Cross-cultural disgust:
some problems in the analysis of contemporary horror cinema

Part two: re-writing disgust

by Chuck Kleinhans

Recent changes in the horror genre itself and the escalation of effects in a broader category of “extreme” cinema have pushed critics to considering disgust in relation to media aesthetics. This concern with disgust merges with a new and more sophisticated interest in spectator emotions as part of the screen experience, and a new interest in disgust as a cultural, social, and political concept. As part of a longer discussion, this essay continues that analysis.

In my previous essay on disgust and horror (JC 51), I pointed out cross-cultural differences in horror film representations by noting how my earlier essay on Dumplings (JC 49) a film which centered on cannibalism and aborted fetuses, had raised key issues for me. I then proceeded to examine the matter in more depth by looking at three different films. I argued that because of anti-abortion organizing and political controversy in the United States, where the population remains evenly split over the issue, the possible range of what can be shown in depicting abortion is very narrow. Thus one of the very few films depicting abortion procedures, If these Walls Could Talk, can only show a “tragic” outcome and does not use a fetus image at all. In contrast, the Hong Kong youth-theme film, Spacked Out, is remarkably graphic in showing the procedures and result (heightened by a surreal style). The film’s attitude to the procedure is casual, frank, and without regret. The narrative premise in the U.S. film accepts the anti-abortion given that abortion is disgusting. The Hong Kong film mostly assumes it is ”just another medical procedure” without inescapable political/moral resonance. A third film, The Untold Story (aka Human Pork Buns), also from Hong Kong, presents a different kind of revulsion. First, the film shows the eating of human flesh, which is largely treated as a joke; second, the villain rapes and murders with extreme violence and then the police torture the bad guy to force a confession. In the film’s narrative shifts, disgust with cannibal practices mutates into a depiction of violence that delivers the message that violence itself escalates violence and that such violence is emotionally horrifying and morally repulsive.

In this installment of analyzing media disgust, I consider two films that deliberately deal with “disgusting” matters explicitly, but in different ways with different effects. They are clearly minor or unfulfilled works by their respective auteurs, but are even more interesting and revealing for the subject at hand because of their problems and awkwardness. One presents a humanistic view of contemporary youth in a disintegrating global neoliberal world. The other offers a black comedy satire about the family, and the greater society, in contemporary Japan.

Fruit Chan’s Public Toilet (Hwajangshil eodieyo, 2002) provides an ensemble of quickly shot-on-digital-video sketches that take place in and around places where people relieve themselves of bodily waste in Beijing, Hong Kong, Pusan Korea, Benaras India, and New York City (a few other places appear as minor elements). Since the topic, public toilet, deals with recurrent elements of shit and piss that are commonly sanctioned as disgusting, the film actually can be read as providing an against-the-grain meditation on this social ideology and moving towards more complex ways of actually imagining elimination. But the very subject matter evokes a strong reaction from some people, and several festival reports indicate some audience members were disgusted or distressed by the film, a response also evidenced in various film blog entries.

Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (Bijita Q 2001), also shot quickly and on a low budget in a digital format, portrays a massively dysfunctional middle class Japanese family that is transformed and re-integrated as a social unit by a mysterious outsider who intervenes in their life. Bullying violence, sexual assault and abuse, murder, and necrophilia are just some of the perverse activities depicted, but the most disgusting part may be the implacable acceptance of distressing matters as normal, and finally reconciling the family unit, pointing to the social critique at the film’s heart.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Disgust: a note on definition

At this point we need to take a detour through the nature of disgust and some peculiarities of its cinematic appearance.[2] Is disgust the right term? In English (and French) the etymology links the emotion to the sense of taste. But other languages don’t necessarily make this connection. We can say that in general all cultures and people exhibit an “aversive response.” That is, individuals develop (and the response seems to be learned first in infancy and developed in childhood) an embodied and embedded visceral reaction to certain things or sense stimuli. Newborns make an “aversion” facial expression when they taste something bitter. At its simplest level, this is biologically functional (don’t eat this, it is repulsive, it will be bad for you).

But for the most part children have to learn that their bodily waste, for example, is repulsive, unpleasant, to be avoided. Parents teach disgust. And that process tends to synchronize the senses, bringing them into harmony with each other. Thus in toilet training the child has to learn to eject and reject its waste in a controlled and efficient way. It’s generally assumed, and not only by Freudians, but famously by them, that the child has to learn to separate from its shit, to overcome a tendency to think of it as “theirs” and be fascinated with it and value it. Gaining control, achieving separation, and appropriate disposal are praised and rewarded by caregivers. The baby becomes a productive member of society, in more ways than one, and in a way that weaves the individual into a future of productive labor and appropriate social role.

Thus the first stages of this process involve the individual with its direct body senses—touch, taste, smell—which are orchestrated with its more intellectual senses—sight and hearing. Screen media involve the latter two senses and can only indirectly invoke the other three.[3] Therefore to actuate disgust, media must use representation. But the image is always a second order of experience and depends on a pre-existing cultural contract: this thing or action represented is, by common agreement, by ideology, disgusting. Take as an example, a famous moment in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sailors see the meat that will be served them infested with maggots.

The ship’s captain sees some crew members gather around the sides of meat, angry about it. Accompanied by the ship’s MD, the approach and the sailors say that the meat has worms in it. The doctor inspects the situation, providing a medium closeup that shows the maggots moving about. He dismisses the concerns.

The sailors protest, and we get a second closeup, providing even more irrefutable evidence of the disgusting meat. The MD then tells the sailors that there are no “worms” in the meat, that those are fly lavae, which can just be washed off. The doctor thus uses his superior technical vocabulary (maggots are larvae, not worms, although they look like worms) to dismiss the sailors’ direct observation and concerns for their own health. The doctor’s casuistic trickery clearly stands as morally reprehensible, and thus it further justifies the crew’s eventual rebellion.

The audience universally agrees that maggoty meat is bad. Thus the audience clearly understands that this behavior by the ship’s officers is offensive, abhorrent, and therefore Eisenstein’s point. The officers (representing the government and the dominant class) oppress the rank and file sailors, subjecting them to health-threatening food and unjust actions by any measure. The sailor’s revolt is justified. We move from image representation to moral judgment and political conviction.

How, in human social life, we move from infant bodily experience of bitter taste to moral and political disgust is a key element of what I am investigating in this series of articles. And how in experiencing media we can move from the sight and sound of some representation to the embodied emotion of disgust is an ongoing concern.

Disgust: the economy of escalating effects

While most classic horror films largely played with the emotion of spectator fear (of the monster, of the unknown or unexplained, etc.) often heightened by surprise-producing shock, they also often balanced menace with some kind of disgust. Thus the title character in The Mummy (d. Karl Freund, 1932) is a reanimated dead body, Frankenstein’s monster is assembled from corpses (d. James Whale, 1931); the zombie at the crossroads in I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) evokes a body without a soul. In their original film appearance these entities carry a sense of being revolting on some level. But it is also the case that as they are absorbed into the popular imagination, they become more familiar and less disgusting: perhaps still fearful and dangerous, but not as revolting. The passage to the popular finds melodramatic romance (Bride of Frankenstein, d. James Whale, 1935) in which the Bride is exotic and erotic, albeit a graveyard bricolage. Today’s beautiful Goth vampires continue the alluring romance. The path also trails over farcical comedy (Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, d. Charles Barton, 1948), which turns repulsion at the monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman—into bumbling hilarity.

The relentless recycling of popular genre materials in entertainment culture produces the twin effect of re-introduction and escalation followed by satire and comedy, which leads to a new level of heightened effects. Thus the creepy but strangely placid zombie of Tourneur’s gothic film becomes a general assault by considerably more damaged creatures in Night of the Living Dead (d. George Romero, 1968). This trend
evolves in Romero’s subsequent films (with more expensive prosthetics and ramped up body horror) until we get to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (d. John Landis, 1983) with a zombie chorus dancing their (missing) hearts out. The escalation continues in the horror franchises of the 1980s and 90s and arrives with new rigor (mortis) with Asian Extreme films and the Torture Porn cycle.

The very familiarity with tropes of revulsion in an expanded entertainment media culture means that franchise characters such as Freddie Krueger appear on posters, T-shirts, the pages of the entertainment press. This repetition makes their actors into stars and fan material and changes subsequent reception. Familiarity breeds less anxiety and this pushes the makers to amplify the next round with more effects, stronger and louder assaults on the spectator. This evolution of an iconic monster along an historical axis should be sufficient evidence to show that the objects of disgust are cultural in origin and evoke different responses over time. The initial 1930s audience for Frankenstein did find the graveyard origins of the creature disgusting; even when it is re-animated and given some sympathy, the original revulsion remained attached. However, by the time of and in the aftermath of Young Frankenstein (d. Mel Brooks, 1974), Peter Boyle’s “dapper man-about-town” creature evacuates any possible disgust.

The weakening of original affect through subsequent realizations pushes the effects engine to compensate and escalate. Circularity and multiplication in representation promotes not only (what some would call postmodern) pastiche but also ramps up bluntness. Jaded reception must be shocked with a higher voltage of revulsion: thus the logic of Torture Porn in the cinematic marketplace and the cranking up of gross-out humor for the intended (mostly teen) audience.

While themselves not generic horror films, Public Toilet and Visitor Q provide a path to a different understanding of disgust as a cinematic strategy and cultural ideology. These two films rewrite conventional disgust; in my discussion below, I want to explore and explain this reframing. I don’t intend the discussion to be exhaustive close textual analysis, but rather present the films as illustrative of the aesthetic rhetorical strategies employed. However, to make that point I will have to supply some additional narrative detail along the way.

Public Toilet: social life in the globalized present

Fruit Chan’s Public Toilet explores a necessary site and its human waste activities. The result rewrites our understanding of disgust. While it is commonplace to associate public toilets with excrements, Chan’s narrative moves in a different direction. Shot on digital video, exploiting the mobility and flexibility of this low-cost technology, and following different characters whose lives cross and intersect in unusual ways, the film explores larger abstract questions of death and terminal illness but always with a reference to the mundane everyday world of bodily functions.

In studying Fruit Chan’s films, Wimil Dissanyake found the director repeatedly explores the working class situation of his characters and their Hong Kong society.[4] In Public Toilet, as in Made in Hong Kong (1997), and The Longest Summer (1999), the director presents young people at a liminal moment in their lives, transiting to full adulthood. They are adrift. As in Durian Durian (2000) and Hollywood Hong Kong (2002) characters take long journeys, seeking and exploring, and facing a world, a global future, which is uncertain. But within Public Toilet’s odysseys, social bonding, however temporary, takes place and promises the potential for human connection.

On a train in India on the way to Benaras, the holy city at the end of the River Ganga, an ailing elderly man who needs help getting to and using the train’s toilet asks a young traveler from China to help him. In Beijing, a man confined to a hospital bed has his 12 year-old roommate (who is dying of stomach cancer) help with a mechanical bedpan. Also in Beijing, two old guys spent their lifetime fruitlessly hoping to marry a woman while gently quarreling with each other. After one dies (in a communal toilet, slipping away unattended), the survivor visits the woman (now unconscious) in the hospital and begs to marry her so he won’t be alone. In Pusan, Korea, a young commercial fisherman finds an “ocean girl” has climbed up the waste pipe of his seaside portable outhouse. She discusses how increasing pollution has killed off her family as well as sea life.[5] A young woman, girlfriend of a Chinese hitman who is about to do his last job in NYC, takes her wheelchair-bound elderly mother on an arduous trip to a shaman at the Great Wall, hoping for a cure. The young people go off on journeys trying to find remedies (such as ginseng in Korea) or miracles (bathing in the Ganges) that can help their ailing friends and relatives but to no avail.

Their lives crisscross through modern technology with the hitman talking on the phone to his girlfriend at the Great Wall, and a Beijing guy in New York talking to his buddy visiting Benaras. The assassin enlists the Beijing traveler to video his last hit, which goes wrong, leaving two media records of the killer being killed. We see the woman taking her mother to the Great Wall, which then turns out to be a video watched by the two elderly suitors, one of whom remarks that when they were young they had to walk for miles to see a movie and now they can see one anytime. The Chinese visitor in Benaras consults a elderly holy man in a temple who recommends walking as the best path to enlightenment. Opening a door to leave, the two hear music and the young fellow asks what it is. The monk explains, “A movie, a musical. Even though people suffer, you can still find religious happiness.” And the traveler walks outside into an outdoor screening of a chorus dance number from a Bollywood musical, a horribly deteriorated print watched enthusiastically by the crowd. This swarm of connections and intersections, moving from the real to the mediated and on to the media within the real, moving across the planet, opens a sense of an uncertain but possible future.

But against or in between this grand narrative, the real work of the film operates to have us refigure what is usually considered disgusting: the human body in its animal nature. A pre-title sequence introduces bodily necessity.

A young mother hurriedly ushers a little boy into a women’s public toilet, but there is a waiting line. She hustles him out as a father brings a little girl into the men’s room to the same situation: no stalls available. The mother is shown holding her son and cooing to him. Cut to his POV and a stream of piss rising between his legs.

The father coos to his daughter, and we see her face as she is also peeing in public (below the frame). Thus does practical necessity overrule social normativity. The sequence quickly sets up the film’s stance to making this several-times-a-day activity part of the ebb and flow of life, not something marked off, stigmatized, repulsive.[6]

We meet the film’s narrator, Dong Dong (Tsuyoshi Abe), outside of the public toilet where he was born. It was built 40 years earlier (c. 1960) and at the time must have marked the modernity of community sanitation. Because of his birth, Dong Dong is called “God of Toilets” by those in the neighborhood.

A flashback shows a middle-aged woman entering the communal latrine and hearing a baby’s cries. She reaches down and rescues the newborn. Unable to find the birth mother, the single woman raises the child
Shifting back to the present, the crowded men’s side of the toilet functions as a meeting place. Dong Dong’s cosmopolitan school buddies visit the location and find it archaic and disgusting. Dong Dong visits Grandma, the woman who raised him, who is seriously ill in the hospital. Dong Dong reports that midnight thieves have been pumping urine out of the toilets. One of Grandma’s long-standing suitors, Li (Guang-pei Du), relates folk stories that urine can be distilled to produce a small amount of gold, and that virgin’s urine has curative powers now being investigated by medical scientists. Dong Dong’s best friend, Tony, has a little brother, Sheng, who is in the hospital with stomach cancer. He watches movies on a portable DVD player with other patients; in this case a Pakistani drama with music from the 1960s.[7]
Dong Dong and his Somali friend, son of the ambassador to China (Shirwa Mohammed), try to get their buddy Stone (son of an Italian journalist couple stationed in Beijing where he was born and raised) to consume a pint of urine to see its effects. Stone (Pietro Dilletti) warily tries the liquid, chokes and vomits, producing hilarity among his buddies.  
An elaborate transition sequence moves from the Beijing communal toilet down through sewage to the sea, moving underwater and eventually arriving in Pusan, Korea, at seaside where a young commercial fisherman, Kim (teen heartthrob Hyuk Jang), works with his family. They use a portable outhouse with a discharge pipe to the sea. Kim finds a young woman, Ocean Girl (Yang-hie Kim) who climbed up the waste tube and emerged topside seeking food.  
  Dong Dong goes to visit Grandma in the hospital, but the nurse tells him she wandered away. The night before she asked the nurse to accompany her to the toilet. “She said it was very lonely to shit by herself.” It turns out she packed up and left the hospital and we see her in a park with her two old suitors, at a large gathering of retired people who sing old songs, in this case a choral version of Mao’s “The Long March.” L to R: Zhang (Wen-hui Li), Grandma (Zhi-hong Wang), Li (Guang-pei Du). Grandma collapses at the end of the song, before the ensemble was going to sing Happy Birthday for her 68th year. Born in the early 1930s, her generation experienced war with Japan as a child, civil war as a teen, and the creation of the People’s Republic at about age 15. She’s taken back to the hospital where she rests in a coma.
Dong Dong, distressed at the loss of the woman who raised him, visits the public toilet near their residence and reflects on the past. “Grandma told me that most of the Gods of Toilets in history were women and came from the lower class. Childbirth was seen as a filthy activity, so babies were born in toilets. When the Heavenly Father learned of this, he named them Gods of Toilets out of empathy.”
In Pusan, Kim visits Ocean Girl in the portable toilet. She answers him, explaining that ocean pollution has endangered fish and her family.  

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