2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Horror returns to Chinese cinema:
an aesthetic of restraint
and the space of horror
by Li Zeng
While martial arts blockbusters are still the big box office winner, the horror film has certainly become a new cinematic attraction in Mainland China. At the turn of the millennium, the horror genre, which had been absent from PRC (People’s Republic of China) cinema for over forty years, has enjoyed a sudden revival.[open endnotes in new window] Following Liu Xiaoguang’s four horror films, The Mirror (Gu jing guai tan, 2000), Cameraman (Shan ling xiong meng, 2001), Ghosts (Xiong zhai you ling, 2002), The Game of Killing (Tian hei qing bi yan, 2004), more filmmakers adventured into this sensitive field. The year of 2005 saw a conspicuous number of horror and thriller films, including
The government’s strict grip over cinematic content and visual representation and the lack of a ratings system largely accounts for the horror genre's long absence from Mainland China. In censors' eyes, the graphic representation of violence, usually associated with this genre, may pollute young people’s minds; horror's dark overtones conflict with the upbeat spirit of constructing a nation; and the subject matter of ghosts and supernatural elements promotes superstition.  The revival of the horror genre raises a series of questions: How could the horror films avoid censorship? Why has the horror genre suddenly gained popularity in the PRC? Did PRC horror films imitate internationally recognized Asian horror films or Hollywood ones? Are there any shared styles and themes in PRC horror films?
The essay addresses these questions as I describe the revival of the PRC horror genre and its predominant stylistic characteristics and themes. Discussing the relation between horror and national cultures, Peter Hutchings sees horror cinema as part of a film culture produced within a particular national context; the films themselves address specifically national issues and concerns; furthermore, while sharing certain generic codes and conventions, national horror films also differ in significant ways.  Hutchings’ concept offers a dynamic way to view PRC horror films. In that vein, I hope to demonstrate that the PRC horror revival arises as an outcome of the commercialization of cinema in China and the popularity of foreign horror imports. In addition, in both theme and style, current PRC horror films have been shaped by and felt the impact of censorship and social/cultural transformations taking place since the early 1990s.
Commercialization of cinema in the PRC
and the horror revival
Although we can argue that film genres are “the result of the material conditions of commercial filmmaking,” I agree with Schatz that genre consciousness is an essential feature of commercial cinema. Thus the revival of the horror genre in the PRC primarily resulted from the film industry’s commercialization following a national decline in cinema attendance and competition from big blockbuster imports. Before the 1990s, Chinese films were typically characterized according to their subject matter, among which the most common types included “films of rural themes, of urban themes, of war, and of historical figures/events.”
The horror genre revival began at the beginning of the twenty-first century but its antecedents can be traced to the early 1980s, when the state first affirmed film’s entertainment function. Although the government still used film as an ideological tool for education and propaganda, its recognition of film as an appropriate cultural form for entertainment significantly created room for filmmakers to explore a diversity of themes and genres, including thriller and horror. Only a few horror films were made at that time, among the most popular of which were
In addition, horror elements commonly played a role in detective thrillers, such as
These films included scenes that use dark shadows, low-key lighting, eerie music, and shock close-ups to evoke horror. The interest in horror did not carry on into the 1990s, but a few notable horror films were made then, such as
The detective thrillers and these few horror films are precursors to the revival of the horror genre.
In the 1990s, the government was determined to develop cinema's market potential and took measures to enhance the process of commercializing the film industry. For example, in 1994 the MRFT (Ministry of Radio, Film and Television) established an annual importation of ten international blockbusters, which to some degree regenerated the PRC film market, getting people back to the cinema. The following year, the MRFT relaxed its production licensing policy, extending the right to produce feature films from state-run studios to provincial-level studios. In 1998, the policy of licensing allowed private companies to apply for film production and distribution permits on a case-by-case basis. Now most of the recent horror films are produced or financed by private culture-industry companies. For instance, The Game of Killing is produced and distributed by Stellar Megamedia; Suffocation is produced by Chinese Media Development Co. Ltd; and The Door is produced by The Rosat Film & TV Production Company and Stellar Megamedia.
An open market for imports and a series of new policies stimulated domestic competition and encouraged film's shift from an ideological tool to an entertainment medium oriented towards a commercial market. Starting from the late 1990s, popular genre films have become the staple of PRC cinema. Even fifth generation filmmakers, who have been associated with art cinema, have turned to making commercial films, typified by Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Chen Kaige’s The Promise (2005).
Comedy, martial arts, and urban romance melodrama have been the most popular genres. Currently, a conspicuous production of horror films indicates this genre's increasing popularity. Despite its problematic status, the horror genre tantalizes Chinese filmmakers and private investors for its market potential. In the PRC horror films are rarely imported for public exhibition, but pirated DVD markets and underground cinemas have made foreign horror films accessible to horror fans. The pirate market has a noticeable role in popularizing the horror genre. Moreover, Asian horror films, particularly those from Japan, South Korea, and more recently from Hong Kong, have gained international success. Such films include
For example, I watched the Japanese Ringu in an underground theater in Guangzhou in 1999. It was such a sensation that almost everyone was talking about this film. It is clear to me that the popularity of Asian horror films could stimulate both Chinese filmmakers and private investors.
I think its relatively low production cost has also contributed to the revival of the horror genre. There are numerous precedents of low budget horror films gaining massive profits, with films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Ringu. Low budgets also allow for testing the boundaries of censorship with a relatively low financial risk. For filmmakers who want to break into a film market dominated by big productions (particularly martial arts films), the horror genre can be a promising choice.
Style: imitation and
an aesthetic of restraint
As the horror genre was absent from PRC cinema for so long, it is understandable that contemporary Chinese horror films borrow from and imitate internationally successful Hollywood and Asian horror films. Take, for example, Liu Xiaoguang’s Ghosts. The film starts with a group of young interns setting up a temporary hospital at an old house, which is used as a local church. There is a rumor circulating among the villagers about ghosts killing people at night. The interns at first laugh at the rumor. Then strange and horrible things happen. The young people are cruelly murdered one by one, except Zhang Aiqiu, the female lead, and her boyfriend. The killer wears a mask (white face with a scarlet red mouth in shape of a grim smile) and a black cloak, and kills with a cleaver. It turns out the murders are committed by the priest to eliminate those who refuse to follow his “religion.”
Ghosts resembles Scream: a group of playful young people as victims, a cold-blooded killer wearing an impersonal and implacable mask, incessant killing, and a woman as the final survivor. Like many Hollywood horror films that refuse the closure of horror by providing an ambiguous ending (like Halloween and The Exorcist), which implies the monster's return, Ghosts ends similarly. After the heinous priest dies, Zhang Aiqiu and her boyfriend decide to leave. Seeing them off, a servant closes the door. The film then ends with a medium close-up shot of the servant smiling mysteriously, accompanied by gloomy music. The ending casts a doubt whether or not evil was eliminated and evokes the dread of horror's return.
The Game of Killing has a similar ending. A group of criminals steal a miniature gold coffin, a national treasure, from an ancient tomb. On their way out, the tomb collapses. Jingwen’s best friend is left behind buried. Then the members of the group die mysteriously, except Jingwen, who is grieving for her friend’s death and regrets her participation in the crime. Before the criminals die, they all receive a strange phone call and see the ghost of Jingwen’s friend. As the only survivor, Jingwen returns the gold coffin to the government. In the last scene, Jingwen enters her apartment with some flowers, singing in a happy mood. Suddenly, eerie music rises, evoking uneasiness and implying danger. From Jingwen’s point of view, the camera pans from the living room to the bedroom and reveals a woman with long straight hair, dressed in white, standing by the window. The camera slowly zooms in as she turns around towards Jingwen. Surprisingly, the woman turns out to be Jingwen herself. Then the film ends, leaving the audience to resolve the new plot questions: Is her friend’s ghost Jingwen’s illusion? Have the mysterious deaths really taken place or are they Jingwen’s delusion?
An obvious imitation of Japanese horror is the image of the female ghost or a ghost like woman, dressed in white, with face covered by long straight hair, based on Sadako in Ringu. Such an image of a female ghost or a ghost-like woman has become a frequently used cinematic representation in contemporary PRC horror films. In addition to Li Jia in The Game of Killing, other examples include Seven Night, The Matrimony, Ghost Inside, and Email.
Nevertheless, although Chinese horror films borrow foreign conventions, not all of them are simply copies. Li Shaohong dedicates The Door to Hitchcock, straightforward about the great master’s influence. Like Vertigo, the film is about a man’s obsession with a woman, which leads to her death. The reference to Rear Window is obvious in the scene in which the male protagonist stands in the street, watching his apartment building through a telescope. A wide-angle shot shows people’s activities in their apartments. However, The Door creatively uses the male protagonist’s point of view, his voice-over narration, a fragmented narrative structure, and mix of flashbacks and dreams to blur distinctions between illusion and reality, and it gives a poetic sentimentality to the horror of murder. The film achieves its own distinguished style, independent of its source of inspiration.
PRC horror films differ from Hollywood horror films primarily in the degree of visually represented violence. Hollywood horror films are “often accused of visual excess: of showing too much, too often.” In contrast, due to strict censorship, the PRC horror films share a restraint in their visual depiction of horror. An increasing commercialization of the film industry has not changed the censorship system much. The state continues to exercise control over film production. And, as many filmmakers and critics have pointed out, the biggest problem with film censorship is that “nobody is clear about the criteria for the censorship.” A film has to be ideologically and culturally acceptable, with the standard of what is an acceptable cultural and political theme “shifting with the direction and force of the political winds.”
A number of films by sixth generation directors have been prohibited form public screening because of their thematic focus on marginalized people, the dark side of reality, and an explicit visual representation of sexuality. For example, Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006) was censored due to its reference to the June Fourth Event and its sex scenes. Lou Ye received a penalty of five years suspension from making films. Li Yu’s Lost in Beijing (2007) encountered a similar fate. The film had fought a long way to pass the censorship and then was shown in China only for a short period even after a 22-minute cut of sexual scenes. After that, the Film Bureau banned this film and prohibited Fang Li, the producer, from engaging in film-related work for two years. These cases are considered warnings to filmmakers who attempt to touch upon sensitive subjects.
“The Provisions on the Filing of Film Scripts (Abstracts) and Administration of Films,” passed in 2006, reflect the government’s control over film production even though it has given the latter more flexibility than before. Some regulations are specifically addressed to the horror genre. According to the provisions, the following contents must be cut or altered:
“Showing content about murder, violence, terror, ghosts and the supernatural; …showing specific details of criminal behavior;… showing content which evokes excitement from murder, bloodiness, violence, drug abuse and gambling; …containing excessively horror scenes, dialogues, background music and sound effects.”
These regulations, particularly the last one, set up substantial restrictions for horror films. In this way, the PRC horror film has been shaped by both confrontation and negotiation between commercial cinema's priorities and state control. Common features shared by PRC horror films are that they deal with ideologically correct themes and present violence and horror with visual and aural restraint. I refer to such a formula as an “aesthetic of restraint.”
An aesthetic of restraint can also be found in the earlier horror films. The Lonely Ghost in the Dark Mansion, a revenge ghost film, reveals at the end that the murder and revenge scenes and the ghost are all made up. The Mystery of St. Paul Hospital, a detective thriller/horror about serial murders, interweaves the murder case with the plotline of the Liberation Army’s fight against Nationalist remnants’ conspiracy to destroy New China. The film's script thus praises the wisdom of military representatives who solve the murder case and maintain national security and social order.
Less propagandistic than the earlier thriller/horror films, contemporary horror films still follow this overriding aesthetic of restraint. The ghost usually turns out to be either human, as in Ghosts, Seven Nights, and Email, or simply an apparition, as in Ghost Inside, The Door, and Help. The horror films emphasize atmospheric fear and psychological suspense more than explicit visual and aural representations of violence and bloodiness. The typical visual stylistic moves found in these horror film includs expressionless faces in extreme low-key lighting; distorted figures in fisheye shots; long shots of empty corridors; sudden pan shots revealing the source of horror from a character’s point of view; hand-held-camera tracking shots of a character walking towards a source of impending danger; and a camera moving up on a character from behind. Aural representations usually include a creepy sound of walking on wooden stairs, a woman’s cry or scream in darkness, and scary music to build up the suspense and tension.
To avoid “excessiveness,” these films do not contain long sequences of horror. Take a scene in Seven Nights as an example. The female protagonist combs her hair in the bathroom. She looks into the mirror, and suddenly sees a woman in a green gown, with her face partially covered by her long straight hair. She calls for her mother-in-law and the maid, but they see nothing strange. Then it takes another ten minutes to get to a similar scene. The rather long interval between horror scenes reduces emotional excessiveness. This film creates suspense and horror mainly through lighting and the narrative of a dark family secret — the murder of a young woman by her mother and brother.
Most films avoid scenes showing murder. We see people die, but not the action of killing. For instance, in Li Shaohong’s The Door, we never see how the protagonist murders his girlfriend. When we finally see her body, which he has kept in a closet sealed behind a wall, the image of the body does not evoke horror at all. Wrapped in a clean transparent plastic bag, she is smiling peacefully as if she were sleeping. In some films, such as Help and Ghost Inside, no real murder or death takes place,. In Help, a medical student with symptoms of hysteria believes that she has killed her boyfriend with the aid of her supervisor. She is haunted by nightmares and by her boyfriend’s ghost. The ending reveals that most of the scenes are her hallucination.
Ghosts is an exception in terms of having an excessive representation of horror. However, this film passed the censorship largely due to its ideological message that caters to the government. Although not as gory as Scream, Ghosts includes explicit display of bloodiness and violence. It shows the actions of the murderer chopping the victims to death. Thus it is probably the first domestically produced horror film that shows the details of violent killing. To illustrate its visual representation of violence, I will note the actions that take place in the basement murder scene. Here, one more rational character does not believe in the rumor about ghosts killing people and intends to dissect the corpse of a so-called ghost, which was captured by the priest. Suddenly, the murderer appears. No time to escape, the first character lies down on a table and covers himself with a piece of white cloth. The killer, holding a cleaver, walks around the room to search for him among the corpses. Seemingly losing patience, the killer cuts the corpses randomly. The long shot of the killer’s search and approaching to the victim intensifies suspense and terror. As the scene is not shot from the victim’s point of view, the viewer does not know where the victim hides. Thus, there is a sense of helplessness in waiting for the murder. A low angle shot of the killer standing in front of a covered body cuts to a close-up shot of the exposed victim, who can do nothing but wait to be killed. After the murder takes place, a close-up shot shows the killer holding the cleaver dripping with blood.
Ghosts avoided censorship thanks to an unintended correlation between the film and the massive propaganda campaigns against Falun Gong, a “cultivation practice” that is banned by the Chinese government. Ghosts can be viewed as an anti-Falun Gong film. The priest manipulates people’s fear of supernatural spirits and presents himself as a god-like figure who has power to command natural forces and protect people from evil ghosts. To make people believe in the existence of ghosts, he commits multiple murders to create fear among the villagers. The portrayal of the priest character fits the government’s criticism of Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong. An online review on Ghosts criticizes the film’s poor aesthetic quality, but points out its reference to Li Hongzhi.  Thus, it is possible that the audience recognized the resemblance.
In an interview, Liu Xiaoguang explained that he got the idea for the film from a news report on an African heretic practice. He had not expected that his film would be completed and released the same time as the national propaganda campaign against Falun Gong.
“At first I was worried that the film could not pass the censorship, but, perhaps because of this reason [the film could be used as a propaganda against Falun Gong], the film gained approval quite easily. Almost no alteration was required.”
His words suggest that green light could be given to excessive horror films if they could be used as a propaganda tool to promote the state’s ideology. Nevertheless, most of the PRC horror films still choose a restrained style.
Urban themes and
the architectural space of horror
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.
1. The horror genre existed before the Communist Party founded the PRC. Ma-Xu Weibang’s Song at Midnight (Ye ban ge sheng, 1937), a Chinese version of Phantom of Opera, was a big success. The same director made a few more horror/thrill films, including Walking Corpse in an Old House (Gu wu xing shi ji, 1938), The Lonely Soul (Leng yue shi hun, 1938), and Song at Midnight II (1941).
2. There are other countries that do not have the horror genre, such as Egypt and former Soviet Union. Ideological reasons usually account for the absence of horror films from national cinemas in the first place. See Josephine Woll, “Exorcising the Devil: Russian Cinema and Horror,” and Viola Shafi, “Egypt: A Cinema without Horror?” in Horror International, eds. Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005).
3. Peter Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film (Manchester, U.K. and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993). Also see Andrew Wills, “The Spanish Horror Film as Subversive Texts: Eldy De La Iglesia’s LA Semana Del Asesino,” in Horror International. Wills’ study of the Spanish horror film is a good application of Hutchings’ notion.
5. Genre films existed before the founding of the PRC, when the film industry was commercialized. See Shuyu Kong, “Genre Film, Media Corporations, and the Commercialisation of the Chinese Film Industry: The Case of ‘New Year Comedies,’” Asian Studies Review, Vol.31 Issue 3 (September 2007): 227-242.
9. Li Yinghe, “dianying shengcha zhidu de deshi”
(July 22, 2008)
11. “SARFT Reiterates Film Censor Criteria,”
(July 1, 2008).
12. See the review at
(December 22, 2008).
13. Xie Xiao and Wu Jieming, “Cong kongbupian shongshen zhi lu toushi zhongguo dianying fenji” (Viewing Chinese film rating in relation to the censorship of the horror film), Nanfang Daily March 17, 2004.
(retrieved December 22, 2008)
15. “Interview with Li Shaohong,” see
(December 29, 2008)
16. U.S. horror films also went through the shift from the foreign location as the site of horror in the 1930s to the U.S. family in the late 1960s. See Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Metuchen, N.J., and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984), 183-185.
17. Aaron Smuts, “Haunting the House from Within: Disbelief Mitigation and Spatial Experience,” in Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, eds. Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw (Lanham, Maryland and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003), 166.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.