Ebola Syndrome (1996)
Dir. Herman Yau
Written by Ting Chau (aka Candy Cheng)
Starring Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Yeung-Ming Wan
|The doctor's face says it all.|
WARNING: If you’re a relative or friend of mine just checking out his blog for the sake of polite curiosity, for God’s sake, don’t read this. Don’t look this up. You don’t want to look at me sometime in the future and know I watched this. Moreover, if you suffer from any sensitivities of any kind whatsoever, including entirely justifiable sensitivities to legitimately horrible things, for God’s sake, DO NOT CONTINUE. If you have triggers, or strongly held moral views, or even lingering vestiges of genuine human decency, DO NOT CONTINUE. I’ll have some nice reviews about polite 60’s horror movies up soon, I promise. THIS IS NOT ONE OF THOSE. I’m telling you this for your own good and for our continued friendship. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
.......OK, you can't say I didn't warn you.
Well, gulp, I knew this day would come. Time to lose some friends. The last time I posted about a movie this tasteless, it was the mondo fauxumentary about slavery, ADDIO ZIO TOM. At the time, I was averaging about 300 consistent readers for every one of my reviews. Since then, I’ve been averaging around 20. And that one was at least an unwitting disaster made earnestly by well-intentioned people who just had no clue. This one could only have been made by genuinely deranged lunatics with the express intention of creating something lurid and repellant beyond all conceivable bounds of good taste. You can’t even defend it by saying “well, it was a different time,” because it was fucking 1996.
I’ll say one nice thing about it. At least it’s upfront about what it is. It’s not one of these shady sleazy movies which tries to disguise itself in bland platitudes to entice nice old ladies from the Midwest into picking it up at the Safeway checkout counter, blissfully unaware that they’re about to get an unexpected window into a world they never wanted to know anything about. This isn’t something you can just come across. If you go out of your way to buy a Hong Kong category III import called THE EBOLA SYNDROME, you’re basically signing that waiver, buddy. You can’t complain that you didn’t know what you were getting into.
Of course, that just makes it worse that I’ve reviewing it here. But you know my promise to you, I review every movie I watch in October, no exceptions. So, baring my soul, here we go.
I’m not as familiar with the deep, strange rabbit hole of Hong Kong exploitation cinema as I am with, say, the Hammer Studios films, or anything starring Steven Seagal (And judging from this one, my life is much better off for it). But I do know that EBOLA SYNDROME is one of the infamous “Category III” Hong Kong films, a rating that seems to sort of straddle both R and NC-17 films on the Hollywood scale. Some pretty normal-seeming stuff like Johnnie To’s ELECTION movies are Category III, but so are about a thousand softcore pornos that came out in the 80’s and 90’s. All well and good, but that Category III label is also a cover for a handful of truly infamous deviant works of grand guignol. MEN BEHIND THE SUN, DR. LAMB, THE UNTOLD STORY. EBOLA SYNDROME. These names are spoken in hushed tones even by people who think THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 is a hilarious romp. These are not works of art for the casually interested, these are strictly for the pros. And, of course, the genuinely deranged.
Given that, I have to say that EBOLA SYNDROME is not the gorefest I was expecting given its reputation. It’s certainly morally repugnant --an assessment which I think the filmmakers would gleefully confirm-- but visually it’s not too much more disgusting than your typical Wayans brothers comedy. Unless you don’t like to watch rape. In which case you shouldn’t even be reading this review, let alone watching this movie. Let me state this clearly just so there’s no confusion: EBOLA SYNDROME definitely finds serial rape to be a pretty fun time at the movies in a wacky EVIL DEAD over-the-top sort of way.* If that’s gonna be a dealbreaker for you… well, you’re right. But as a journalist I have a duty to report on what I’ve seen, so let’s dive right in.
EBOLA SYNDROME centers around this guy Kai San (Anthony Wong, HARD BOILED, INTERNAL AFFAIRS, and more relevant to us here, Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor for THE UNTOLD STORY) who is just... I don’t think there’s a word for what he is. He’s just the worst. Just the absolute worst. When we meet him, he’s murdering a family after he’s caught having sex with his boss’s wife. At first he seems more like a groveling, whiny maggot than a sadistic monster; when the husband catches him he snivels and weeps about how unfair everyone is to him. But the moment he sees an opportunity, he savagely and gruesomely murders both husband and wife, hunts down their young daughter, and douses her was gasoline -- she’s spared only when he’s interrupted lighting the match and has to flee. When you see the daughter turn up later in the movie as an adult, you’d assume she’d be the main character who will eventually get some revenge against this fucking prick. Oh, how little you understand Hong Kong.
Instead, the movie follows Kai to South Africa, where he ends up contracting ebola in the process of raping (and murdering, naturally) a dying Zulu woman from an infected tribal area. Then, he heads back to town and graphically rapes and murders his new bosses at a Johannesburg Chinese Restaurant. All the while, he never fucking stops bitching and moaning about how unfair the world is to him. You might be tempted to see his constant whining in the face of his vile behavior as a grotesque parody of psychopathic narcissism. Oh, how little you understand Hong Kong. Whatever you do, don’t look at the IMDB reviews where half these fuckin maniacs seem to side with him. Jesus Christ, internet. What the fuck. I’m not mad at this fictional character being flagrantly horrible, but I am mad at you guys for even entertaining any notion that he could be seen as anything else.
Anyway, Kai is an unambiguously and unrepentantly despicable rapist and murderer, but the funny thing is he doesn’t know he’s an ebola carrier. He is, the movie tells us, a rare genetic variant who can contract ebola but be asymptomatic, and consequently he spreads the disease unknowingly. He does lots of unpleasant things, mind you, like grind his victims into hamburgers and jerk off in the meat, infecting everyone who eats them. But he doesn’t realize he’s an Ebola Mary til the very end of the movie. So weirdly, the one thing which is sort of the movie’s hook isn’t really his fault, despite all the other reasons we have the hate him. In fact, by the climax, the movie seems to improbably sympathize with him. I know Hong Kong gangster films are famous for their sympathetic portrayal of both cop and criminal alike, but I hope we can agree that this particular guy probably goes far enough that we can agree to hate him. Right, internet?
Still, I can’t deny that even here, in what ought to be a career nadir for most actors, Anthony Wong is kind of terrific. He plays Kai as a kind of over-the-top cartoon, a Looney Tunes character of pure Id, except instead of hunting rabbits or roadrunners or whatever it is that Porky Pig does, his thing is that he rapes and murders and whines and gives people ebola. Like that time Alexander Hamilton chopped down George Washington’s cherry tree and then raped it and gave it ebola, I cannot tell a lie, Wong is a dangerously compelling actor, instilling his performance with a frenzied energy and a truly wicked sense of comedy. He’s so entertaining I can almost see how those freakos on IMDB ended up on his side, which makes the whole experience that much more nauseating.
And nauseating it is. You’ve seen plenty of grim, gritty torture porn serial killer flicks, and they’re so dour and self-serious that it’s hard to get too worked up over them. But the same thing as a colorful, frenetic, over-the-top comedy? The cognitive dissonance between tone and content makes it feel more nightmarish, and it genuinely got under my skin a little (it sort of reminds me of the scenes from NATURAL BORN KILLERS with Rodney Dangerfield as teenage Juliette Lewis’ sexually abusive father, set to zany cartoon music and doused in an arch, sit-com style). I’m man enough to admit that I really felt kind of dirty after watching it, in a way I really didn’t after equally disgusting things like CHAOS. If the purpose of art is to provoke a reaction, this one definitely did have that effect, and to a large extent I think Wong has to be credited for that. You can only see so much violent depravity before you reach the saturation point and it just doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and EBOLA SYNDROME hits that point within the first 40 minutes. That it doesn’t just become an entirely boring, repetitive slog after that is entirely the result of Wong and director Herman Yau’s frenzied comic energy.
You could definitely argue that this film is morally reprehensible, and that would be reason enough to avoid it. Alas, I cannot agree with that simple reductive rule, because of course sometimes shocking, repellant, even morally reprehensible art is actually quite great. But fortunately, this is not one of those times. EBOLA SYNDROME has little aspiration to be great art; its loftiest aspiration is probably to get a giggle out of you over how obscenely over-the-line it is. So, given that goal, is it wrong to say that my biggest complaint is actually the crippling lack of narrative here? I know, I know, it's not the point, but still, narrative gives shape and context to the genre goods, and this one doesn't really have any kind of shape at all. It spends the beginning introducing us to this sleazy piece of shit, he murders some people, then he goes to another country, gets ebola and murders some other, unrelated people, and then unknowingly spreads it to various South Africans, then he gets on a plane for Hong Kong and, uh, does the exact same thing again, only in Hong Kong, except less.
No protagonist ever materializes; the movie spends most of its runtime following Kai’s antics, but he has no conflict, and doesn’t even know he has ebola, so there’s not much story there. The young daughter of his first murder victims sporadically turns up, but I notice she never actually does anything (and in fact, later on has to bite him to escape and presumably contracts ebola for her troubles, although we don’t know for sure because she is never mentioned again. That’s some cold blooded shit, Hong Kong!) The treatment of this character is kind of emblematic of how ambivalent the whole enterprise is about conflict; it seems like a revenge storyline should write itself, but the movie barely even bothers to use her as exposition, let alone a protagonist or antagonist. Extremely bad subtitles may have lost some of the nuance, so I can’t criticize the writing (unless the transaction was exactly accurate and it was just written by an illiterate) but come on, is it too much to ask for us some kind of character arc? This guy starts out an asshole, unknowingly gives people ebola, murders and rapes a few people unrelated to the ebola, and then unknowingly gives more people ebola, and in the last 20 minutes he gets in a fight with his wife over a totally unrelated issue (custody of his daughter, who was never mentioned before) and gets shot by police. Wha? That’s not a “story,” it’s barely even a connected series of incidents. Wong’s got some real sleazeball charisma and drags the whole enterprise along behind him, but jeez, he’s unpleasant, and --crucially-- kind of uninteresting. The pace is energetic, but the lack of story defuses any real momentum before it can start.
The narrative is directionless and completely free of any kind of motivating conflict, so by default is ends up episodic, a series of vaguely related vignettes. These lurch uncomfortably between broad slapstick, insanely black comedy, and insanely dark drama, without a lot of consistency (a characteristic fairly typical of Southeast Asian cinema, but particularly jarring here). The movie delivers what it promises in terms of prurient concepts, but aside from a handful of bloody moments it barely even pretends to be a horror movie, even of the splattercore grossout variety. In fact, for a movie whose only reason to exist seems to be to parade out a bunch over-the-line setpieces, it really isn’t all that imaginative or especially dense with craziness. The second half, where he goes back to Hong Kong, is honestly pretty tame. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s some pretty graphic rapes and murders in there, but considering the runtime of nearly 100 minutes and the fact that there’s no story to speak of, it’s actually kind of uneventful. It relies on sadism more than twisted ingenuity for its kicks, which makes it a lot less fun than it need to be to maintain a heady sense of transgression all the way through. This needed to go full-on EVIL DEAD if it was gonna totally connect, and instead it’s mostly just a vapid semi-comic HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Still in plenty poor taste, but a little dry for a work with literally nothing else to offer.
Case in point: for a movie whose whole hook is that ebola is bad, we virtually never see any of the actual horrific effects of the disease! People seizure and sometimes projectile-vomit onto others (which, in point of fact, are not Ebola “syndromes”), but we never really see what happens after that. No bleeding, no boils, no weeping blood, nothing. If we’re seriously going to go down the road of making a queasy comedy about ebola, it’s a pretty unforgivable oversight to neglect milking some sicko mileage out of the actual syndromes of the title. What, were they trying to save on the makeup budget? I have no idea. But it definitely was not done in the name of taste. I can forgive a movie devoting itself entirely to the cheap thrills of irresponsible, transgressive button-pushing, but I can’t forgive it for being so unimaginative about it.
*Lest you think too harshly of us men, note that this was written by a woman, screenwriter Ting Chau who also penned stuff like THE RAPIST BECKONS (sounds pretty classy, what with “Beckons” right there in the title!) and, even worse, Hong Kong Hollywood knockoffs like “ADVENTUROUS TREASURE ISLAND” and “CHINESE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.” She also did another horror movie with Herman Yau called THE GHOST INSIDE (2005), apparently the most expensive Hong Kong horror film up to that time.
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Since it's not even really making an effort to be "good," it's a little hard to assign an objective rating. I mean, seems like the freakos online who sought this thing out were satisfied with what they got. It definitely is unrelentingly repellent, which seems to be the only real objective here. Even so, I wish it were a little more well-structured and more creatively depraved. Gun to my head, I'd give it a C-.