Images from Ghosts

The killer

The female protagonist as final survivor

A servant seeing Zhang Aiqiu and her boyfriend off.

Ghosts ends with the servant smiling.

Images from The Game of Killing

At the film's end, Jingwen feels someone in her apartment.

A point of view shot shows a woman in white standing by the window.

The woman turns towards Jingwen or the camera and reveals herself as Jingwen. The film ends.

A long shot of Li Jia’s “ghost” in The Game of Killing

The “ghost” in Email

Email: The entrepreneur is unaware that the “ghost” is going to take revenge against him.

The “Ghost” in Ghost Inside

In The Door, Jiang Zhongtian watches his neighbors through a telescope.

The Door: A point of view shot of what’s happening in the apartments recalls similar scenes in Rear Window.

Images from Seven Nights

The protagonist looks into the mirror…

…and sees a “ghost”.

But the mother-in-law and maid find nothing strange.

In The Door, the image of the dead body does not evoke horror.

Images from Ghosts

The killer searches for the victim.

The killer cuts the corpses randomly.

After the murder takes place, a close-up shot shows the killer holding the cleaver dripping with blood.

A close-up shot of the priest as a monster






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.[1][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

  • Suffocation (Zhi xi, dir. Zhang Bingjian),
  • Ghost Inside (Yi shen yi gui, dir. Qiu Litao),
  • Seven Nights (Qi ye, dir. zhang qian), and
  • The Curse of Lola (Zu zou, dir. Li Hong).

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. [2] 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. [3] 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,”[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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

  • The Head in the House (Xiong zhai meiren tou, dir. Hu Qingshi and Liu Yichuan, 1988) and
  • The Lonely Ghost in the Dark Mansion (Hei lou gu hun, dir. Mu Deyuan and Liang Ming, 1989).

In addition, horror elements commonly played a role in detective thrillers, such as

  • The Foggy City (Wu du mang mang, dir. Zhang bo and Wang Ying, 1980),
  • Mysterious Buddha (Shenmi de da fu, dir. Zhang Huaxun, 1980),
  • Murder in 405 (405 mousha an, dir. Shen Yaoting,1980), and
  • The Case of the Silver Snake (Yinshe mousha an, dir. Li Shaohong, 1988).

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 Mystery of St. Paul Hospital (Shengbaoluo yiyuan zhimi, dir. Mi Jiashan, 1990) and
  • The Foggy House (Wu zhai, dir. Huang Jianzhong, 1994).

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.[7] 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

  • Ringu (1998),
  • Audition (2000),
  • Dark Water (2002),
  • Grudge (2003),
  • A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), and
  • The Eye (2002).

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.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.”[10]

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.”[11]

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.

A low angle shot of the killer standing in front of a covered body… … cuts to a close-up shot of the exposed victim.

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. [12][open endnotes in new window]  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.”[13]

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.

The low angle close-up of the priest highlights his monstrosity. The priest shows his power over the people.

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