Saturday, May 11, 2013

Darkness Visible; or, What’s the Deal With Japanese Ghosts?

Upon finally getting around to watching Takashi Shimizu’s seminal Ju-On, I find myself thinking about master horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s assertion that “Japanese ghosts don’t really do anything.” I’m sure we all have a good idea of what a typical Japanese ghost looks like, but just as refresher: the Japanese ghost is a woman, pale as death (which makes sense, because she’s dead), with long black hair (which makes sense, because she’s Japanese), dressed all in white.  Her eyes are creepy as fuck and there’s a good chance she can contort her body at weird angles (the constant breaking and re-breaking of the neck is a frequent feature of Japanese ghosts; they can also spider-walk like Linda Blair in The Exorcist).  And of course this basic ghost mytheme isn’t just limited to Japan: it has found its way into the horror cinemas of Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and, in the form of shitty remakes of horror movies from these Asian countries, the United States.

Now, Kurosawa isn’t exactly correct when he says that Japanese ghosts don’t do anything.  They can definitely kill you.  But the mechanism by which they kill is usually left ambiguous.  The Japanese ghost will creepily approach its victim, the victim will scream, and then we cut to the next scene, with the police investigating the mysterious death of the victim, whose face is frozen into a rictus of terror.  So it seems likely that the Japanese ghost kills by literally scaring its victims to death; it doesn’t need to physically attack the victim, because the implications of its very existence are enough to kill a person (or drive them mad, I should add; they don’t always die; sometimes they just go insane).

The best, most effective horror works by implication. H. P. Lovecraft knew this, as did the other practitioners of the so-called “weird story.” In many of these stories, the hero doesn’t have direct contact with the supernatural (ghosts or demons don’t leap out of the woodwork and tear them apart), but the characters find incontrovertible evidence that these monsters exist.  And this evidence defies the laws of nature; its very existence is obscene and an abomination against reality (in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, he explains quite astutely that the “weird” story only became possible once science had progressed to the point that universal laws of physics had been established; reality can only be obscenely violated once it’s been established).  As for what is being implied, besides the existence of various monsters and nightmares, I think it is best summed up in this analysis of the work of British fantasy/horror/”weird” writer William Hope Hodgson, which I found on Wikipedia, and which is so well-written that I’m assuming it was plagiarized from another source: “Hodgson achieves a deep power of expression, which focuses on a sense not only of terror but of the ubiquity of potential terror, of the thinness of the invisible boundary between the world of normality and an underlying, unaccountable reality for which humans are not suited.”

Humans are a profoundly vulnerable species.  Not only do we have weak, soft bodies (without claws, or horns, or venom) but we have the capacity to think, and with the capacity to think comes the capacity for madness and horror.  There is a thin, transparent membrane of logic and scientific reason stretched tightly over the amorphous, monstrous body of magical thinking with which primitive man first encountered the world.  This is where vengeful, super-powerful ghosts come into the picture; because, from a logical perspective, we know that the dead victim of an injustice is just that: dead; and he or she can no longer harm us.  But the magical thinking that animated the human genius for most of our history tells us that the blood of criminality is rank, and that it rises up to heaven and calls out for vengeance.  And so history becomes the proverbial nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus was trying to awaken.  Every horror, ever violation of the codes of morality can come back to destroy us.  To paraphrase William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past; it is a pissed off Japanese albino from hell, with blood dripping from her eyes, come back to kill you in your bathtub.”

And so this is why Japanese ghosts don’t need to do anything.  They take that which has been effaced by time and criminal deception, and they bring it back into the light of day.  To steal a line from William Styron (who isn’t read anymore), who in turn stole it from John Milton: the Japanese ghost exists to render “darkness visible.” The ghost’s very presence constitutes an action, as it sets into motion the wheels of history and morality (albeit a brutal morality predicated on vengeance and terror).  The ghost is the conscience of the human race, gone mad and out for blood.  This ectoplasmic conscience holds up an appropriate mirror to the potential for psychotic violence and terror which exists in all of us.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I am Sick of these Motherfucking Burmese in my Motherfucking Ayutthaya: The Burmese Menace in Thai Nationalist Historical Epics


Burma today is one of the most tragically underdeveloped countries in the world.  Upon independence from Britain in 1948, Burma was mineral-rich and would seem to have had a comparatively promising future.  But the country almost immediately fell apart, with communists seeking to overthrow the nationalist government of U Nu and disaffected ethnic minorities in the East staging uprisings that rage to this day (the Burmese civil war is the world’s longest running conflict).  In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup and ruled the country as a psychotic dictator until 1988 (among the signs of his insanity, a numerological fixation on the number nine, which led to the introduction of Burmese money in unites of 90 nyat (nine being an auspicious number)). 

In 1988, independence leader Aung San’s daughter, the much revered Aung Sang Suu Kyi, returned to the country from exile in Britain to lead its burgeoning democracy movement.  Her party won elections in 1988, but the military decided (a) not to recognize them and (b) that Ne Win was too fucking crazy and was an impediment to the maintenance of military rule.  And so the army overthrew Ne Win and slaughtered thousands of democracy activists.  The new regime called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC, which has to be the worst acronym this side of the Filipino MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front)).  The SLORC renamed the country Myanmar, renamed the capital Yangon, and then moved the capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to a previously unknown village name of Naypyidaw, and continued to prosecute brutal wars of repression against the various ethnic minorities: the Shan, the Wa, the Karen, the Kachin, etc (emphasis on the etc.). 

In recent years, Burma has undergone an apparent transition to a more democratic form of government.  Power has been transferred to a civilian government (composed largely of former military officers who resigned from the army for the sole purpose of claiming to be civilians), Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and her party has entered parliament, and the government has now established cease-fires with most of the ethnic rebels (except the Kachin, whom the military continues to persecute in a war that gets very little international attention).  But the country’s still an underdeveloped mess and its future is uncertain.  In recent months, the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority has faced pogroms from Buddhist mobs; Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to defend the Rohingya, an act of moral cowardice which has pissed off pretty much everyone.

I say all this as a preface to this post’s cinematic observation, which is that the Burmese menace that haunts so many Thai historical films becomes grotesquely ironic when you compare modern-day Burma and Thailand.  Thailand is a bastion of regional stability and economic power when compared to its impoverished, war-ravaged neighbors (specifically, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia).  In fact, one of the leading causes of instability in the post-WWII era in Thailand has been the near constant activity of Burmese ethnic rebels along the Thai-Burmese border.  Over the years, the Thai government has demonstrated varying degrees of tolerance for the different groups (much as they had a deeply inconsistent policy with the Khmer Rouge, who were dangerous and downright psychotic, but who provided a buffer between Thailand and the armed forces of Vietnam).

But if Burma is an irritant in modern-day Thailand, it’s hardly an existential threat (the existential threat to Thailand comes from its turbulent and often bloody party politics).  It is hard to imagine that there was once a time when mighty Burmese armies rampaged through Thailand, waging destructive campaigns that eventually annihilated the great Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767.  The conflicts between Burma and Ayutthaya (often with special attention paid to its heroic founder-king Naresuan) provide the subjects for such nationalist cinematic epics as Naresuan (the first three parts of which run to about eight and a half hours), The Legend of Suriyothai (three hours), the blood bath Bang Rajan, and Napporn Watin’s Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya, an awful movie (which I watched this evening) about the nonetheless fascinating subject of Japanese adventurers in Thailand, circa-1610. In all of these movies, the Burmese are the most evil bastards to ever walk the earth (and the Thais are peaceful and virtuous, and their kings are virtually gods incarnate (may they be ever venerated!).  These representations of Burmese people and the xenophobia they give rise to are so over the top that D. W. Griffith himself would have looked at them and said, “Whoa, dudes, tone it down a little.”


Now, if you want to see a Thai movie with good, humane portrayals of Burmese people, I strongly recommend Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2001 film Blissfully Yours, which depicts the gentle (and gently surreal) romance between a Thai woman and an undocumented Burmese immigrant, all done up in Apichatpong’s beautiful, sui generis style.  It will certainly prove a welcome relief if you’ve watched too many Ayyuthaya chauvinist propaganda films.