Shutter (2008) courtesy of

Almond and I went to watch Shutter (2008 ) last Thursday night, at SM Megamall. She wanted to watch it because we’d seen the Thai original a couple of years earlier, which we loved because it scared the hell out of us.

The thing with Hollywood remakes of Asian horror is that more often than not the cultural elements that create the horror end up lost in translation. I personally feel that for a lot of mid-quality Hollywood horror movies, lead characters are generally written as two-dimensional. They have no foundation of faith, and are more swayed by superstition on the one end or skepticism on the other, which is why they tumble down the long road of suffering. Hollywood directors tend to focus more on the long road of suffering than on the inherent causes of it, because that seems to be what American audiences enjoy. There is this thrill they get from vicarious experience of other people’s suffering for as long as the only danger they are in is choking on their own popcorn. You can replace the actors in these movies any number of times and you’d still get stereotype victims. It’s as though Hollywood is unable to come up with original stuff, that they feel they have to translate Asian horror for the American audience. What they don’t get is, except for English subtitling, there is nothing they need to translate. Such is the case for Shutter (2004) .

There are no spoilers in this entry. I don’t believe in ruining it for innocent passersby, because they really should have their own opinion about a movie. I just observed the following differences in treatments of the material.

The Hollywood version has a Japanese director, presumably so the viewers don’t lose that essential Asian viewpoint. By changing the movie setting to “gaijins in Tokyo” mode (gaijin = “foreigner”, a Japanese term with shades of race discrimination used to refer to Caucasians, similar to the Cantonese word gweilo), the premise of horror is plausible, since most Western travellers are either delighted or repelled by the strangeness – or specifically, “other-ness” – of Japanese concepts. What the remake does is successfully trade on the cultural difference to create a mood of tragedy, deception, and injustice. There is resolution involving karmic balance, so the viewer is able to get a sense of relief that evil is not cyclical or self-perpetuating. The latter idea gets tiresome, but Hollywood likes to milk that concept in order to create sequels or series. If such franchises are not good enough to create their own cult following, all they are is visual junk food.

What backfired here is that many Americans commented on the forums that the Japanese horror elements used in Shutter (2008 ) looked cribbed from Ringu (The Ring, 1998 ). I agree; in Hollywood there is no longer any novelty in seeing long-haired dead Asian girls creeping out of a television / photograph / cabinet / mirror / what-have-you. Although that is what I loved precisely about “Ringu” (original Japanese version always, please, but not its sequels). That image is so powerful and iconic I can’t bear to watch it again on my own. It gives me nightmares.

Hollywood, I feel, tends to film movies too brightly. They are too glossy and too high-contrast. They rely too much on surprise to elicit screams. They can’t put a finger exactly on what makes Asian horror, horror. In Hollywood, chainsaw massacres are human crimes whose negative energies resonate to the waking world, but in Asia, superstition about certain kinds of death creates horror. It’s like the stories your grandmother told you about the vengeful ghosts of innocent pregnant women murdered during World War II, when she was still a young girl in the countryside, things like that.

The Thai original of “Shutter” has a 1970’s mood. It’s a bit gritty, a bit home-movie like. It has SHADOWS. In between shots of sunny cosmopolitan Bangkok we get dark glimpses of folk superstition, despite Thailand being known for its gentle Buddhism. The Thai directors really hit the nail on the head there. They manage to emphasize that light and dark COEXIST on a daily basis in Asia. It’s in the simultaneous modernity and respect for tradition that makes Bangkok so interesting. That’s where the mystery and the inexplicable horror come from. The feeling of uneasiness throughout the viewing experience of the original “Shutter” is what makes it top-rate.

I didn’t mind spending P150 for the Hollywood version movie ticket. I was curious. It may come out on cable in a year or so. But I think, if you really wanted to enjoy “Shutter”, buy the 2004 Thai version on DVD and watch it in your darkened bedroom with a friend who enjoys the same thing. And if you’re feeling particularly brave, watch “Ringu” as well. The nightmares will make you lose weight.