Six recommendable Serial Killer Movies from Asia [NSFW]

NSFW due to pictures featuring nudity and disturbing content.

The US are said to have a particularly strong fascination for serial killers, which has also been reflected in the country’s movie history.
Especially after Psycho came out in 1960, “serial killer movie” slowly became its own subgenre, that probably peaked in the 1990s with Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and all their ripoffs.

But like the subjects they portray, these movies are not exclusively a Western phenomenon. That’s why I want to shine a light on six very different genre entries from Asian countries, which rank from disturbing to existentialist to plain silly, but are all strongly recommended to those who cannot get enough of these disturbing individuals -on screen, that is.

Notes: I stuck to movies from the three countries which together shape the region that is traditionally defined as “East Asia”: Japan, (South) Korea and China (in the cited cases, pre-1997 Hong Kong).

This list follows no particular order.


The Chaser aka Chugyeokja (2008)

SOUTH KOREA

directed by: Na Hong-jin

The Chaser (2008)

Plot: The sleazy, violent cop-turned-pimp Eum Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is missing one of his callgirls after he sent her to a mysterious customer in the middle of the night. Driven by his bad conscience, he sets out to find her on his own, as the police seems to be unwilling to act. Little does he know that his darkest fear, namely that she could have fallen into the hands of a notorious serial killer, who tortures his victims with a hammer before he kills them, came true and he only has a few hours left till her fate is sealed.

The Chaser (2008) woman, bondage

The Chaser follows a comparatively straightforward approach to tell its story, means it is, while not devoid of turns and surprises, not solely driven by silly twists as it has become common in the thriller genre recently. This leaves some room to focus on the characters, drawing parallels between the serial killer and the lead by portraying them as men who have to confront the overwhelming, humiliating feeling of impotence, in the metaphorical and the literal sense, respectively. The atmosphere is tense, we can almost feel the dampness of the surfaces that reflect the the ominous nocturnal city lights of the rain-soaked Seoul. I was also very pleased by the lack of over-acting, something that South Korean cinema is no stranger to. Even the character of the guilt-ridden pimp, that would be a perfect opportunity to chew the scenery for any actor, is excellently portrayed with the right balance of intensity and plausibility by Kim Yoon-sok. A few not so subtle jabs against police corruption in South Korea provide the obligatory social commentary.

Stylish yet not overstylized, clever but not pretentious: The Chaser is a refreshing jolt of energy for the thriller genre.

The-Chaser-DI

Reality check: While the chase itself is pure fiction, the character of the antagonist is very closely based on the real serial killer Yoo Young-Chul.

 

Diary of a Serial Killer aka Guang Zhou sha ren wang zhi ren pi ri ji (1995)

HONG KONG

directed by: Otto Chan

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Another pretty crude entry into the infamous gallery of classics of the “Category III” , which is the Hong Kong movie rating for films that are strictly for a mature audience and simultaneously the seal of quality for smut film lovers all around the world.

Plot: Bill (Chan Kwok-Bong) is a disturbed individual who compensates his inability to satisfy the sexual needs of his estranged wife by killing hookers….Yeah, some pretty complex psychology there! But maybe the love of a beautiful girl can save him?

diaryofaserialkiller5

Fair point!

One thing you cannot accuse Diary… of, is that it does not try to reach high. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, maybe the definitive serial killer movie, is obviously the biggest influence this movie is modelled after and hell, does it fail to live up to its lofty ambitions, but hilariously so.
If you are a fan of the typical Hong Kong movie style- traits, you won’t be disappointed. Extreme camera angles and movements, a breakneck pace and overdone, cartoonish sound effects – it’s all there. Like in many other “Cat III” entries, scenes of pretty gruesome violence and crude “comedy relief” slapstick are guilelessly cobbled together, with results that are shamefully entertaining in all the wrong ways. Diary… indeed does not hold back in terms of vileness, we are treated to some torture scenes, one involving an outrageous abuse of firecrackers and get some insight into Bill’s (whose name is obviously an allusion to “Buffalo Bill” from Silence of the Lambs) exclusive collection of body parts memorabilia. When Bill kills a Japanese prostitute as an act of retaliation for the oppression by the Japanese during their colonial rule in Manchuria, it was probably a miserably failed attempt to add some faux depth and wonky symbolism, yet it’s too bad this movie is too dumb to make it work.

The misguided mix of tones and genres is perfectly summed up in a scene where Bill pranks a cop by dropping a piece of a severed breast into his coffee. Muhaha!
For good bad people with a good bad taste.

Reality check: A title card claims that the film is based on a true story, but does not specify the exact case. An internet research did not reveal further details, so it might be a false claim, which honestly would not surprise me at all.

 

Vengeance is Mine aka Fukushû suru wa ware ni ari (1979)

JAPAN

directed by Shohei Imamura

Due to a lack of availability, I have only recently been introduced to the works of Shohei Imamura, a director whose name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the greats of New Hollywood. No, I am not exaggerating.

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Plot: Japan in the early 60s. Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) is a conman and thief who gets through life with all kinds of schemes and does not even shy away from murder if necessary. Although the police is looking for him already at full capacity all over the country, his unparalleled brazenness and his polished, charming exterior help him to effortlessly assume different identities and blend into the population. Soon we realize that his violent, murderous behaviour is driven by something darker than mere greed and it is about to culminate.

A motive that pervades many of Imamura’s movies is the thin line that separates civilization from savagery and Vengeance is Mine fits right into this theme. The character of the sociopathic Enokizu who is in a murderous rage at one moment and cannot acknowledge to himself what he did only a few hours later, symbolizes the common mentality in post- 1945 Japan, that was all too willing to forget about the atrocities that were committed in the name of the Japanese Empirejust a few years earlier. In one scene, the corpse of a victim falls out of the closet while Enozuki is dining, one of the more literal visual metaphors in the movie.

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Masterfully, Imamura contrasts grim realism with an artful presentation, an approach we know and love from the best US- movies of the 70s. Yet he refrains from showing off, at no point the artistic and stylistic decisions feel gratuitous or forced but always serve and enhance the story, even some sudden dreamlike interludes towards the end don’t feel out of place. It’s pure cinematic virtuosity that is matched by some really excellent acting (Ogata, well, kills it).

Despite a length of 140 minutes, an unnervingly chilly atmosphere and a jumbled chronology, it remains a movie that keeps the audience engaged and on the edge over the whole running time. I don’t hesitate to claim that Vengeance is Mine is maybe one of the best serial killer movies ever made and should be seen by everyone who loves that subgenre.

Reality check: The lead character and big chunks of the story are closely based on the fascinating case of Akira Nishiguchi.

 

Memories of Murder aka Salinui Cheok (2003)

SOUTH KOREA

directed by Joon-ho Bong

This is maybe the most well-known movie on this list and also the one that is the closest to the real case it is based on. It’s also the only one that focuses on the investigators and not the killer.

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Plot: In 1986, a series of cruel rapes and murders starts in rural South Korea and should continue for over five years. Completely overwhelmed with the situation, Detective Park (Song Kang-ho) gets assistance by city cop Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who immediately recognizes that they are dealing with a serial killer, something that was unheard of in that country until then. Lest we forget, it’s not that long ago that the Southern part of the Korean peninsula has also been governed by an oppressive regime, that’s why the depiction of the police cruelty and the government’s ineptitude to handle the situation are almost as shocking as the murders themselves. Park’s and Seo’s search for the killer spans over years and puts a strain on their private lives, especially Park, who is soon obsessed with the case.

You maybe noticed some similarities with Fincher’s Zodiac, which was released three years later. I could not find evidence if Fincher was influenced by this movie but the parallels are undeniable. In contrast to the grandiosity of Zodiac with its sweeping shots of San Francisco though, Memories of Murder is a more intimate affair, capturing that certain claustrophobic atmosphere that pervades dictatorial states. Throughout gripping and sometimes disturbing, but also with a surprisingly humorous, humanist note. A certified masterpiece of “True Crime” cinema that should not be missed.

Memories of Murder

Reality check: Sticks close to the real case of the “Hwaesong serial murders”, a series of murders that shocked South Korea between 1986 and 1991 and remains unsolved to this day. A continuing investigation seems pointless though, as the statute of limitations for murder expires after 15 years in South Korea (!).

 

Dr. Lamb aka Gou yeung yi sang (1992)

HONG KONG

directed by Danny Lee, Hin Sing “Billy” Tang

First things first: This movie does not feature a doctor and nobody with the name “Lamb”. Of course the title is just a shameless riff on the hyper-successful Silence of the Lambs that was released one year earlier and its iconic character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The movie poster, showing the lead actor in full surgery garb, is also very misleading.

Dr. Lamb (1992)

Plot: On rainy nights, a mysterious urge to kill women overcomes Hong Kong- taxi driver Lam Gor-Yu (Simon Yam). When the cop Lee (Danny Lee,also co-director) finally catches him, he finds more than plenty of evidence in the killer’s apartment, who loved to preserve the body parts of his victims in glasses. Brutal police torture ensues.

Dr. Lamb (1992) victim

Like in the wicked “Cat III” cannibal shocker Untold Story, the brutal interrogation scenes after the killer’s capture are given as much room as the depiction of his crimes. Ludicrous moments are, like in Diary of a Serial Killer (see above) abound, but a superior craftsmanship and some beautiful visuals elevate it above the latter. An obvious influence on the vistas of neon-lit, rainy Hong Kong was surely Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver, a movie that had a huge impact on HK-cinema in general.

Don’t expect too much from the psychological angle, it’s rather on the crude side again. All in all a pretty grisly experience every “Cat III”- fan should check out.

Reality check: A very shrill, but surprisingly accurate depiction of the case of Lam Kor-wan, who haunted Hong Kong’s streets in the early 1980s.

 

Beautiful Girl Hunter aka Dabide no hoshi: Bishôjo-gari (1979)

JAPAN

directed by Norifumi Suzuki

Plot: A young man called Tatsuya is living alone in the vast mansion of his parents, after his mom committed suicide and his dad mysteriously went missing during a trip on his sailboat. With his good looks, his polite demeanour and not least due to his huge inherited fortune, he has become the most desired bachelor of the city. Nobody knows that he is actually the spawn of a war hero who raped his mom in front of her husband, a fact that has been kept a shameful secret for all the years and which earned him the undisguised disdain of his foster father. When he was sixteen, he first felt the lust for murder after being sexually aroused by photos of the holocaust.

Beautiful Girl Hunter (1979) poster

In his basement, that is designed as a cross of a Christian chapel and a BDSM chamber, he “re-educates” young women with all kinds of physical and psychological torture, which mostly ends in murder. When he finds out that his genetic father is still alive, he prepares for a reunion.

Almost no depravity is left untouched in Beautiful Girl Hunter, from necrophilia to torture, incest and sado-masochism. There are some interesting parallels to Vengeance is Mine (see above), which was released in the same year, mainly in the use of Christian imagery and the subtext about Japanese war crimes. But Suzuki’s film is a much more stylized affair, brimming with that certain energy Japanese exploitation movies from the 70s were loaded with.

Beautiful Girl Hunter (1979), necrophilia

Some online commenters compared it with American Psycho, which is not totally off the mark. Like Patrick Bateman, Tatsuya is never suspected of his crimes due to his societal status. Yet his lack of empathy is not a side effect of the Reaganomics- capitalism like in Bret Easton Ellis’ work, but a product of the Japan’s post-WWII society’s neglect to address their misdeeds during war time. On the surface, Beautiful Girl Hunter might look like a horribly misogynistic movie, but it’s soon revealed to be exactly the contrary. Suzuki, who had already made a few female-driven action movies before, paints a grim picture of a generation of men that is never allowed to develop emotions and empathy due to the unrepented sins of their fathers. Is the source of Tetsuya’s depravity nature or nurture? We don’t get any easy answers (thankfully).

Beautiful Girl Hunter is a grim exploitation-masterpiece far ahead of its time.

Reality check: Pure fiction. Based on a Manga by Masaaki Sato.

 

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