Category III Madness!
Hong Kong's Category III rating can be considered unique in that it not only represents an age restriction imposed on films, but, to some, a seal of quality as well - after the Hong Kong government introduced the film rating system in 1988, Category III was first used to label sexually explicit movies. As fans of both Asian and extreme cinema are hopefully aware, it only gained its true notoriety as a 'brand' in the early 90s, when for a brief period of time, filmmakers like Herman Yau and Billy Tang directed extremely violent shock-fests which cared little for any moral standards, broke taboos whereever possible and, at times, managed to surpass the most deranged Italian cannibal flicks in bad taste. The result? Films like THE UNTOLD STORY, DR. LAMB and EBOLA SYNDROME, worshipped as pure cult flicks nowadays.
My focus in this week's edition of the Twitch-O-Meter, however, lies not with these popular titles everyone knows about anyway. Rather, I will put much more obscure films on display, all of which deserve their Cat III rating one way or another, but for vastly different reasons. They range from actually decent filmmaking to utter nonsense, from love story to black comedy - and I hope that I'm able to pique some interest in these mostly forgotten treasures.
1. RUN AND KILL (Billy Tang, 1993) - So, let's begin with the most conventional entry; just the kind of film that most people think of when they read 'Cat III'. While not as gory and outrageous as Herman Yau's efforts, RUN AND KILL is notable for a number of things; for one, its unusual lead. Kent Cheng plays Fatty, an ordinary, happy man, who gets drunk one evening and accidentally puts out a hit on his cheating wife. Of course, it's already too late when he realizes his mistake, and the Vietnamese gang responsible for the killing even wants him to pay for it. Hell breaks loose as Fatty sets out seeking vengeance and numerous subplots are introduced, most of which lead to everyone wanting to kill everyone.
We as viewers cringe as we watch poor Fatty descending into madness; while we cannot sympathize with Anthony Wong's character in EBOLA SYNDROME, we can't help but do so here. It's impressive how quickly Tang turns around his film from the incredibly cheesy exposition to a dark, relentless stew of violence. Add bonus points for Simon Yam playing an utter psycho and the always reliable Danny Lee, and what you end up with is a remarkably gritty piece of early 90s HK cinema which deserves a place with the genre's greats.
2. THE CAT (Nam Lai Choi, 1992) - Nam Lai Choi's (STORY OF RICKY - need I say anything else?) take on a Wisely tale may not be as violent as RUN AND KILL, but more than makes up for it with sheer batshit insanity. A young girl (Gloria Yip), an old man (Siu Ming-Lau) and inexplicably, a cat called 'General' flee to Earth coming from another star, which has been occupied by an 'Evil Influence'. They take up residence in a little flat. Meanwhile, a neighbour, distressed by strange noises coming from said flat, contacts his friend Wisely (Waise Lee) to investigate them. What follows are bucketloads of ridiculous scenes, the Evil Influence hunting down our protagonists (mostly in the form of a giant sparkling mushroom), and eventually - the film's main hook - an epic kung fu battle between the eponymous cat and a dog. Really has to be seen to be believed. It's impossible to describe it in words, let me just say: If you thought stop-motion had been long gone obsolete in the 90s, this film proves you wrong.
We even get some classical HK shoot 'em up mayhem inbetween and an oddly impressive special effects-laden showdown. If my writing seems confusing to you, it's because the whole film is. THE CAT does not only deserve a mention here, in fact it should be featured on every list of "So bad it's good" films, a true product of early 90s Hong Kong cinema that could not have been made anywhere else, at any other time.
3. INTRUDER (Kan-Cheung Tsang, 1997) - This almost comically nihilistic Milkyway production from 1997 was the directorial debut of screenwriting veteran Kan-Cheung Tsang (remaining his only film to date) and could be regarded as the most fearsome modern 'Woman in control' flick right next to Miike's AUDITION. The plot? A mainland woman, Yieh Siu Yan, (Wu Chien-Lien) kills a hooker and assumes her identity. She travels to Hong Kong where she meets Kwan Fai (Moses Chan), a thirty-year old good-for-nothing. After spending a night with him, she breaks his legs, ties him to a table and begins to kill everyone who enters Kwan Fai's house. But why does she not kill Kwan Fai himself? And who is the man calling her on the phone?
Boasting camerawork by Johnnie To cinematographer Siu Keng Cheung, INTRUDER's other big strength is that it does not reveal Yieh Siu Yan's motives until the final third. Thus, the viewer feels as helpless and confused as Kwan Fai, forced to watch Yieh Siu Yan kill his whole family. According to an interview with the director, the film also reflects the fears of many Hong Kong citizens at the time of the colony's handover. Gates were opened for millions of mainland Chinese - people raised in a completely different cultural and social context, but who could now enter Hong Kong at their own will.
INTRUDER is bleak, bleak stuff, but it's also really good. If you liked DOG BITE DOG, give this one a try.
4. SCARRED MEMORY (Raymond Leung, 1996) - You could call this film the least flashy of the bunch, since it is the only one most likely to have earned its Category III rating for sexual content, not for violence. Starring sleaze princess Veronica Yip in her last role as well as Simon Yam, it's a decently acted love drama with a few nasty hooks. Ivy (Yip) works as a nurse, but is haunted by memories of having been raped. Only she doesn't know by whom. She saves the life of badly-wounded triad member Lee Yuen-Lung (Yam), who despite an acute case of amnesia, attempts to start a relationship with Ivy after recovering. It's hopefully obvious towards which revelation the film subsequently heads. Leung and the scriptwriters do good work with the conflict of the characters; the main question here is 'Can love make people forget?'; while we never get an answer, the film's ending is satisfying nonetheless.
SCARRED MEMORY is certainly no masterpiece, but an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. You also get to see Veronica Yip and Simon Yam naked. Whichever you prefer.
5. THE RUNAWAY PISTOL (Wah Chuen-Lam, 2002) - This low-budget satire was produced by Fruit Chan and would have received the 'Strangest film in this list' award if I hadn't included THE CAT. It's the story of a pistol told by the pistol (Yes, you got that right), leaving its mark in Hong Kong as it gets bought, is used against other people, changes hands, and so on. We get to witness a short period in the life of whomever currently in possession of the pistol (which more often than not includes his or her death). Wah Chuen-Lam has turned this clever idea into a fascinating, quirky tale that is unfortunately brought down a tad by extremely low production values and an uncomfortable tendency to preach its anti-gun message. The cynical, humorous ending makes more than up for that, though. Actors in the film should also raise some eyebrows: Wilson Yip (Yes, that one) and Kenneth Bi among others star as owners of the gun.