That Old Feeling: Hong Kong Horrors!

  • Share
  • Read Later
The Hong Kong showbiz scene has an appetite for sensation. The tiny Special Administration Region is crawling with movie stars and pop idols who are paid to be in public — presiding at boutique openings, promoting their CDs, shilling for breast-enhancement creams — and who, when they’re on their own, can step in the usual amount of trouble. It’s also got more gossipmongers and paparazzi per square inch than any place in the world, and dozens of newspapers, like Apple Daily and the Oriental Daily News, that are feverishly devoted to exposing the dark sides of bright people. The salacious news generated by this former colony makes U.S. tabloids seem lazy and reticent by comparison.

This July the press feasted on the suicide of Pauline Chan, a soft-core-sex actress with a history of bizarre and violent behavior. A week after her death, photos of her corpse were in the papers; her mother said, “I feel as if my heart was sliced with a knife.” Then there was the October conviction of popster bad-boy Nicholas Tse — the son of 60s stud Patrick Tse and actress-temptress Deborah (“Hong Kong Emmanuelle”) Li — on charges of “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice” by leaving the scene of a car crash and having his chauffeur take the rap. Photographers cut through dense foliage to snap Tse in the prison yard. And just last week EastWeek magazine was shut down by its media-mogul owner in response to the furor over a cover photo of a movie star photographed topless against her will during a 1990 kidnapping. The star is believed to be Carina Lau, whose long-time boyfriend is Tony Leung Chiu-wai, star of Wong Kar-wai’s rapturous romance “In the Mood for Love.”

Ah, Hong Kong movie love! Some day there ought to be a retrospective of the colony’s best romantic movies of the 80s and 90s: “An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty,” “Shanghai Blues,” “Rouge,” “Last Romance,” “A Fishy Story,” “The Bride With White Hair,” “Red Rose White Rose,” “Comrades: Almost a Love Story,” “Fly Me to Polaris” and three or four moody-broodies from Kar-wai. But Hong Kong cinema didn’t earn its international cachet by dealing in delicate feelings and poignant renunciation. It got there with sex and violence, action and atrocity, deftly orchestrated mayhem — exactly the elements that the press continues to exploit long after the Golden Age of Hong Kong films got tarnished. And with exactly the same rampaging, remorseless vigor.

In homage to this appetite for destruction, the mad lads at Subway Cinema have commandeered Anthology Film Archives in New York City this weekend for an 11-film binge titled “In the Mood for Gore.” The series may sound like a nostalgia nosh for Democrats still smarting from the 2000 election. But the subtitle explains all: “22 Years of Deliciously Evil Hong Kong Cinema.” The bestial festival, which runs through Thursday the 14th, assembles films famous (Samo Hung’s “Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind,” Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire”), infamous (“The Untold Story,” “Dr. Lamb”) and unfamous (“Devil Fetus,” “Bio Zombie”) from the 80s and 90s.

There’s also a movie from this year, Law Chi-leung’s “Inner Senses,” with Leslie Cheung as a psychiatrist gradually unhinged by a patient who ... sees ghosts. There’s a smooth creepiness at work here, and it’s always a treat to see Leslie go mad on screen, but the picture’s function in this series is mainly to provide a comparison between the relatively reserved, calculated product of today and the magnificently unsettling movie spew of colonial days.

The bulk of the ITMFG series is available, with a little sleuthing, at specialized video stores, so read on even if you’re not near Manhattan. (And be sure to read Grady Hendrix’s program notes, each one a supercharged essay on the film in question.) But at a time when most U.S. Chinatown theaters have closed, it’s worth seeing these films on the big screen, with an audience juiced for a communal thrill. That’s the best way to rekindle the grand old days of Hong Kong horror.

That’s Grand as in Guignol. Subway Cinema’s last big series, “Asian Films Are Go!!!”, featured a couple of hard-edged sex-and-violence Japanese entries. This time, though, nearly every movie is designed to leave a lump of revolt in your gut. Revolt and, if ITMFG gets to you, an aching premonition. For beyond the gore is the void. We are all facing death, these movies say, and when we smell its fetid breath we have only two choices. Laugh and fight, as Samo does. Or scream and fight, as Lily Chung does against her super-subhuman attacker in “Red to Kill.” But never submit.


The first challenge for you and your date: the opening three minutes from “Chinese Torture Chamber Story,” featuring some of the “most severe punishments of Ching Dynasty.” One man is strapped to a burning stake and his skin burned to a crispy, Mandarin Duck orange. Another is splayed upside down and castrated, his engorged genitals plopping into a cup as an official puckishly plants a white plume to mark the spot of the surgery. A third is guillotined at the waist, his top half still writhing after the severance. The last victim is buried to the neck, his scalp carved open at the top and a steaming caustic poured into it. He writhes in pain and explodes naked from the earth as the film’s title flashes on the screen. It’s like “Jackass” in Cantonese, but faster, funnier, and with a little craft up its Merlin sleeve: an efficient mood-stoker.

Mood, shmood — Hong Kong movies, always in a hurry, don’t take long to put the horror goods on the table. Consider the first 10 minutes of Lau Hung-chuen’s sublimely titled “Devil Fetus,” for me one of the exhumed treasures of ITMFG. At an auction, a woman buys a jade vase without realizing there’s a devil inside. That night, her sister holds the vase in her lap and gets, as wonderfully euphemistic Hong Kong subtitles usually put it, “comfortable.” The devil assumes a sort of protoplasmic human form, enters the sister and impregnates her. Her husband walks in and, discovering her in flagrante devilfeto, grabs the vase and smashes it. His face goes all scarred and pustular and he defenestrates himself. She dies and, as she lies in her coffin, the d.f. swells visibly inside her belly.

All right, this could happen to anybody. But then the family dog gets infested and infected, attacks two of the kids, dies gruesomely, is buried and sends an infernal laser beam into the grieving brother, who becomes a blood-sucking vampire. This family makes the House of Atreus seem like the Partridges. By the time Granny’s birthday cake is served — and one of the guests notices too late that it’s full of worms, cuing her to vomit the Betty Crocker Maggot Mix on the floor — you may want to follow the advice of this patch of “Devil Fetus” dialogue: “How do you feel?” “I feel disgusting.” “Then lie down for a while.”

The ITMFG tiddle cup is brimful of incidental pleasures and outrages. In Wilson Yip’s “Bio Zombie,” which shambles through an hour of slacker slapstick set in a Hong Kong mall (it could be called “Chungking Excess”) before it gets to providing actual entertainment value with a half-hour of vampire carnage, the two boho heroes, Jordan Chan and Sam Lee, spend half their time in the toilet. Chan: “What are you doing here?” Lee: “I am stooling.”

In “The Eternal Evil of Asia,” from Chin Man-kei (whose credits include the lesbian-witch romp “Sex and Zen II” and “The Fruit Is Swelling,” a twisting of “Big” into the against-all-odds-charming pedophile fable of an eight-year-old girl with a ripe 18-year-old body), Tsui Kam-kong, the Bluto of Hong Kong sex movies, is turned into a literal dick-head. (Circumcised, since you asked.) Another man falls under a hunger spell while at a restaurant. He eats all his Mediterranean noodles, then the fingers of one customer and the face of another. Finally, he devours all the meat and flesh from his own left arm; the appendage's skeleton waves rakishly. At the film’s climax, the malefic priest responsible for all this mischief sets his sights on the last unviolated woman in Hong Kong, but he still needs a little erotic encouragement. “Show me your bitchy look,” he commands her.

In the crazy-guys-in-prison movie “Story of Ricky,” directed by the much-traveled Nam Lai-choi (also known as Lam Nai-choi, Nam Nai-choi and Lan Nai Tsai — the man’s name is its own spoonerism), the body-parts count reads: one head burst, one head sliced by a scythe, one head impaled with a stick, one hand nailed, one stomach ripped open and eviscerated, one long strand of intestine used in an attempted strangulation.

In “Close Encounter,” skeleton fingers grab Samo Hung’s butt; skeleton teeth snack on his ample flesh. (It’s a nightmare, the kind the ITMFG films rarely wake up from.) You’ll need a high threshold of pain for roughhouse and Cantonese insult comedy, for fall-on-their-asses reactions that Shemp Howard would have rejected as overly broad, and for supporting players with cross-eyes and a huge, hairy wart (a talisman of sorts, don’t ask me why, for martial arts movies of the period). But along with some cunning, made-in-the-basement special effects, “CESK” includes the star’s much-anthologized stool-vs.-sword fight and the not-easily-forgettable sight of Samo’s naked body painted with Chinese characters — he’s become a slab of calligraffiti. After kicking much bony-vampire ass, he gets wise to his cheating wife. Shouting, “I knew you were having an affair, you bitch!”, he punches her hard, eight times, lifts her over his head and tosses her into the fire. Freeze frame. The End.

Assaulted by such oddities, visitors to the Anthology auditorium will be alternating between exclamations of “Wow!” and “Ick.” Some of the movies feature deeds so repellent that the season’s curators feel it necessary to post a warning that this is gross-out stuff, suitable For Disturbed Men Only. Hence, a space will be set aside at Anthology as an “Inappropriate Date Rescue Station for the comfort and enjoyment of our patrons. ... We have provided an oasis of civility in the lobby where the victims of bad dates can wait for their socially maladjusted partner to leave the theater. You will not suffer on a bad date at our movies!”


Welcome, latecomers, to the world of Hong Kong’s Category III movies. In 1990 the local censor board established this rating for films that could be seen only by those 18 and older. Cat III films came in two main flavors. One was the luridly violent melodrama: “The Untold Story,” for example, with Anthony Wong as a restaurateur who kills people and serves them up dumpling-style. The other was period fantasy with lots of simulated sex. In epics such as “Erotic Ghost Story” and “Liu Jai: Home for the Intimate Ghosts,” horny demons and succubi preyed on innocent maidens and scholars, and the rite of copulation was a vigorous and elaborate martial art. Until about 1997 — when Britain ceded the colony to Mainland China, and the helium coincidentally seeped out of the cinematic balloon — Cat III films often played to good business in Asian theaters and were fast rentals in video stores around the world.

Supposedly one film provoked the Cat III rating: the Mainland-shot “Squadron 731,” a/k/a “Man Behind the Sun.” In this 1988 mondo-docudrama from Taiwanese director Mou Tunfei (T.R. Mous), Japanese scientists experiment sadistically on animals and humans. What gave the picture pariah status was its four-minute sequence of a live cat being thrown to and devoured by a swarm of rats. No stunt doubles were used in the making of this feline Chinese torture-chamber story. Even for a culture whose cuisine embraces dog, monkey and ants, and whose calendar pays homage to the rat every 12 years, “Man Behind the Sun” Went Too Far. Something had to be done, Hong Kong burghers decided, to make sure films like this were not seen by 17-year-olds — and were seen by 18-year-olds. Thus Cat III was hatched. The first film to be so rated, I believe, was the girls-in-prison “Jail House Eros,” released in March 1990.

Cat III is equivalent to an X or NC-17 from the U.S. movie industry. But with one big difference. The existence of an adult classification inhibited American directors; they were unwilling to buck movie studios (which demanded an R or softer rating in contracts) or movie theaters (some of which refused to play non-pornographic adult fare), and simply stopped making rough films for grownups. In Hong Kong, movie people saw the new rating not as an inhibition but as a liberation. Now they could show ... anything! (Except hard-core sex.) The Hong Kong film form, already pretty robust and raunchy, went heedlessly, fearlessly nuts. Soon Cat III was not just a rating but a two-headed genre — and not just a genre but a style — that a many directors executed with cunning and brio. Sure there was junk, but amid the turgid, demeaning stuff were films that provoked astonishment and exultation. “They can do this!?” gave way to “They do it so well!”

Because Cat III films were allowed to coexist with tamer fare in the same theaters, they didn’t have the toxic tinge that attaches to sexy and ultra-violent films elsewhere. In the U.S. and Europe, “ultra” films are separate and lesser industries; for Hong Kong movie people, the line between mainstream and murky backwater is blurrier. Actors like Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Danny Lee and Kent Cheng shuttled with impunity from one category to the other. They played cannibalistic or necrophiliac killers, crazed cops and deranged victims in Cat III movies, then went back to standard action movies. It was a surprise but not a shock when Wong won a Hong Kong Film Award as Best Actor for “Untold Story.” In the States this would never happen; Michael Rooker, in a similar (much milder) role in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” was praised by critics but not even on the radar of Academy voters.

Appearing in adults-only Hong Kong movies was tougher for actresses, who might be quickly and permanently typecast once they had bared all, and for whom Cat III was not so much a calling card for stardom as a brand of shame. Yet Loletta Lee could go from teen cutie (in “Shanghai Blues”) to sex-film siren (in the Cat III “Sex and Zen II”) to a Best Actress citation from the Hong Kong Film Awards (for Ann Hui’s “Ordinary Heroes”). And Hsu Chi, the Taiwanese lovely who had posed pink for photo books — and who made her Hong Kong movie debut snogging in the buff with Lee in “Sex and Zen II” — won two Hong Kong Film Awards the following year, and the year after that turned down Ang Lee’s offer to star in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” By now she’s surely been forgiven for her Cat III antics; last month she starred in the Sino-Franco-American action film “The Transporter.”

Subway Cinema’s favorite scarlet starlet is Julie Lee, sometimes known as Julie Riva. Lee graces three IMTFG offerings. She enjoys airborne sex-hex workouts in “Chinese Torture Chamber Story” and another, daffier concoction, “The Eternal Evil of Asia.” When she vaults from tree to tree to Tsui Kam-kong’s loins, she helps creates the zestiest airborne coupling since the Flying Fucks trapeze duo in Peter Locke’s very funny 1973 porn film “It Happened in Hollywood.” Lee is on the receiving end of the most harrowing rape scene in movie history (and, yes, Francophiles, I’m including the one in Gaspar Noë’s “Irreversible”). Halfway through Herman Yau’s “The Untold Story,” Anthony Wong drags her into his shuttered restaurant and ... I’ll just say it’s eye-bulgingly grotty. Sensitive souls will look away when Wong brings out the chopsticks.


One of the joys of immersion in a foreign-movie culture like Hong Kong’s is opening a window to an alien world. And one of the tricks is charting this terrain solely on the evidence provided by the films we see — separating the region’s customs from the exaggerations and outright lies in the movies. We can guess that Indian people don’t all sing, the way they do in Bollywood musicals. Hong Kong films (at least the ones that have achieved cult status) suggest that the triads run the town, the cops are all sadists and you can’t walk down Connaught Road without getting beaten or eaten. Hongkies will inform you that it’s not quite like that: the place is bustling but civilized. You will tell them that Rob Schneider does not necessarily exemplify the American male. And both sides will have learned an important cinema lesson: don’t infer documentary from fantasy.

Yet in many of the ITMFG films swamp us with religious and sorcerous arcana. A priest in “CESK” announces these rules, as if every educated person knows them: “When two opponents have the same strength, the one with the taller altar will win,” and “He who wears a red petticoat will be possessed by the god of war.” “Devil Fetus” mixes ghost lanterns and paper money (actual paraphernalia of grieving) with a levitating mom, a bleeding mirrors and a flying carpet that’s less magic than black magic. To make a “love hex” operable, in “Eternal Evil,” a man needs his sister’s sweat; and Julie Lee tells the hero, “You are enchanted. Inside the placenta, you will become a baby again. Then you will melt to water and blood.”

Westerners may have a tough time knowing which of these movie spells and rituals are grounded in ancient Taoist dogma — the rules of a sacred old game — and which ones were dreamed up by screenwriters high on hash and trash. For some of the answers, consult Peter Nepstad’s essays on his always-enlightening website, The Illuminated Lantern. And if they don’t fill in all the gaps in your ignorance, consider the words of the Taoist priest in “Devil Fetus.” He offers this sage advice “to the dead and the alive: Take it easy.”

The hopping vampires and fornicating goddesses are easy to accept or reject as exotic obscurities. More troubling are the souls, of movie characters we think we understand, that reveal darknesses we’d never seen, at depths we’d never dared plunge to.

Anthony Wong’s Wong Chi-hang, the demon butcher of Macau in “The Untold Story,” might be seen as a figure of black comedy — a fiercer sibling of the woman in Roald Dahl’s 1953 story “Lamb to the Slaughter.” In both tales the killer feeds the evidence to the police: in “Lamb” the cops eat the the murder weapon; in “Untold Story” they eat the corpse, which Wong has chopped into pieces and cooked into pork buns. Yet we know this is no comedy from the look on the actor’s face. It is a glower of implacable rage before Wong is captured, and of sub- or post-human perseverance afterward, when he is taunted and tortured in jail. Giggle at your peril; you mock the chained beast of moral anarchy inside you, the sexual terrorist in your sleeping cell.

Like Herman Yau’s “Untold Story,” Billy Tang’s “Dr. Lamb” is based on a true case. Southeast Asia can’t boast many serial killers; Wong Chi-hang may have been the only one in Macau history, and Lam Go-wan in Hong Kong’s. Both were remarkable for reasons other than their sociopathy: Wong evaded the police for nearly a decade, and Lam carried out his victims’ dismembering and packaging in a cramped apartment he shared with a half-dozen family members. As in “Untold Story,” Danny Lee (who gets co-director credits on both films) plays the tough detective who captures and questions the killer — and whose methods are portrayed as hardly less barbaric than the murderer’s. More, perhaps, since they represent the force of darkness, and he represents the force.

A splatter film’s charge is to keep upping the atrocity ante as it zooms into the murderer’s soul. (“The Untold Story” manages this with the rape scene; “Dr. Lamb” does it with Simon Yam’s obsessive sexual defiling of his latest corpse.) And the Cat III director’s game was to out-gross the competition, leaving the audience and his colleagues slack-jawed in flummoxed awe. That’s the only apt response to “Red to Kill,” the masterpiece in the ITMFG collection — the killer vase among these grisly movie antiques. (The film is available in the U.S. on video and DVD.)

Lily Chung is the prettiest, most pathetic patient in an asylum for retarded young adults. Ben Ng is the institution’s caring, friendly boss — except when he sees a woman dressed in red. Then he morphs into a twitching, grinning, blood-drooling rapist. He attacks her, is tried for the crime and acquitted. Still he desires her, with a white-hot lust that has him emptying a tray of ice cubes in his briefs to stanch the testosterone surge. After the rape, she had shaved her pubis from pain and shame; now shaves his head to become a priest of mad love. Uniformed in Lycra for the Atrocity Olympics, he pursues the tag team of Lily and her pretty social-worker friend with the majestically jerky movements of a Ray Harryhausen monster. Finally he assaults them in a spike-in-the-eye, scalding-iron-to-the-scalp, buzzsaw-barbered fight to the death and beyond.

Tang gives “Red to Kill” a lot of style to complement his characters’ fevered behavior: compositions architectural in their framing; a palette that plays the garish red against a night of black and dark blue. But his real art is in dragging the viewer not only into the sick action but into the steaming souls of villain and victim. As Hendrix writes: “This is a movie that spirals down and down until it passes the point of no return. And then it doesn’t. (The) characters, traumatized by their very existence, run around sweating and crying out their pain, looking for all the world like candles melting down to a wick of pure hurt and hatred.” The receptive moviegoer goes into meltdown too — from feeling appalled to feeling empathy. And that second, human emotion is the scariest.


The Subway collective might have chosen other films in this mood. Ng See-yuen’s 1982 “Seeding of a Ghost” was a worthily loopy predecessor to “Devil Fetus.” Wong Chang-yeung’s “Holy Virgin vs. the Evil Dead” (1991) is up there with “Eternal Evil of Asia” as a spiked cocktail of Taoism, terror and tits. “Run and Kill,” which Billy Tang made between “Dr. Lamb” and “Red to Kill,” matches those films in deranged fury with its tale of a fat shlub (Kent Cheng) whose wife is killed, and child char-broiled, by every triad goon and psycho slaverer west of the Himalayas. The movie gets a 10 on the mouth-agape scale. (Subway could not show it because of a rights tangle.)

It’s lovely and depressing that one could have chosen so many exemplary horror films from the old days, so few today. The current crop all want to be “The Ring” or its even paler Hong Kong knockoff, “The Eye,” another big hit that is soon to be remade in Hollywood. Note to moguls: Forget the newer Asian ghost stories. Think about redoing “Devil Fetus” with state-of-your-art special effects, or “Red to Kill” with Benicio Del Toro as the doctor and Katie Holmes as the imperiled girl. And don’t worry about making it NC-17 — the video will be a big hit in the Far East.

We have to acknowledge the obvious: that Hongkies get their sensation in tabloid form these days, by reading about the sins of the stars in the tell-all, show-all local press. But where else have they to go for sick thrills? The golden age of Hong Kong horror is dead — as dead as a fellow who’s just seen his wife have sex with a devil fetus and jumped screaming from an upstairs window. Fortunately for us, it’s also able to be revived, in zombie form, on home video and, lustrously, in the occasional repertory theater. For those connoisseurs who mourn the genre’s passing, and those holy virgins who never knew it lived, a series like In the Mood for Gore is a bracing cinematic tonic. Paragoric, that is.