whispering Corridors (1998) the plot revolves around homoerotic relationships in an all-girls school. We see how these interactions are viewed within that environment and how society often pits women against each other.

The film explores how forbidden, tenuous relationships hold up under the pressure of jealousy and repression. It offers exposure to these issues in a culture where homosexuality is sometimes still treated as something to be ridiculed or ‘cured’. The girls in films such as Whispering Corridors are taken seriously, and the audience is encouraged to empathise with their emotional pain.

Eroticism in Western horror usually tends to involve gratuitous heterosexual or lesbian sex scenes that do not further the plot but are geared to attracting an imagined male audience, when in fact a good percentage of horror audiences are not necessarily male, white or straight. Asian horror tends to create films where the story and characters are interesting enough to engage people irrespective of gender or sexual persuasion.

Asian horror observes that a woman’s deviance is not generated by her gender, but often by the reason that causes society to cast her out. The ghosts in these films are often rape victims, girls who died from a botched abortion risked because of the shame of the unwed mother, or those who have committed suicide to escape some kind of societal disapproval.

dark water 2002

Maternal Anxiety

Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) revolves around a mother (Hitomi Kuroki) and her desperate attempts to keep custody of her daughter throughout an acrimonious divorce. This film does not shy away from difficult family relationships and the fact that the mother must fight near impossible odds to keep her child. Despite the emotional abuse and harassment her ex-husband displays towards her, the law is not on her side.

The movie features two male characters: her ex-husband and a man who comes to her aid. This latter male/female relationship never strays into the sexual and offers no indication that this man helps her for any reason other than altruism and a sense of fairness. Despite its lack of a male protagonist, Dark Water proved to be one of the most successful Asian horror films (prompting an American remake) probably because, frightening as the ghosts are, Dark Water’s mother-daughter relationships are some of the most realistic and heart-breaking to be found on film.

sympathy for lady vengeance 2005

Hell Hath No Fury

Vengeful women now haunt the screen more than ever before. Since the late 1990s, Asian horror has seen an increase in the number of films featuring violent women with retribution on their minds.

Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Yeong-ae), the protagonist of Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), dons striking red eye shadow once she is released from prison, declaring “I don’t want to look kind-hearted”. It is the warpaint she uses to signify that she is coming to take revenge on the man who is responsible for her wrongful incarceration for the murder of a child. In the process, she shatters the stereotype of the submissive, selfless woman.

She joins a crew of other characters who offer audiences an exploration of what happens when women decide to fight back. The 1972 thriller, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, about female convicts who escape from jail and pit themselves against the yakuza, found a huge cult following both in Japan and abroad when it was released on DVD in 2004.

Takashi Miike’s now-classic Audition (1999) is probably the most transgressive of these films, a psychological drama which explodes all romantic clichés and remains a harsh examination of the failure of social conventions surrounding relationships between men and women.

Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, Audition has a conceit that could easily underpin a trivial rom-com – Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower, a filmmaker by profession, who is now raising his teenage son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki).

Shigehiko is worried that his father is lonely and feels guilty that he himself will soon flee the nest and find a life of his own. He declares that Aoyama should marry again, with a flippancy that suggests that although he is concerned for his father, he sees women as barely more than useful accessories. The casualness of Shigehiko’s objectification, which Miike presents empathetically, is particularly disturbing.

Aoyama senses Shigehiko’s underlying guilt and placates him by agreeing to look for a new wife. At the urging of his filmmaking partner, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimara), Aoyama holds auditions for a non-existent drama as a way of fishing for young, attractive women he might date.

Audition’s dichotomy has always been disturbing – on one level the film is presented as having many rom-com tropes. On another level, throughout the film men hurt women in many ways, partially because they see them as objects to be enjoyed when convenient.

audition 1999

Aoyama is revealed to have bedded and discarded his assistant, indifferent to her heartache as he pursues his dream woman. Shigehiko and Aoyama both confess to a fear of women, but when Shigehiko brings home a girl, Aoyama cheers him on as one might a footballer scoring —an attitude characteristic of many American rom-coms.

We see men reinforcing their view of women as prizes to be won merely to bolster their own egos and demonstrate their prowess before their peers. (There is also, lurking in the background of Japanese culture, a particularly repellent genre featuring the pornographic torture of women.)

Miike ironically stages the fake auditions with undertones of comedy, as Aoyama becomes fixated upon young Asami (Eihi Shiina), an ex-dancer who conforms perfectly to the Japanese ideal of feminine modesty and subservience.

Aoyama is so enamoured of his vision of Asami embodying his personal ideal that he overlooks the possibility of her personal agency (a thing that men here habitually ignore). The film then gleefully sets out to explode their expectations.

What Aoyama fails to see in Asami’s reserve is that it hides a profound madness, born of alienation and fostered by the abuse of men, and is something so far removed from his own experience that it is beyond his comprehension. Asami proceeds to ‘educate’ him in the power of her personal pain and individuality in a bloody act of vengeance and warped love.

Miike’s film is full of psychological ironies, portraying men and women as irreconcilably separated by social boundaries and personal traumas. In his film these are purged by retaliatory violence. Miike empathises with his male characters but makes them pay for their sexism, indicating that it is the source of their dissatisfaction and emptiness.

His film warns that the exclusion of the female from the male domain, and the lack of understanding it engenders, can result in a shocking outcome, in this case Asami’s deviant way of ensuring that she is truly seen and understood. Oddly, this trauma seems to provide Aoyama with a perverse kind of catharsis - his fears have finally been realized and he’s seeing the consequences of his own actions and finally perceiving the source of Asami’s neuroses.

The Ghostly Message

Although the female monster or ghost may be a sympathetic figure, she is still seen as an aberration of ‘proper’ womanhood. This may be down to the absence of women directors in Asia, so we have yet to see a more balanced, complex and comprehensive representation of women. Asian horror doesn’t provide answers to society’s problems but, like its ghosts, it makes us uneasy.

Utilizing the monsters and ghosts from their respective national folklore, the filmmakers of Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea have long established themselves as the creators of some of the most terrifying horror films. The basic difference between Asian and Western horror, however, is that ‘Western ghosts’ rarely serve much of a purpose other than to spook the audience.

In the more female-centric Asian horrors, the ghosts or protagonists usually convey a forceful message: ‘Look at what you have done to us, now see what we will do to you.’ The tragedy and sadness, the rage and vengeance we see in these films are the result of many years of repression and exclusion – these fictional ghosts and monsters can often represent something very real.

This page includes affiliate links where Horror DNA may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Ren Zelen
Staff Reviewer
REN ZELEN is a writer, movie critic, reviewer, academic editor, pop-culture junkie and Sandra Bullock lookalike. Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘THE HATHOR DIARIES’ is available on Amazon in the UK and USA and worldwide.
Other articles by this writer


Join Us!

Hit the buttons below to follow us, you won't regret it...