Asian Ghost Film Vs. Western Horror Movie: Feng Shui

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Asian Ghost Film vs. WesternHorror Movie: Feng ShuiTilman BaumgärtelIn this essay I will examine the question to what extent the Philippine production Feng Shui (Roño,2004) is a horror film according to the well-established (Western) definitions of the genre. This seems tobe a pertinent question as many Filipino horror films are based on ghost stories and folklore from thearchipelago, that are often a lived reality and believed in by many people in the Philippines. The fact thatFeng Shui as well as other horror films from Southeast Asia are produced for an audience that actuallybelieves in ghosts seems to me to be very relevant for the analysis of these films. I will argue that FengShui shares a good number of traits with other Asian ghost films, but that it also features “the return ofthe repressed” that according to the late film critic Robin Wood is one of the defining features of Westernhorror movies.Keywords: Feng Shui, Philippine horror movies, anti-patriarchyAfter relocating from Germany to Manila in 2004, I was eager to getto know the film culture of a country that I was not familiar with at all.Shortly after settling in my new environment, I started to watch almostevery Filipino movie that was on. The first one I watched happened to beChito S. Roño s Feng Shui (2004).I had not read any reviews nor did I know anything about the film, andmy command of Tagalog was nil. But still, I felt richly rewarded watchingFeng Shui at the SM North cinema, though not in the way I might haveexpected. It was a memorable experience not only because I got to see myfirst film from the country I would live in for the next five years but moreso because it was a first-hand lesson in the kind of film culture that I hadpreviously only heard about—primarily from my parents whenever theywould recall going to the movies in Germany in the Fifties—or that I hadonly read about from accounts of film screenings in Hong Kong in the 1970sand 80s where the audience identified so strongly with what was happeningPlaridel Vol. 12 No. 2 August 20151 - 13

on the screen that it talked back to the actors, yelled during exciting scenes,and got up when the action got really exciting.During the screening of Feng Shui that I attended, similar scenestranspired. During scary scenes, people covered their eyes with their hands,jumped from their seats, and screamed to warn Kris Aquino of the WhiteLady that was hovering around outside of her house. Any of the goodnumber of killings in the film caused a collective outcry that seemed tocome from one common throat. Maybe my memory is deceiving me here,but I even seem to remember the non-stop beeping of cell phones keys, as ifpeople were constantly texting their friends about what they saw. (Feng Shuiturned out to be among the most successful local films of 2004, and in 2015a sequel was produced that did equally well at the box office.)I did not know anything about Philippine cinema at that time, orabout Philippine culture, for that matter. I did not know that Kris Aquinoused to be the “scream queen” in nasty massacre films by komiks [comics]artist Carlo J. Caparas a decade earlier—in fact, I did not even know whatkomiks were. I was not aware of the fact that she had become a beloved starwho successfully hosted game and talk shows on television. I also did notknow that she was the youngest daughter of former Philippine senator andprominent dissident Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. and former president CorazonAquino. And I did not get the subtext about Chinese and Philippine traditionsat all. Maybe the most important lesson I learned during the following yearswas that there was no such thing as anything 100-percent authenticallyFilipino, that the culture of the country was and is an amalgam of stronglocal cultures and foreign influences that have become important elementsof the present culture of my temporary home. And without understandingthis, there is little chance of understanding the significance of the story thatFeng Shui—the title of the film itself, of course, a reference to Chinese-stylegeomancy—tells.But let me return to the strong and heartfelt audience reaction to themovie in question. As I have indicated already, this was nothing like I hadexperienced during screenings of horror films in Germany. The reactionthat even the most gruesome, violent and nauseating horror flicks producedin cinemas in Berlin seemed, in comparison, tame, lacklustre and jaded. Inthe secular and disenchanted culture I grew up in, the ultra-violence thathad become a fixture in Western horror cinema had never elicited the kindof reaction that I experienced the time I watched Feng Shui. Despite itscomparatively low-budget and easily spotted special effects, the audiencewas driven into a frenzy of fear. Here was an audience so wrapped into thenarrative that it literally jumped out of its seats at every scare. Comparedto American horror films—especially the genre of “torture porn” (movies2Baumgärtel Asian Ghost Films

like the Saw-franchise or Eli Roth s Hostel [2005]) that would be forcedonto the world by Hollywood studios around the same time—the violencein Feng Shui was mild. If the audience reacted strongly, it was not becauseof the gruesomeness of the things depicted on screen—in fact, I have satthrough much more brutal films in the Philippines among an audience thatdid not seem to pay any mind to the graphic violence they saw. It took sometime (and closer familiarity with Philippine culture) to help me understandat least one of the reasons why the audience of Feng Shui did sit on the edgeof their cushioned seats and watched a good part of the film through theirfingers. The film touched the audience in a way that I, as a newcomer andoutsider to the Philippines, just did not get. What I failed to understand wasthat, quite simply, a large part of the audience actually believed in the kindof ghosts in the film.1Gunning (2009) has coined the term “Aesthetics of Astonishment”for this type of movie viewing experience: the naive, unmediated reactiontowards a movie by an audience that has preserved the ability to acceptwhat is going on the screen as real, and is interacting with it accordingly.Maybe my excitement about the fact that I saw my first Filipino film witha Filipino audience got the better of me, but I don’t seem to remember anyother audience reaction for a local film that was as forceful as the one at thisscreening of Feng Shui. (One of the few other times I observed a Filipinoaudience raising the same kind of ruckus during a film screening was withthe supernatural thriller Constantine (2005) that starred Keanu Reeves—amostly unremarkable film that, however, featured some very graphicdepictions of hell, which drove the audience into a frenzy.)These viewing experiences—and the questions that these experiencesbring up—are at the heart of this essay on a film that most scholars ofPhilippine cinema will find neglectable. I will examine to what extent FengShui actually is a horror film, and will argue that a large number of fantasticfilms from the Philippines are actually not horror films in the sense thatthe genre is usually defined. That is not to say that there are no horror filmsfrom the Philippines—after all, the first sound film in the country was thevampire movie Ang Aswang (1933). But this film, as well as many of theother classics of the same kind, are actually based on Filipino ghost storiesand folklore. I will unpack the difference between horror films and filmsbased on local spooky lore further in this essay.For the purpose of this essay, I will take the presence of ghosts incontemporary Southeast Asia—in the movies, in places of worship, insupposedly “haunted places,” and in other instances of everyday life—as agiven. I will argue that in Western modernity, creatures such as Frankenstein,Dracula, and zombies in literature or cinema are the inventions of EuropeanPlaridel Vol. 12 No. 2 August 20153

bourgeois novelists or film scriptwriters, fashioned out of folk beliefs tosymbolize the anxieties of modern man. The ghosts in horror films fromSoutheast Asia, on the other hand, are not primarily literary inventions,representations and metaphors, but are part and parcel of a mythologythat is still very much taken for granted by many people in the region.This argument has important consequences in the interpretation of ghostmovies not just from the Philippines but from the whole region. Moreover,it leads to the concepts of modernity, rationality, and irrationality havingvery distinctive cultural features.Interestingly, none of the canonical books on Philippine cinema includeextended discussions or essays on Philippine horror films. The first twoUrian Anthologies (Tiongson, 1983; Tiongson, 2001) do not even includethe genre. The CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (Tiongson, 1994) doeshave an entry on horror films, although brief, and the essay on popularfilm genres of Philippine cinema until the 1960 in the same volume doesnot mention horror films at all. It does, however, include a discussion offilms based on fairy tales or folk tales as well as fantasy movies like theDyesebel and Darna films. Many of these films are lost, but the summariesalready make clear that many of them actually wrap socio-political issuesin fantastic form, or, as Sotto (1994) himself points out, “dramatize thefrustrations and heartbreaks of living in an oppressive environment” (p. 38).A fascinating overview on Filipino Fantasy-Adventure films was publishedby Campos (2009). However, while these films can address contemporaryissues in mythological disguise, they are not horror films in the sense that isdiscussed in this essay.I think that Feng Shui asks important questions that are not only relevantto this particular movie. The fact that a large number of viewers of horrorfilms in the Philippines—and the same can be said about the audience inother countries in Southeast Asia as well—actually believe in ghosts need tohave an impact on the way these films are discussed and analyzed. It strikesme as one of the most significant shortcomings in the scholarly literatureon Southeast Asian horror films that the supernatural occurrences in thesemovies are typically read as metaphors, as representative of something else,and not as an element of shared beliefs among the viewers of these films.My Feng Shui experience described above is the reason why I have asoft spot for this movie that most Filipino cineastes will think little of. Thisanecdote serves as an excuse for my decision a decade later to write foran academic journal in my former host country and try make sense outof a movie that nobody—myself included—would consider a milestone inFilipino filmmaking. I will try to show that the film, despite its relativelyconventional trappings, is actually an interesting and unusual hybrid4Baumgärtel Asian Ghost Films

between Western horror cinema and the type of Asian ghost movie of thattime, that its uncanny story conceals some rather sharp observations aboutclass and gender relationships that are typically not addressed in mainstreamfilms from the Philippines. I will argue that while Feng Shui (Roño, 2004) isa rather traditional ghost film, it shares a good number of traits with andhad been obviously influenced by other Asian ghost films from that sameperiod. At the same time, it can serve as an example of “the return of therepressed” that, according to the late film critic Robin Wood (1986), is oneof the defining features of Western horror movies. Wood developed hiscritical terminology out of ideas by Freud and Marcuse, and this could beuseful in distinguishing what sets much of contemporary Western horrorcinema apart from the Asian ghost films that have been internationallysuccessful at the beginning of the 21st century.Lim (2009) has argued in her book Translating Time: Cinema, theFantastic, and Temporal Critique that horror films are a form of temporaltranslation, where multiple “immiscible” times strain against the idea of ahomogeneous time that dominates our present thinking. In what follows, Iwill stress another aspect of the cinema of the uncanny: its ability to addressuncomfortable and marginalized socio-political issues in an indirect,metaphorical fashion that allows us to read horror films as movies that areabout more than just delivering scares, thrills, and shocks.Wood (1986) reads the American horror cinema as a dramatization ofthe fictionalized return of what has successfully been repressed by society.Famously, Freud (2002) argued in Civilization and Its Discontents that thefunctioning of Western society is based on a suppression of our atavisticinstincts and drives. These primitive impulses, of which sexual desire isthe strongest, are sublimated or “diverted” towards other goals that aresocially acceptable. However, these repressed impulses and instincts areso powerful that, Freud argued, they found ways to return, for instance inour dreams which were the most direct link to our subconscious. “Freudianslips,” the slips of the tongue that bring out in the open something that thespeaker does not want to share, also provide insights into the functioningof the unconscious. Freud regarded the possibility of a return of repressedinstincts and desire with suspicion and as a potential danger to civilization.For him, repression, alienation, hierarchy, and fear were intrinsic elementsof any society. Marcuse (1987) took his cue from Freud but did not sharehis pessimism about our basic impulses. As a Marxist, he argued that thecontinuum of repression and unhappiness—that from his point of view wascaused by capitalism—needed to be broken and that once that had happened,the pleasure principle could be re-instated in order to turn human freedomand happiness into the dominant force of human life.Plaridel Vol. 12 No. 2 August 20155

From this line of thinking, Wood (1986) developed his own approachtowards horror movies. For him, the horror film is to cinema, what thedream is to human culture: the prime way for the unconscious and therepressed to make itself heard. Horror movies, then, are not just aboutproviding shocks and thrills but are actually an authentic articulation of theanxieties and problems of the society in which they were produced. Thatwhich cannot be talked about, which is swept under the rug and declaredtaboo for public discussion is precisely what the horror film brings back,translated into a fantastic and horrifying form—into the discourse. Themonsters, the disasters, and the bloodshed are really a carnivalesque versionof the deepest and most-repressed fears of the society.Wood (1986) discusses movies from all periods of American cinemasince the silent era in his writing on horror cinema. But he particularlyfocuses on the American horror cinema of the 1970s with its boom of ultraviolent splatter movies and cheaply made exploitation nasties such as TexasChainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead or Last House on the Left. For him,the emergence of the undead in George Romero s zombie movies or serialkillers like Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre during that time are asymbolic return of an Other that contemporary society has stashed awayinto its shadowiest nether regions. “One might say that the true subject ofthe horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilizationrepresses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares,as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when itexists) typically signifying the restoration of repression” (Wood, p. 75).(Former humanities professor Wes Craven would turn this cultural studiesconcept into a plot idea, when, in his movie Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)and its numerous sequels, villain Freddy Krueger would emerge right outof the dreams of his victims.) Taking Wood’s point of view, these films thencould be read as commentaries on the socio-political malaise of the US inthe 1970s: the paranoia of post-Watergate politics, the senseless violenceof the lost war in Vietnam, the disillusionment of the lofty hippie ideals oflove, peace and brotherhood, the all-encompassing consumerism. At thesame time, the most ruthless monsters could be read as a foreshadowingof the neo-liberal dog-eat-dog-society that Ronald Reagan would begin toestablish after his election in 1981.Feng Shui (Roño, 2004) is not a cheap horror film as the movies thatWood writes about. It provides relatively high production values, is directedby a well-established director, and stars two actors who at that time wereamong the most bankable in the Philippines: Kris Aquino and Jay Manalo.As an entry to the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), it was made tocompete with other quality films that the Philippine film industry produced6Baumgärtel Asian Ghost Films

for that occasion. The cinematography is lush and elaborate, and the filmdoes not contain the type of graphic violence that the US horror films fromthe 1970s is notorious for. And, probably most importantly for my argument,the film is often regarded as a Filipino version of the ghost films from Japan,Korea and Thailand of that time: movies like The Grudge, The Ring, DarkWaters, The Eye or A Tale of Two Sisters, that at that time fascinated boththe local and international audiences, so much so that some of them wereremade by US studios. (A discussion of the differences between horrorfilms from Southeast Asia and the rest of Asia is beyond the scope of thisessay. It would be a worthwhile undertaking though, especially taking intoconsideration that some (East-)Asian countries—such as Japan, Hong Kongor Korea—have a rich heritage of ghost movies, while other Asian countries–such as India and China (where ghost movies have been outlawed by theCommunist party) –do not have such a large body of ghost films.)At the beginning of the 21st century, ghosts, witches, haunted houses, andthe revenge of the undead were one of the cornerstones of the entertainmentindustry of much of Asia. These films typically were based on local lore andghost stories, but these narratives had been adapted to a modern world fullof urban alienation, modern telecommunications, and lost traditional moral(family) values. While we could read the ghosts in these stories as a “returnof the repressed” that are embodiments of contemporary social ills andsocio-political problems, these films also have elements of the traditionalghost films. The socio-political subtext is treated lightly, and the ghosts aremostly ghosts in the traditional sense: haunting creatures that come backto seek revenge or to undo an injustice that was done to them. (I wouldactually posit that the US versions of successful Japanese horror films,for instance, have typically focused to a higher degree on socio-politicalmotivations than the originals. The horror in the US remakes often seemto stem directly out of the uninhabitable and alienating environment whereprotagonists encounter ghosts. Think of the estrangement and cultureconflict that expat Jennifer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) suffers after relocatingto Tokyo in Takashi Shimizu s 2004 US remake of his own movie Ju-on:The Grudge (2002). In Walter Salles 2005 remake of Hideo Nakata s DarkWaters (2002), the bitter custody battle between the parents of protagonistCecilia that evokes a sense of failure of the concept of the bourgeoisie family,and the financial dire straits that are a consequence of the break-up seemmuch more important than in the Japanese film.)Feng Shui (Roño, 2004) is in line with this “Asian” approach towardshorror: The White Lady that terrorized our protagonists is a common tropein Philippine superstitions, as is the bagua, the Chinese mirror that bringsfortune as well as misfortune to the Ramirez family. However, while thePlaridel Vol. 12 No. 2 August 20157

White Lady might be a well-established motive in Philippine ghost lore,the setting in which she starts to haunt is decidedly contemporary andaddresses

Horror Movie: Feng Shui Tilman Baumgärtel In this essay I will examine the question to what extent the Philippine production Feng Shui (Roño, 2004) is a horror film according to the well-established (Western) definitions of the genre. This seems to be a pertinent question as many Filipino horror films are based on ghost stories and folklore .