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Masters of Darkness: Asian Female Directors of Horror Films

A few years ago, Rolling Stone magazine claimed that we were experiencing a rise of modern female horror filmmakers, arguing that a new wave of “female-directed horror films have helped elevate the genre by opening the door to stories that unsettle audiences in new and different ways.” This does not mean that the irruption of women behind the cameras (or in the script) is something exclusive to the present times and to Western horror filmmakers.

We can go back five decades to find examples of Asian women filmmakers who dared to break schemes and who have contributed with their vision of the genre showing their own personality and authorial signs.

Such are the case of Ann Hui, one of Hong Kong most acclaimed film directors and prolific auteurs. Hui have always made movies that shine a light on people who are usually silence or marginalized. Genre films comprise almost half of her filmography, from action movies, to ghost stories to wuxia.

But she had a clear affection for horror that came to the fore on more than one occasion; firstly in 1980´s The Spooky Bunch and two decades later with a little more gloss in 2001´s Visible Secret. The film is an urban tale of fantasies that combines elements of horror films with comedy to talk about lost youth trapped in an in-between time where memory is slippery, hope is thin and only ghost of the past refuse to loosen their grip on the present.

Her compatriot Clara Law, one of the most experimental and intellectual filmmakers of the Golden era of Hong Kong Cinema-1980 through the mid 1990s- which coincided with the peak of Hong Kong horror movies, could not avoid the temptations of the genre either.

Law, whose career spanned more than five decades and covered almost every genre, couldn´t resist to enter the Gothic horror world with The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (1989) a horror story that plays like a love tragedy and betrayal that was one of the most popular ghost films during the heyday of Hong Kong horror.

Following the Asian Horror Film tradition of offering richer and nuanced portrayals of female character on the screen, Japan has contributed its share and left its mark on horror cinema with very different female directors.

Example of them is Kei Fujiwara (1957) whose filmography, though brief, is one of the most disturbing in the world of Japanese horror films. In 1996, after funding her theater company, she decided to bring to the big screen her play entitled Organ which she not only wrote and directed but found herself a supporting role as actress playing the one-eye sister of a high school teacher who leads a gang of organ thieves. Clearly influenced by the works of Tsukamoto and even David Cronenberg, the film is without a doubt a shocking and unforgettable experience.

An experience she would repeat in Id (2005) which it seems to take place in the same universe as Organ and even features characters from the previous films which makes it a sort of unexpected continuation. Id, was the last feature film directed by Fujiwara and, unfortunately, she has not been seen on the big screen since then.

Shimako Sato (Iwate,1964) film career, curiously enough, did not started in Japanese cinema, but in English cinema. Perhaps due to her studies at the London International Film School. Her debut came in England in 1992 with Tale of a Vampire, a vampiric fantasy story with a romantic feel.

In 1995, already on Japanese soil, she filmed Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness, based on a work by horror mangaka Shinichi Koga. The story takes us to a high school where the protagonist, an expert in magic, must measure her dark forces against those of an evil teacher.

The success of the film would lead her to direct a sequel the following year, Eko Eko Azarak II:Birth of a Wizard but that was the end of her contribution to horror focusing afterwards mainly on screenwriting and television.

Mari Asato (Okinawa,1976) a filmmaker who gives her films the characteristic mystery of modern Japanese cinema, began her career as a photographer working for Kiyoshi Kurosawa on the shooting of Barren Illusions in 1999. In 2004 she made the leap to directing with an action film, Samurai Chicks followed by The Boy from Hell, as part of the television series Hideshi Hino’s Theater of Horror, adapting works by horror mangaka Hideshi Hino.

From 2008 to 2011 her name would be linked to sagas of horror video games or multimedia franchises such as Twilight Syndrome o Ju-On. It was 2011’s Ring of Curse (also known as I’m Sorry) that marked the beginning of the best years of her horror career, with title such as 2014´s Fatal Frame, based on the Project Zero video saga, which narrates the different curses that haunt a female school, triggered by a cursed photograph. The same year she released Bilocation, about the difficulty of reconciling work and family life for a woman, perhaps the most interesting of Mari Asato’s horror career.

In South Korea, the global trend of horror movies made by women have enjoyed a commercial and critical success in the past two decades. These films have explored the place of women in Korea Society where female characters not only are the protagonist but also the key narratives drivers, as opposed to the marginal, passive or non-existent female characters depicted in many popular genre Korean films.

One example is Lee Soo Yeon´s directorial debut (The Uninvited, 2003), based on a real murder of two children by a woman in Bucheon in 1996. In her film, Yeon presented the antithesis to the culturally sanctioned concept of maternal self-sacrifice.


In Four Horror Tales: Roomates (2006), director Kim Eun-Kyung shows how four girls have to overcome fears and quickly adapt themselves to the harsh conditions they live in at their boarding school.

While in Shadows in the Palace (2007) director Mi-Jung Kim proves that a sense of justice and full of wit help a female nurse to investigate a murder case and confront those who have more power than she.