"…the imagery depicted in these films often represents an irrational bloodthirsty revenge by a low-income proletariat against forces they perceive as oppressive. It is unorganized, random, and chaotic, highly characteristic of a society well known for its political apathy." –Category III expert Tony Williams- (1)
"Could the absurdities of advanced, overheated capitalism have something to do with recycling, from enemy to waste to a profitable raw material, a la The Untold Story? Do endless sequels of exploitation cycles themselves exemplify this?" –Hong Kong film historians Darrell W. Davis and Yeh Yueh-Yu- (2)
You might have some questions about Hong Kong's Category III boom if you've just read about or, better yet, seen the grisly style splatter flick The Untold Story and/or its grisly quasi-remake, Ebola Syndrome. Stuff like: Where exactly did these movies come from? And: How did a genre named after a film rating manage to cram in so much sex and violence, especially just a few years before the dreaded 1997 handover?
It's tempting to give producer Danny Lee and director Herman Yau credit for helping to set a certain kind of trend in ripped-from-the-headlines style chillers. Especially since Yau, who also directed Ebola Syndrome, essentially remade The Untold Story with producer Wong Jing. Still, neither movie was original in their focus on their serial killer protagonists' pathological behavior nor their mutual concern with unaddressed social ills and monstrous pre-handover anxieties. Other trendsetters and extenders centered on tabloid-friendly stories about aberrant killers and rapists.
In 1992, Simon Yam starred as the murderous title character in Dr. Lamb, based partly on the crimes of Lam Kor-wan, also known as "The Jars Killer" or "The Rainy Night Butcher," according to the mainland Chinese press. That same year, the scandalous 1985 murders of Island School students Kenneth McBride and Nicola Myers (aka the Braemar Hill murders) were the subjects of Suburb Murder. And in 1994, Lam Kwok-wai, who became known as "The Tuen Mun Rapist", was the real-life inspiration for The Rapist, the first of a few Category III movies to allude to Lam Kwok-wai and his crimes, including Diary of a Serial Killer, Devil's Woman, and Raped by an Angel 4: The Rapist's Union. (Diary of a Serial Killer also takes elements from Lam Kor-wan's case)
Other true-crime potboilers followed, including movies about the Hello Kitty murder case, Human Pork Chop, and There Is a Secret in My Soup, both from 2001. These movies' unromantic depictions of wasted, paranoid murderers who dismember and cook their victims recall The Untold Story and its real-life inspiration, the "Bun Man" murders of 1985.
Yau wasn't just a trendsetter in the true-crime umbrella genre. In addition to directing the narratively unrelated (and rather tame) The Untold Story 3, Yau also helmed From the Queen to the Chief Executive, about the Braemar Hill murders, in 2001, years after the Category III genre propped up the flagging Hong Kong film industry. Yau sometimes cites this movie as his favorite directorial credit.
And as far as trends go, you could arguably connect The Untold Story with Men Behind the Sun. This WWII atrocity pic was one of the first Category III box office hits and one of the rating's foremost sources of scandal. Men Behind The Sun dramatizes war crimes and human experiments committed by the Japanese soldiers of Unit 731. Women are raped, flesh is stripped from the bone, and several victims are infected with chemical weapons. That's not all either—in the movie's most disturbing scene, a young boy is stripped, chloroformed, and vivisected; his still-beating heart is scooped out and dropped into a jar. Reaction shots to the boy's face suggest that he could wake up at any moment.
Somehow, Men Behind the Sun isn't the first—or even the best—Hong Kong war-crime-sploitation pic: that would be Bamboo House of Dolls, a vigorously realized and powerfully sleazy Shaw Brothers-produced women-in-prison thriller directed by the versatile Chih Hung-Kuei. Still, Men Behind the Sun is easily the most disturbing movie of its sub-genre, in a walk.
Like The Untold Story, Men Behind the Sun drew viewers' attention to sensationalized real (or realistic) events. It's easy to imagine that both movies' fascination with killers who acted outside of Hong Kong (geographically)—and whose behavior was therefore not representative of Hong Kong or its residents—was one reason these two disturbing movies were passed. Granted, with some cuts, but not outright banned by the Hong Kong censors at the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA).
Then again, it's harder to understand how Men Behind the Sun was released in mainland China given that TELA's primary worry was any movie that might threaten diplomatic relations between mainland China and other countries. Kundun was banned because, uh, Tibet. But not Men Behind the Sun, which was released in mainland China without a title, according to Mou, "because they didn't want to upset Japan." (3) "No publicity, no reporting, nothing. At the same time, lots of people came to see it."
It's hard to know exactly what material crossed the parallel lines of incitement and obscenity for TELA, despite their regular consultation with a Panel of Advisors, a group of 300 or so civilians meant to represent the Hong Kong community's tastes and standards. A general fear of life imitating art was a stated concern in the 1988 Film Censorship Ordinance's guidelines, especially concerning teenagers younger than 16 and Triad gangsters. Speaking of TELA, Hong Kong film scholar Mary Barbieri writes, in her 1997 thesis, that "in differentiating between the amount of violence permitted in Category IIB and Category III, the main criterion is the degree of imitation that the film might invite." (4)
According to TELA's censors, movie violence should not show, in an "imitable" way, "detailed instructions of encouragement in dangerous or criminal techniques." (5) Funnily enough, Herman Yau says, in The Untold Story audio commentary, that "I purposely tried to use all of the killing tools that you could easily get in a restaurant," like chopsticks and a meat cleaver. (6) Yau also says that he heard from some Hong Kong film critics that TELA's censors were especially anxious about The Untold Story because of the commonplace nature of its murder weapons.
It's also worth noting that Kuei frequently clashed with TELA in the 1970s due to renewed public pressure to censor movie violence in juvenile delinquent movies, particularly the explosive The Delinquent, which Kuei co-directed with Shaw Brothers workhorse Chang Cheh. Hong Kong film historian Kristof Van den Troost argues that Kuei was able to "dance around censorship" using his ripped-from-the-headlines approach in Kuei's crime drama hit The Teahouse since: "In the 1973 ﬁlm censorship standards, the government had indicated a dislike for 'gratuitous' violence, but also had acknowledged that violence could be used 'to make a substantial point about society and human relations.'" (6)
Then again, the blackly comic thriller Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind ran into trouble with censors specifically because of director Tsui Hark's use of documentary footage of the 1967 riots. Fifteen years later, Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, the only Men Behind the Sun sequel Mou directed, also featured documentary footage and was rated Category III. The other Men Behind the Suns were also rated Category III without that added element of reality. It seems that only some kinds of violence were real enough to be worrisome, according to Hong Kong's censors, though it's often hard to know why ABC was a problem but not XYZ.
It's a little easier to understand the appeal of these kinds of true-crime Category III movies. "These are retellings of stories that people in Hong Kong already know by rumor, innuendo, and gossip," write Davis and Yeh. (7) "They are pre-sold, in a way, just as they are pre-censored. The bureaucratic, colonial suppression by police and the courts is the draw filmmakers use to attract audiences: 'the story they didn't want you to hear.'" Category III authority Arnaud Lanuque also argues that, because violent crime was relatively down in the 1990s, as compared to the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong residents got used to a feeling of "security" since "violence was less present in [Hong Kong] society": "because of this feeling of security, the violent cases became even more impactful for the public." (8)
That said, even Davis and Yeh are skeptical about Category III movies' subversive potential, as well as their value as social commentary based on "'documentary' truth.'" (9) Black case file movies like The Untold Story and The Unpublicizable File —both of which were inspired by the "Bun Man" case—recreate formerly suppressed stories, but to what end? “[…]Community catharsis? Cautionary tales? Bureaucratic misinformation brought to light by zealous investigative filmmakers? What is at stake when such films claim to be based on a true story, no matter how frivolously?"
Some answers to these loaded but compelling questions can be found in ripoffs and trend-chasers like Diary of a Serial Killer or There Is a Secret in My Soup, both of which depict Hong Kong as a permissive den of inequity. Nobody sees these movies' vicious characters as problems because their tortured behavior isn't visible enough (yet) to be troublesome. The influence of these horrifying types of true-crime thrillers can also be seen in gross serial killer pics like Intruder, which stokes xenophobic fears of immigrants by trailing after a couple of mainland Chinese refugees (Jacklyn Wu and Moses Chan) as they murder, kidnap, and maim their way into Hong Kong, just to get a legal visa. Even here, the emphasis is on an invasive threat, a pair of outsiders who prey on blinkered HK citizens, who just can't see what's wrong until it's right at their door.
There are also some trace influences of true crime, as a residual source of inspiration, in recent Hong Kong movies like this year's HK/mainland Chinese screwball neo-noir Detective Vs. Sleuths, which sends a mentally unstable veteran HK cop (Lau Ching-wan) after a litany of colorfully named violent criminals. (Detectives Vs. Sleuths is only rated Category IIB, which is like our PG-13)
There's also some interesting commentary on the relationship between "true" or realistic violence in Ab-Normal Beauty, the Pang brothers' Category III-rated horror movie about Jin (Cantopop star Race Wong), a young artist who becomes obsessed with photographing, painting, and then digitally recording scenes of death.
Ab-Normal Beauty stands apart, if only because, a little more than halfway through, Jin seems to reconcile her inner demons and accepts that her dark past inspired her obsessive behavior ("Why must you abuse me?"). Jin destroys her creepy artwork with her BFF Jas (fellow 2R singer Rosanne Wong) in a gesture that seems more cathartic than self-destructive.
But then the movie continues, and Jin finds herself confronted with a masked torturer, who demands to be acknowledged even as he threatens to beat Jin and her loved ones with a heavy metal pipe ("Will you dare to accept me?"). Category III movies may not be as inescapable as they used to be, but it's not gone yet, and neither are their defining grievances of neglect, hopelessness, and misdirected rage.