Images from The Door
The Door is set in the city of Chong Qing, a city characterized by its fast modernization.
Hong Yuan is practicing golf, a game popular among the new rich class, against a big window wall.
An aerial shot of the location of Hong Yuan’s home.
Jiang Zhongtian feels isolated from his friends.
Thick fog, bats hovering under the low sky, and cats’ scream cast a horrifying, ominous, and decadent atmosphere over the villas.
Jiang enters Hong Yuan’s house.
Jiang imagines killing Hong Yuan.
Images from Ghost Inside
The mise-en-scene emphasizes the space of the apartment.
Tracking shots create an impression that someone is following or secretly watching the protagonist.
Tilted shots and lighting from below turn the apartment into a horrible place.
In The Door, Jiang Zhongtian is choosing wallpaper for his apartment.
In Email, The entrepreneur’s lover’s voice-over reading of the letters is visualized by scenes of the young couple walking by a river near a village.
The ending of Email evokes nostalgia for the days before China’s economic transformation.
Discussing the meaning of the horror genre, Andrew Tudor proposes that rather than asking the question, “Why Horror?” we should ask, “Why do these people like this horror in this place at this particular time.” This question directs our attention to cultural meanings of horror. Chinese horror films, though restricted in their visual and aural effects to create horror, are significant expressions and reflections of contemporary social and cultural concerns. The earlier thrillers/horrors in the 1940s and 50s are usually set in old mansions, houses, or graveyards. Such a setting creates a distance between the audience and the horror. Most of the recent horror films use contemporary urban cities as the site of horror. Familiar settings and urban themes offer a direct and immediate experience for the urban audience, the primary consumer of the horror genre. I will focus on three films, The Door, Ghost Inside, and Email to discuss the construction of horrifying urban space in contemporary horror films.
Li Shaohong, director of The Door, is an acclaimed fifth-generation filmmaker. She is internationally recognized for her art films, such as Bloody Morning (1992) and Blush (1995). The Door can be seen as another example of the fifth-generation’s shift from art house to commercial cinema. But Li’s choice of the horror genre is not a surprise. In her earlier career, she made The Case of the Silver Snake (1988), a thriller that had good box office success but was later banned from public screening because of its visual representation of violence. The Door was her return to one of her early interests. In China, her name is often linked to the television serial dramas, Palace of Desire (Da ming gong ci) and Oranges Have Turned Red (Juzi hong le). In her work, she combines artistic appeal, popular taste, and social and psychological themes. This feature is evident in The Door, which uses horror to penetrate into an individual’s psyche, disturbed and traumatized by China’s social and economic transformations.
The Door is a sympathetic depiction of a young intellectual whose paranoia and inability to cope with the changing society turns him into an insane murderer. The film starts with Jiang Zhongtian’s murder of his girlfriend Wenxin. His motives are revealed through his interior monologues, dreams, and delusions. Jiang suspects Wenxin is having an affair with Hong Yuan, his old buddy who joined the new rich class during China’s economic transformation. He also suspects that Li Zuowen raped Wenxin although she denies it. When Wenxin cannot stand Jiang’s over-protection and suspicion and decides to break up with him, Jiang kills her and hides her body in his apartment.
Li Shaohong situates the deadly romance horror in Chong Qing, a city characterized by its fast modernization. The urban environment is portrayed as a stratified space where winners and losers of the economic transformation encounter each other and clash. Jiang’s suspicion of Wenxin’s affair with Hong Yuan is largely due to his unbalanced attitude towards Hong Yuan’s success. In high school, Jiang was the center of attention and his buddies, including Hong Yuan, looked up to him. However, during China’s massive economic transformation, Hong Yuan became a successful entrepreneur, whereas Jiang has been an employee at a publishing company, which went into bankruptcy and was sold to Hong Yuan.
Hong’s executive office, luxurious house, and private villa are displays of his superior position. In the first scene, Jiang goes to see Hong about his job. As he enters Hong’s office, a POV long-shot shows Hong practicing golf, a game popular among the new rich class, framed against a big wall of picture windows, through which we see a fast intercity train passing by. Hong is immediately associated with open urban space, the speed of modern transportation, and a privileged lifestyle. Jiang’s interior monologue reveals his disdain for or jealousy of Hong’s newly-achieved upper-class status.
In the following scene, Hong invites his friends, including Jiang and Wenxin, to his new house, located in the most expensive area of the city. Aerial shots and long shots highlight the spectacular and glamour of the façade, garden, and swimming pool. Jiang feels like a stranger, isolated from his friends. He projects his sense of loss and failure onto Wenxin and blames her for forcing him to come and then leaving him alone. Wenxin is a victim of Jiang’s wounded masculinity. He knows that Hong loves Wenxin and fears that Hong will win her over. By killing Wenxin and keeping her body in his apartment, Jiang becomes the permanent owner of Wenxin, the winner of the love competition between him and Hong.
Jiang’s delusion about killing Hong at his villa is a reflection of his repressed hatred towards Hong. In a dream/fantasy sequence, Wenxin calls Jiang and asks him to meet her at a place called “Mountainside Villas.” After going thorough some terrifying experiences, he finally gets to a ghostly place. He passes several newly built villas before reaching a building under construction. Thick fog, bats hovering under the low sky, and cats’ screams cast a horrifying, ominous, and decadent atmosphere over the villas. Jiang enters a luxuriously furnished room, hearing Wenxin’s laughter. When Hong Yuan comes to greet him, Jiang stabs him to death. In fact, Hong Yuan is murdered at his office by his business rivals. Jiang’s delusion of being the killer is his repressed desire to get rid of Hong. As the villa is another icon of the rich, the displacement of the site of murder can be read as Jiang’s disdain and hatred of social and economic stratification, and also as his symbolic elimination of the physical evidence of his failure.
Jiang is shown wandering in the street against a background of spectacular buildings and department stores and trains traveling among high rises. The mobility of people in urban space stands out, and that whole milieu seems indifferent to Jiang, who is absorbed in his own little world of loss, frustration, and paranoia. Public space seems threatened by Li Zuowen’s appearance, whom Jiang suspects raped Wenxin. The rape incident has been torturing Jiang and Li Zuowen’s sudden appearance forces him to face his failure to protect his girlfriend’s “purity.” He repeatedly says that the world is full of danger and he has to protect Wenxin. His solution is to kill her and keeps her body forever in the apartment, perhaps the only place where Jiang feels he belongs and in control.
The film builds up a mood of looming danger by portraying the apartment as a place where peace and terror coexist. Jiang is shown decorating the apartment to make it a nice home for him and Wenxin, but at the end we see that he is actually covering over the built-in closet where he hides Wenxin’s body. The apartment looks cozy and peaceful in daytime but becomes a mysterious, claustrophobic, and terrifying place at night. Jiang lives in paranoia about his surroundings, suspicious of his neighbors. He always looks through the peephole before opening the door, and in these moments his paranoia is emphasized by fisheye shots, which distort the corridor and the person standing outside the door.
In U.S. horror films, an apartment is frequently used as the site of murder, symbolizing a displaced anxiety related to sexual frustration or the repressed trauma. The apartment in contemporary Chinese horror films carries different meanings. Since the housing reform in the late 1990s, the apartment has become an essential part of urban citizens’ lives. Instead of living in the units assigned by the companies they work for, people have to buy their own apartments. On the one hand, shifting from collective property to private property, the living space gains complete privacy; on the other hand, it becomes an isolated place separable from a communal environment. Unlike in the past when neighbors were colleagues and reciprocal visits were common, now the apartments have double safety doors, closed to neighbors, who are strangers.
The apartment has become an important setting in contemporary films and television serial dramas. Stories about what takes place behind the closed doors are popular. For example, Don’t Talk to Strangers (Buyao he moshengren shuohua, 2001), a high-rating television serial drama, explores the theme of domestic violence and presents the apartment as a place of isolation, violence, and paranoia. Contemporary horror films, like The Door, which locate the murder plot in the apartment, reflect uneasiness towards isolated private space in extreme ways.
Other films that have similar representations of apartment include Suffocation, Help, and Ghost Inside. In Suffocation, the male protagonist kills or fantasizes that he has killed his wife in their apartment. Like Jiang Zhongtian, he is suspicious of his neighbors and always looks out through the peephole. Similar fisheye shots are frequently used to give a distorted view. In Help, the female protagonist suffers a delusion of killing her boyfriend in their apartment and feels haunted by his ghost.
In Ghost Inside, the protagonist escapes her husband’s violence and moves into another apartment with her six-year-old daughter. A neighbor tells her that the former tenant killed her daughter and then committed suicide in there in order to prevent her ex-husband from taking the daughter away. The protagonist begins to see an apparition of the former tenant, who tries to persuade her to do the same thing. She becomes increasingly hysteric and paranoid. At the end of the film, she is barely stopped by the police when she tries to kill her daughter. Ghost Inside has a similar plot to Dark Water, but a big difference is that the apparition in Ghost Inside is the protagonist’s delusion whereas Dark Water depicts a real ghost. Although no murder takes place in the apartment, Ghost Inside effectively uses lighting, mise-en-scene, and camera angles that turn it into a ghostly, nightmarish, and claustrophobic place.
The shift of the site of horror from old mansions and graveyards in earlier horror films to the urban environment and apartment in contemporary horror films gives the latter a realistic look. This effective use of an urban setting reflects the psychological effect of social and economic changes on Chinese urban citizens. Aaron Smuts posits two types of haunting in haunted house films: “those in which the house is haunted by ghosts that do the haunting,” and “those in which the house itself is the source of the haunting.” However, the haunted apartment in PRC horror films does not fit into either category. There are no real ghosts that inhabit the apartment, and the apartment itself is not the source of the haunting. Rather, the source of the haunting comes from the inhabitants, who displace their anxiety about social and economic transformations onto architectural space.
The claustrophobic apartments in the horror films are not shabby in appearance. Instead, the decoration and layout of the apartment suggest good taste and modern design. In Suffocation, for example, the interior of the protagonist’s apartment is a conspicuous display of the living style of the new bourgeois class. In some sense, contemporary Chinese horror is a bourgeois horror, for the entertainment of young urban viewers, the primary target audience for the horror genre.
If urban space represents moral degradation and individual’s isolation, the village in the PRC horror genre represents innocence, purity, and genuine love. Such contrasting spaces are represented in Email. In that film, a successful entrepreneur lives a wanton life, having sexual relations with different women. He begins to receive emails from his first girlfriend whom he deeply loved in the 1970s. The emails describe the happy times when they were together. He later finds out that the girlfriend has actually been dead for one year. Many strange things happen in his office building, where he and others see a female ghost. In the end, it turns out that the emails have been written by a young woman, who was raped by the entrepreneur and intends to take revenge. She reads his girlfriend’s memoir and copies messages from it. Her revenge is not fulfilled, but the entrepreneur becomes insane, waiting for the ghost of his true love to return. Email shows a contrast between simple and pure love in the 1970s and the corruption and moral degradation in contemporary society. The entrepreneur’s lover’s voice-over reading of the letters is visualized by scenes of the young couple walking by a river near a village and exchanging loving looks. These scenes present a lyric picture of the past and rural life, evoking a nostalgic sentiment towards the old days before the massive economic transformation took place.
Understanding the revival of the PRC horror genre means seeing it within the context of the film industry’s commercialization, state censorship, and widespread social and economic transformation. Producers of the genre have formulated an aesthetic of restraint as a result of the confrontation and negotiation between commercial filmmaking and government censorship. While it is still a question whether or not the revival of the horror genre in the PRC is a positive outcome of the cinema’s commercialization, the horror films themselves provide a unique perspective on contemporary culture and society. In particular, they call our attention to an important question: Why does this fast developing urban space suddenly become the site of horror? I think Tony Williams is right when he says that the monstrous nature of horror “reflects that of the society which produced it.” The horror genre is a powerful form, due to its excess, for reminding us of the anxieties and problems brought about by social and economic changes, which have tremendously impacted our everyday life and living spaces.