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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Picturing Spectral Transition

An international workshop on “Ghosts in Asian Cinemas” reflected on the resumption and transformation of ghost narratives in contemporary Asian cultural production, especially in cinema, and scrutinized the formation of a new Global Gothic.

Dinah Zank

On November 4–5, 2011, the Institute of East Asian Studies, the URPP Asia and Europe, the Departments of Cinema Studies, and the Department of Indian Studies at the University of Zurich gathered together an international and academically diverse group of experts for a workshop on “Ghosts in Asian Cinemas.” In the historical atmosphere of the Ethnological Museum of the University of Zurich, the three panels on “Urbanity, Nature, Modernity,” “Spectral Kinship,” and “Global Gothic” were accompanied by several movie screenings.[1]

The keynote speech by Prof. Dr. Andrea Riemenschnitter, Director of the URPP Asia and Europe, invited the audience to consider different notions of spirits, ghosts and ghostliness in various Asian contexts. Through examples of both the restructuring of Chinese cities during a growing post-modern urbanization and a trend to neglect the historicity of environments―each of which forces traces of the past to vanish―she explained not only how vengeful spirits and haunted houses, but also common buildings and urban landscapes have come to be considered as possessing a transcendent ghostliness. This phenomenon was called the déjà disparu by Hong Kong-based cultural critic Ackbar Abbas, whereby Abbas refers to the German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s notion of modern history as an endless accumulation of ruins.

Tricked by the evil fox spirit

This encounter of the non-modern with the modern, the past with the present, and the rural with the urban also stood at the center of the first panel “Urbanity, Nature, Modernity.” It began with a screening of “Ugetsu monogatari” (J 1953), a folktale-like movie by Kenji Mizoguchi based on an 18th century novel by Ueda Akinari. Its story develops during the 16th century Japanese civil war, where the potter Tobei leaves his village in favor of easy pickings in a nearby town. He is temporarily tricked by the evil fox spirit of a deceased woman, but eventually rescued by a Buddhist monk. Following this screening, Dr. Elisabeth Scherer (University of Düsseldorf) explained how elements from Japanese spirituality, folk belief, and later Kabuki plays such as the “Tôkaidô yotsuya kaidan” (1825) evolve into popular ghost and horror movie elements and how female characters like Sadako from “Ringu” (J 1998, Hollywood adaption “The Ring” in 2002), through the same iconography of the female, become vengeful ghosts.

Ghost in the woods: Filmstill from “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” © Sayombhu Mukdeeprom / Illumination films (past lives) & kickthemachine

As described by Dr. des. Natalie Böhler (University of Zurich), the aura of ghostliness can be described not only in terms of uncanny feelings provoked by an embodied ghost (i.e. the style of the contemporary horror film genre), but also in terms of spiritual reminiscences accompanying the transition between life, death, and reincarnation. She presented a dream-sequence from the Thai movie “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010), a film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that alludes to the 2010 riots in Bangkok. In a short screening, the audience experienced the voice of Boonmee who was at the brink of death, his utterances mingling with visions of his past and future. This paper led to a discussion about where the state of reminiscence ends and ghostliness begins. Marie Laureillard (Université Lumière Lyon) pointed out in her paper on ghostly visions from the movie “What Time is it There?” (2001, by the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang) that not only physical objects or people but also time itself can be haunted and thus create an overlapping, imaginary space which the living and the dead are shown to inhabit together without really having a chance to meet.

Circumventing censorship

In the Philippine horror cinema, the relation between time and ghostliness is also visible as a form of temporal translation similar to what Bliss Cua Lim (University of California, Irvine) described in her talk on the monstrous, viscera-sucking Aswang figure. This character’s supernatural agency is reformulated in modern secular terms and hints at a fantasy of a singular national time, emphasizing shifting temporalities of transnational reception. In addition to these aspects of time and space, the second panel on “Spectral Kinship” not only focused on the questions of why and how ghostly representations are actually bound to the world of the living, but also how ghosts function as media for expressing views on social taboos and political events that might otherwise be subject to regional censorship laws.

Along these lines, in the first part of the panel during a talk on female ghosts in Indonesian horror films, Laura Coppens (URPP Asia and Europe, Zurich) introduced the spirit of the Pochong: a Muslim ghost that seeks revenge on behalf of raped virgins and who in the last decade has been transformed from a male spirit into a female one. Furthermore, Arnika Fuhrmann (University of Chicago) explored how in “Tropical Malady” (Thailand 2004) the director Apichatpong Weerasethakul uses a tiger spirit to hint at the way homosexuality ambivalently haunts both the political and aesthetic present in Thailand. Jessica Imbach (University of Zurich) analyzed the use of traditional Chinese operatic figures like the exorcist Zhong Kui and exorcist puppets in Yu Xiaoyang’s movie “The Shore of Mist” (1992/3).  She offered insights into the connections between Chinese concepts of theatricality and the spiritual world and  indicated how the film implicitly engages with the trauma of the cultural revolution through these “stubbornly anachronistic” figures.

Spirits and technological progress

Broadening the discussion of ghostly visions’ cultural moulding, the third panel “Global Gothic,” dealt with the impact of Western gothic narratives on Asian horror movies and the growing transculturalism in contemporary Asian cinematic ghost iconography. Relatedly, Dr. Katarzyna Ancuta (University of Bangkok) illustrated how the change in function and appearance of traditional Thai spirits as terrifying punishers and caring protectors through karmic retribution, redemption, and repetition is not only a matter of globalization but also of the technological progress visible in ghostly appearances through TV-screens, mobile phones, and other high-tech goods. This dehumanization of the ghost is further promoted by improvements in cinematic technology. For example, the late 1970’s appearances of ghosts as masked humans are replaced by 3-D computer animation. This improvement creates space for mingling spirits of local folk belief with the monstrous beings from Western Gothic movies, purposely awakening an allusion or even a déjà vu experience in the mind of the viewer. This phenomenon of “cinematic haunting” is also prominent in the Japanese horror movie “Cure” (1997, by Kurosawa Kiyoshi), which, as Dr. Kayo Adachi-Rabe (Humboldt University of Berlin) explains, is based not on Japanese ghosts but rather on Western interpretations like those of director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Kurosawa therefore does not visualize actual ghosts but a kind of hypnosis, where ghosts function metaphorically as a kind of spirituality.

[1] See also Jessica Imbach’s review of this workshop at:

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 1/2012, pp. 11–12)

Weiterführende Informationen


The event took place from November 4 to November 5, 2011: