Back in the early- to mid-eighties, Hong Kong cinema saw an upturn in sex and violence in film. Movies like Devil Fetus (1983), Seeding of a Ghost (1983), Centipede Horror (1984), The Rape After (1986), and The Seventh Curse (1986) caused great concern. But John Woo’s violent gunplay opera, A Better Tomorrow (1986) really set the film industry abuzz. The result was the establishment of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Rating System, which used a numerical system to rate films. Those films that were deemed as "adults only" cinema due to their sexual or violent content were given the highest category rating, called Category III. Thus was set in place a "golden age" of outrageously violent and totally tasteless Hong Kong films affectionately known in some circles as "Cat III" films. One of the true stars of Cat III films was Anthony Wong. First rocketing to stardom in classic Hong Kong cinema such as Woo’s Hard Boiled and Ringo Lam’s Full Contact (both 1992), the ubiquitous film star appeared in many Cat III films, specializing mostly in playing amoral, self-centered, and violent sleaze-bags in cult classics such as The Untold Story (1993) and 1996’s The Ebola Syndrome, directed by popular Hong Kong director, Herman Yau, who also was somewhat of a specialist in Cat III films.
Ebola Syndrome opens with Kai San (Anthony Wong) having sex with his boss’ wife. Unfortunately for Kai, the boss comes home early to catch the two in bed. After a severe beating by his boss and another crony, Kai manages to turn the tables, killing both his boss and the other man before cutting his mistress’ tongue out for betraying him. Before leaving, he discovers his boss’ young daughter hiding in her bedroom–she has seen everything. Not wanting to leave a witness, he pours gasoline over her and is just about to set her on fire when he is accidentally interrupted by a neighbor who has come to investigate all the noise. Leaving the young girl unharmed, he makes his escape, eventually traveling to South Africa, where he takes a job as the head chef at a small but popular Chinese restaurant in Johannesburg.
Ten years later, he is still working his menial job, being abused by his new boss and his gorgeous but rude wife, making very little money, and generally being unsatisfied with his life. Due to the rampant racism in 1996 South Africa, Asians are also treated like second-class citizens and are forced to make basic purchases (like pigs for the restaurant) at exorbitant prices. This forces Kai and his boss to trek to the African bush to try and purchase meat for the restaurant on the cheap. They come to a small village and are successful in purchasing a couple of hogs. But the village is experiencing a mysterious bout of illnesse, so the two make their purchase and leave as quickly as they can. On the way back, Kai has an accident. Tired of the verbal abuse from his boss, Kai leaves his boss to fix the truck while he tries walking back. As Kai walks across a watering hole, he sees a nude African woman collapse. Kai, who is such a loser he can’t even buy a whore, rapes the barely conscious woman. But as he is committing the heinous deed, the woman begins convulsing, vomiting all over Kai and infecting him with the Ebola virus. However, in very rare cases, some lucky victims only get a high fever and never suffer the terrible effects of the virus; instead, they become unknowing carriers, spreading the disease unwittingly wherever they go. Kai becomes fed up with his boss and the wife and kills them along with another family member, grinding up their bodies and feeding the meat patties to the restaurant’s customers. Of course, Kai isn’t the cleanest of individuals, so he doesn’t wash his hands and doesn’t mind hacking and coughing over the food he prepares, thus transmitting the virus to dozens of Johannesburg residents. After discovering his boss’ stash of money, he decides it’s been long enough since he visited Hong Kong, so he goes on a spending spree, staying in posh hotels and having unprotected sex with high-priced prostitutes as he makes his way back to his homeland.
All the while, the little girl who survived the initial killing spree, who is now grown, is tracking Kai. She grew up to be a stewardess and while on break in South Africa, coincidentally visits the restaurant in which Kai works. While she doesn’t recognize him physically, she cannot forget the smell of blood he carries with him everywhere. She tracks him back to Hong Kong where the police eventually catch up with Kai. But Kai, ever the total sleaze, uses the disease as a weapon, spitting, coughing, and bleeding on anyone who gets in his way.
Ebola Syndrome is not the nastiest of the Cat III flicks (save that honor for The Untold Story or Run and Kill, each of which depicts child murder in all its gory glory), but it is easily one of the most mean-spirited films ever made. Anthony Wong is a spectacle of ugliness and coarseness as he murders, rapes, and cannibalizes his way across the screen. The film is misogynistic, racist, vulgar, and downright gross. But lest you think I am criticizing Ebola Syndrome, allow me to clarify: this is just a point of fact, not criticism. Cat III flicks, by their very nature, are not for all tastes. But for fans of extreme cinema, these films are highly sought-after guilty pleasures. Ebola Syndrome is no different–it is an exercise in bad taste. Viewers are treated to children in peril, cannibalism, multiple scenes of rape and domination of women, urinating on people’s faces, eyeball-gouging, dismemberment, vomiting, and in perhaps the most outrageous scene ever to be filmed, Kai masturbates into a piece of meat and then uses it to prepare a meal for a customer who complained about his cooking!
But those with strong stomachs won’t be treated to just another adrenaline-filled and outlandish Anthony Wong character; underneath all the nastiness lies a bit of social commentary, too. While the Ebola virus along with Marburg virus and Hemorrhagic Fever all made headlines during the mid-nineties, the AIDS virus was also in the headlines in the form of a young man who, upset that he had contracted the disease by a careless hooker, intentionally attempted to infect as many of his sex partners as he could. It is this incident, I believe, that spawned this film, with Anthony Wong as Kai, intentionally using his disease as a weapon once he realizes he has contracted the virus. The film certainly can also be seen as a general warning about the spread of highly infectious diseases. The final scene depicts a team of scientists disinfecting the city. But they miss a chunk of meat that Kai had removed from his arm when he’d been shot earlier. A dog gobbles the meat up only to run to its owner, a little girl, who shares her snack with the hungry dog. The film ends on a still-frame of the girl biting into her cheese after the dog has taken a bite itself, warning viewers that no amount of vigilance can protect the human race from these strains of highly contagious and extremely dangerous viruses.
Many viewers won’t agree with me that the film has any redeeming commentary at all, and frankly, that is probably a fair assessment. But if you enjoy stomach-churning, no-holds barred, Hong Kong action/horror, few films pay off as well as Ebola Syndrome. The film was previously only available on DVD in the U.S. on the budget label Universe Laser & Video, with no extras other than a couple of trailers for other films. But recently, Discotek Media has released a deluxe edition that contains an interview with director Herman Yau, a picture gallery, and a commentary with Yau and Wong. Even being released as a Category III film, Ebola Syndrome still suffered about 2 1/2 minutes of cuts by the studio. This footage has never been released until now. While Discotek did not edit the footage back into the film (the film as it stands is the most complete "uncut" version that has ever been released), but we do get all of this footage as a single, 2 1/2 minute montage of footage never seen before by viewers; this is a huge thrill for fans of the film or completists like myself who have long heard of this rumored missing footage but feared it would never actually be unearthed. Discotek has also seen fit to include both the proper English subtitles as well as the original subtitles, which they call here the "crazy Hong Kong subtitles" (which I’m sure anyone who has had any kind of experience with Hong Kong films understands). There are also optional English subtitles for the commentary as well, which is always a nice touch.
Unfortunately, when Hong Kong reverted back to China in 1997, Chinese authorities quickly took steps to rein in Hong Kong cinema. While Cat III films are still occasionally produced, Hong Kong cinema has clearly been neutered, bringing to an end a Golden Age of tastelessness in Asian cinema. But as the owner of the inferior Universe Laser & Video version of Ebola Syndrome, I am both pleased and proud to now own the superior Discotek version of this wonderfully sick and twisted Cat III gem.