It’s time to let the women with the long wet hair in Asian cinema and their Western remakes rest. They’re tired.
Now I’m not saying the ghost herself should disappear. I think we can all agree that the images are haunting and succeed in inducing fantastical visual scares. What I’m saying is that the Asian “revenge wraith” trope needs to be updated.
Misogyny in Western horror films is nothing new, but there’s been such a dramatic and positive shift with the roles of the “Final Girl” it makes me a tad envious, and I find myself yearning for that same bit of horror movie justice in Asian cinema. Granted, Asian horror films have female characters in the main roles, but the origins behind those roles are driven by over a millennia and half of misogyny, perpetuated by Confucianism and other Asian religions and teachings that suppress women and restrict their roles to the xian qi liang mu, meaning “good wife and loving mother”—which was actually taught in Asian schools—or the yin, relating to tasks confined “inside” the home, versus the external role of the male yang. All that history makes it an arduous course to alter. But Asian women and nonbinary people in the horror genre of today are coming together and rallying to see it through and make it easier for future generations to learn from and expand upon.
You’d think that horror would be the best genre to release nearly two thousand years of Asian female oppression with pertinent and meaningful histories and dramatic backstories. And it is. But at the same time, a majority of films focus little on the women who became the ghost and why, making the women mere vessels for terror rather than daughters, sisters, mothers who were once human. I left wives out on purpose. In most Asian films, it’s the wife who either dies, eliciting a vengeful killing spree by the husband, as in Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw the Devil, or it’s the wife who, after neglecting one of her many “good wife and loving mother” duties, becomes the monstrous vengeful specter. In Banjong Pisanthanakun’s 2021 Thai film The Medium, it’s a sister who denies her daughter’s duties in becoming the next village’s medium, leaving the completely naïve and innocent daughter open for possession, forcing the young girl’s aunt to try and save her and failing. Takashi Miike’s Audition is an example of an updated Asian horror film in that it is the female character who takes revenge and kills, but she does it because she was traumatized and a victim in her youth so then becomes the villainous monster who must be stopped. So a great start, with a too-brief traumatic backstory, and then the finish with the typical role of Asian women in Eastern horror cinema—they die.
To further strengthen my point: because of their views on opposites and the severe imbalances between them, Swiss psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung was intrigued by Eastern mystical traditions, and so strongly influenced by Eastern religions that he applied what he’d learned to his work. Jung also became famous through controversy after developing sub-systems of personality related to the collective unconscious, which he described as ancestral memories and images archetypes. Of his archetypes, the one used most in Asian cinema is the dual archetype of the anima/animus—the masculine tendencies in women and the feminine aspects of men, sometimes used along with the shadow archetype (which is the animal of one’s personality, much like Freud’s id). Another term Jung uses to describe the female unconscious anima is “the irrational soul.” It’s this “irrational” side of women that plays a dominant role in Asian cinema and particularly in horror films.
Asian horror cinema often depicts the female duality archetype as an object of both hypersexualized forbidden desire and disgrace, like the once-beautiful maiden who becomes the hideous long-haired revenge ghost, or a femme fatale on a rampage. A killing machine hellbent on getting back at the whole world, possibly with long crimson nails or vermillion eye shadow. Problematic modern-day versions of the derogatory term “dragon ladies” on intense stimulants.
With the unfavorable history toward Asian women in cinema, Asian women and nonbinary horror authors, filmmakers, and artists must work hard to put to rest these stereotypes or give them the peace they truly need. A recent example I was impressed by is Blumhouse’s 2020 film Evil Eye, written by Madhuri Shekar and based on her audio play. It’s a great film about a generational trauma becoming a horror that explores a mother-daughter relationship with a satisfactory resolution forcing the mother and daughter to open up to one another and come together in order to defeat the horror and heal the trauma. The ending is the kind I’m hoping to see more Eastern Asian women and/or nonbinary people be a part of in future Eastern Asian horror cinema. There has been enough real terror these past two thousand years. We have lots of stories to tell on the page and through the screen about our own experiences and with our own voices. Our spirits will no longer keep quiet.
Spread the word!