“See if you dare” – Ring and...

... Ring 2: two UK DVD covers

Battle Royale poster

The Isle poster

Audition poster

Oldboy poster

Promotional image from Oldboy

Shiri poster

Fulltime Killer poster

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance poster

The Happiness of the Katakuris poster

Public Enemy poster

A Snake of June poster

Bad Guy poster

Discourses of extremity

As noted earlier, reflecting their effort to attract to the young (particularly male) audiences, Tartan’s publicity material stresses the subversive and explicit aspect of the titles.  This is most evident in the Tartan Video’s official website, which invariably presents the films as shocking, dark and disturbing.  For instance, The Isle, which is described as "Asia Extreme cinema at it[s] best", is “arresting, shocking, visceral and original,” while Battle Royale “shocked a nation with its violent portrayal of a society in ruins.”  Similarly, Audition, "stylish slice of extreme cinema" and “twisted vision of a hell on earth” takes “a dark and disturbing turn” in the second half, and A Tale of Two Sisters is “stylish and shocking,” while the introduction to Ring Trilogy simply ends with: “watch at your own risk…”[15][open endnotes in new window]  

To be sure, some of these titles do include some heart-stopping, gruesome scenes.  Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle, for instance, contains the infamous fish mutilation scenes, as well as the scenes described by Tony Rayns as “sexual terrorism” where the male protagonist swallows fishhooks and pulls them back, and the female protagonist inserts fishhooks into her vagina.[16] Takashi Miike’s Audition features a man with no feet or tongue kept in a sack as well as the scenes of sadistic torture that involves piano wire and acupuncture needles.  Famously inducing mass walkouts, if not fainting and vomiting, at several film festivals notably in Venice (2000) and Rotterdam (2000), both films have indeed inspired extreme reactions from audiences and critics alike.  In his Film Comment article, which is in fact an outright assault on Kim Ki-duk, Tony Rayns argues that the screening of The Isle in Venice was “an archetypal success de scandale,” while speculating about why Venice even chose the film for competition and suggesting that the director is "an instinctive provocateur ... gleefully malicious in his punishment of audiences.”[17] Similarly, Richard Falcon wrote for Sight and Sound:

The Isle sees itself as ‘defying genre,’ but, like Takashi Miike’s Audition, it’s a gross-out movie in arthouse clothing.  The Isle flaunts its imagery as bold surrealism while making sure it delivers its share of hooks ‘n’ hookers horror and sex.”[18] 

Both films however elicited much admiration in equal measure and subsequently rendered their directors the cult status, for what Jeffrey Sconce termed "paracinema" or for cult-film aficionados, in particular.[19] According to the Internet site, Classic-Horror's review, The Isle is “a gem” –

“delicate, brooding exploration of the nature of obsessive love and its potentially damaging consequences.” 

The review however categorically warns that the film is “not for the squeamish, feminists, the politically correct or animal activists,” and it then claims that

“all you horror addicts who get their fixes from your local art-houses will find this extraordinary movie extremely rewarding.”[20] 

From a more reserved position, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Roger Ebert describes The Isle as “the most gruesome and quease-inducing film you are likely to have seen,” while encouraging the readers to be more open-minded because

“to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds."[21] 

For Audition, the Classic-Horror review remarks, “Miike’s enigmatic allegory of a self-tormenting soul leaves its bloody imprint on the viewer’s consciousness,” before rating it as

“a meditative, melancholic masterpiece that is not for the squeamish.”[22] 

Writing for The Japan Times, Mark Schilling also praised the film as providing “a jolt of pure, unrefined terror, while reminding us, with skin-crawling starkness, that actions have consequences,” while

“most Hollywood films about the dark side are little more than effects-driven melodramas without a practice of conviction behind them.”[23] 

Another awestruck Internet review titled “Gore Galore” commented that Audition “pushes the gore and grue to a limit rarely seen outside the cheesy cinematic bloodbaths of 1960s schlocksters,” by which of course the reviewer is paying compliments to the film.[24] 

Another extreme title that has been the subject of admiration and admonishment, if not sheer astonishment, is Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy.  For instance, Peter Bradshaw, who seems to be quite shaken up by the film, wrote for the Guardian that Oldboy “open[ed] up a whole new sicko frontier of exotic horror” and ended the review by declaring that,

“this is cinema that holds an edge of cold steel against your throat."[25] 

For Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, Oldboy is "an engaging, flawless film that successfully pushes all the right buttons," and its director Park is a genius; "the films coming from Korea are exceptional" and

"light years better than any contemporary set film in the U.S. this year or...for many years."[26] 

Although not so enthusiastic as Knowles, Michael Atkinson at the Village Voice says that

"whatever its oversteps and excesses… Oldboy has the bulldozing nerve and full-blooded passion of a classic."[27] 

Similarly, Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times claims:

“it says something when you came out of a film as weird and fantastic as Oldboy and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic.”[28]

Oldboy also attracted no less critical condemnation.  As Grady Hendrix puts it, the film

“became a critical scratching post for even the most timid magazine writers, who fired off all the insults they’d been saving for a rainy day.”[29] 

Most noteworthy came from New York-based newspapers.  Introducing the film as “the frenzied Korean thriller,” Manohla Dargis commented in the New York Times:

“The fact that Oldboy is embraced by some cinephiles is symptomatic of a bankrupt, reductive postmodernism: one that promotes a spurious aesthetic relativism (it’s all good) and finds its crudest expression in the hermetically sealed world of fan boys.”[30] 

Rex Reed at the New York Observer asserted that the film is “sewage” and sarcastically questioned:

“What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mix of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?” 

Reed’s hostile and rather reductive response sparked many online protests, including from the AAJA (Asian American Justice Centre) Media Watch group, that the review has since been removed from the New York Observer website.[31]   

But Oldboy came under intense debate and controversy when it was suggested that the Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung-Hui might have been inspired by the film.[32]  In the package of materials, consisting of 28 video-clips, 23 page printout message and 43 self-portrait photos that Cho sent to NBC News, one photo shows Cho wielding a hammer in a pose similar to the film’s image, which was widely used in its promotional posters.  Another photo shows Cho holding a handgun against his head, which is comparable to the way one of the characters from Oldboy poses.[33]  Although Cho did not reference the film in any of his notes or messages, and no one can confirm that he had actually seen the film, the speculation over the possible link generated extensive media coverage and the film became the target of moral panics and denunciation of movie violence.  It subsequently prompted some to call for censorship, while others dismissed the connection as ridiculous and unfounded.[34] 

Genre-fication of East Asian cinema

As Julian Stringer puts it, it is perhaps

“natural for viewers to want to draw conclusions regarding what the films they consume may have to tell them about the society that produced them.”[35] 

But it seems the success of Tartan Asia Extreme reveals more about the Western perceptions and obsessions about the East Asian countries rather than what people or societies are like there.  It is also notable that the language and approach used in Tartan Asia Extreme’s promotional campaigns, based on the discourses of difference and excess, fit comfortably into the widespread notion about the East.  In this respect, Gary Needham argues that

“the promise of danger and of the unexpected is linked with the way in which these films are marketed according to their otherness from Hollywood, and subsequently feeds in to many of the typical fantasies of the ‘Orient’ characterised by exoticism, mystery and danger.”[36] 

To similar effect, referring to the fishhook moments in The Isle, Grady Hendrix comments how

“art collided with exploitation, distributors heard cash registers ringing and in that single, cringe-inducing moment a whole slew of misconceptions about Korean movies and violence were cemented in the minds of western audiences.”[37] 

More importantly, because the Asia Extreme label became the most prominent and dominant mode of East Asian film canons at least in the U.K. and the U.S., it became an essential indicator for East Asian cinema and came to "represent" Asian cinema as a whole.  This explains why Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice confidently proclaims that

“more than any single Korean film as yet released stateside, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy crystallizes the reigning characteristic of its national new wave.”[38] 

Most Asia Extreme titles, however, did not top the box-office charts in their native countries, and moreover, they are rather marginal within the region’s overall output of which are regularly dominated by melodramas, comedies and romances.  In this respect, it is interesting to note that Tartan’s canonization of the so-called extreme cinema as the "best from East Asia" is not so different from the "discovery" of Japanese film in the 1950s, which started with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1951, although the film was not highly regarded in Japan at the time.  Just as the West "discovered" Japanese masters in the films of Kurosawa, Kenji Mizuguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, with the Tartan Asia Extreme label, the world of film in the West "discovered" new master directors: notably Kim Ki-duk, Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook. 

Subsequently, East Asian filmmakers whose works don’t easily fit into the "extreme" label have been habitually left out.  Two of the most respected South Korean film directors, Hong Sang-Soo and Lee Chang-Dong are interesting cases in point: Hong’s works have won numerous awards and are widely admired and available in France (and in Italy to a lesser degree) and Lee was awarded La Legion d’Honneur by the French government in 2006, while both of them are virtually unknown and none of their films released theatrically in Britain.[39] (Certainly, Tartan’s Press and PR Manager had never heard of either Hong or Lee.)  Similarly, Sunji Iwai, the Japanese filmmaker whose first feature film Love Letter (1995) has been highly inspirational for many East Asian filmmakers, still has a relatively obscure status with a very limited appreciative fan base in the U.K., whereas his compatriot Takashi Miike is highly celebrated as a wonderfully eccentric Japanese maestro, although his works are often intended for the straight-to-video market in Japan.[40] 

What is also interesting and perhaps unique about the way in which Tartan presents Asia Extreme is that it refers to the label as a genre.  For instance, Tartan Films’ owner McAlpine has referred the label to be a “brand [and] – a genre in itself,” and Tartan’s promotional booklet claims to provide

“the story of the origin and development of the most exciting and unique of all contemporary genres.” 

Congruently, Tartan USA website promotes the 2007 Asia Extreme Film Festival, saying it will

“bring the up-and-coming genre of extreme Asian films to the United States.”[41] 

This is problematic in the sense that the label in effect lumps together distinct and different genres of horror, action, and thriller films from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong as well as Thailand under the banner of Asia Extreme (Figs 20-26).  One Internet blogger’s rather sarcastic remark that Tartan would “snap up any Asian movie that lingers over a corpse” does pinpoint the extreme label’s antics that contrive to include anything from psychological horror to Hong Kong action thrillers, many of which can hardly be regarded as extreme compared to regular Hollywood thriller or horror flicks with a numerous body count (consider recent titles such as Vacancy, Fracture, and The Invisible).[42] 

To be fair to Tartan, generic classification is notoriously problematic.  As Mark Jancovich points out,

“Not only can the generic status of an individual film change over time, it can also be the object of intense struggle at a particular moment.  A film which, for some, may seem obviously belong to one genre may, for others, clearly belong to another genre altogether.”[43] 

Moreover, as James Naremore comments, an individual genre has less to do with a group of artefacts than with a discourse – a loose evolving system of arguments and readings, helping to shape commercial strategies and aesthetic ideologies.[44] In this respect, Tartan’s classification of Extreme Asia as a genre is neither wrong nor nonsensical.  However, such genrification of certain East Asian films should be understood as an integral part of providing illusions of discovery; a way of knowing and classifying East Asian cinema.  It should also be considered as a marketing strategy that fronts certain films to sell all other titles, bearing in mind that no one in East Asia would set out to make an "extreme" film.

In the meantime, other distributors joined in developing their own East Asian film labels.  For example, another London-based, foreign language films specialist Optimum Releasing set up the Optimum Asia division through which they released Studio Ghibli animations as well as Hong Kong comedy action films Shaolin Soccer and South Korean monster film The Host (2006).[45]  Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment also started up a new series of Asian films called Eastern Edge, with emphasis on action films, while the Weinstein Company created a home entertainment label Dragon Dynasty, with Genius products, specialising action films from East Asia.  In 2003, Medusa Communications & Marketing also launched Premier Asia, a brand dedicated to the cinema of Japan, Korea and Thailand (sister label to Hong Kong Legends label Medusa started in 1999).  Anchor Bay Entertainment, the subsidiary of Starz Media, also set up the new label, Dark Asia.  Although these new competitors are still catching up with Tartan Asia Extreme in terms of the prestige and profile, and can be regarded as attempts to cash in on the latest trend, these labels do testify the success of the trend set by Tartan.[46] 

As in any business, there is a question as to how long Tartan’s success can go on.  According to Tartan’s Press and PR Manager, Paul Smith, they increasingly find that the number of films being made in East Asia that can be fit into the Asia Extreme category is shrinking.  Tartan already had a dilemma with Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring (2003), which does not comfortably fit into the extreme category.  In the end, the film was put in the more general Tartan Video category rather than in Asia Extreme.  In this context, Tartan may have to look into the wider range of titles that are coming out of East Asia.  But for now, it is the ability to shock, most of all,  that sells East Asian films in the west. 

Go to Notes and Appendix I and II

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