Ebola Syndrome (1996)
Directed by: Herman Yau
Another one in Herman Yau's fairly extensive cannon of ok-ish movies, Ebola Syndrome has by now achieved its cult status as a foul, depraved and outrageous addition to Category III rated Hong Kong cinema. As with other cult movies, it's not about the constant quality of the piece but memorable aspects or images that cements its reputation. Follow me as I revisit the film...
Kai (Anthony Wong) works as a chef at a Chinese restaurant in Johannesburg, South Africa. He's been on the run for 10 years after a brutal triple murder in Hong Kong. While him and his boss Kei (Lo Meng - The Five Venoms) are out buying cheap pig meat from a tribe of cannibals, Kai excises some sexual desires by taking advantage of an apparently sick and helpless tribe woman. Unfortunately she goes into some form of death spasm with Kai inside of her and at the same time infects him with the deadly Ebola virus. Kai is on the brink of dying while doctors explain that 1 out of 10 million are actually immune to the virus and it turns out that none other than Kai is immune and a disgruntled worker to boot. After wiping out his employees, he goes on a sex and death rampage that takes him back to Hong Kong and leaves behind him more and more infected people....
Simply put, Herman Yau, producer Wong Jing, writer Chau Ting and lead Anthony Wong just friggin' goes for it in this Category III mix of light humour and outrageousness to the extreme. Whereas The Untold Story mixed the comedy and horror more distinctly through its flashback structure, Ebola Syndrome has a combination that only Hong Kong cinema can achieve because it's equally if not more disgusting than Yau's prior infamous effort. Jumping freely between twisted fun, the requisite exploitation elements and its Outbreak plot (Hong Kong style), experienced filmmaker Yau does have a focus on that goal and pushes the buttons well. This may not be, actually it isn't, classy execution but there's something striking about Ebola Syndrome. The images and scenarios it's suppose to firmly plant in the viewer's minds, Yau pulls off with aplomb.
On a serious level, Ebola Syndrome possesses a thematic even though it's probably not worth having a roundtable discussion about it. Kai represents the classic underdog that stands up to his bullies but it's quickly established that he is a first rate loser who can't function adequately in any area. Also hugely politically incorrect, Kai doesn't actually dish out his taunts at just a select group, such as blacks. Oh no, Kai hates everybody! The bullied gets on his revenge/power trip indeed but look for no sympathy in him or in a large amount of the character gallery, especially when we're still in South Africa section of the film. Selfishness runs wild and anyone would kill or degrade their fellow man or woman at the blink of an eye.
As mentioned, I am reexamining this movie once more and same sets of problems in Yau's direction still reside. While the imagery easily makes one forget about weaknesses, Yau doesn't exactly pace some sections well. Especially before the finale in Hong Kong, it's a tedious narrative for this b-movie that is devoid of any Hong Kong cinema charms. Even Anthony Wong's character grows tiring in his smelly, dirty, evil ways. However, overanalyzing the entire 90 minutes is just a thoroughly bad idea. Herman Yau and company sets their sights on the target audience as said and succeeds.
When Ebola Syndrome went on export (and The Untold Story for that matter), Herman Yau became branded as some sort of "gore king of Hong Kong cinema". Something that is understandable but it's not a throughline Yau has maintained. I would rather say his wit is a driving force throughout his filmography, in this case leading to several hilarious Anthony Wong lines and happenings (at one point, he walks into camera scratching his crotch, a foul parody of camera angles seen in various movies of the 70s including Way Of The Dragon). That's not to say Yau doesn't bring out the blood and guts for this one. On the contrary, despite the movie being the subject of censorship cuts, there's enough for fans to sink their teeth into, even though much of the gore consciously takes place off camera. It's more the aftermath effects that Yau's effects team nails, including the autopsy of a victim that is a tester for even hardcore audiences. However any scenes showing various people being struck by the Ebola virus by falling down and shaking is just plain ridiculous and laughable. Or maybe genius? You be the judge.
In a rare move, Ebola Syndrome actually is a rather striking movie visually. Not that Yau himself as director always goes all out with his visuals despite the cinematography background but DOP Puccini Yu provides a colourful and at times slick frame with imaginative cinematography choices. The frame is of course almost constantly filled with filth but its effect on an audience I apply greatly to Yu's work.
But what would Ebola Syndrome's rep be without the presence of leading man Anthony Wong? Pretty much nonexistent. Never a stranger to play the most psychotic characters you'll ever find in a Hong Kong movie, Wong sheds all vanity and sinks deep into Kai. I'll tell you, if Smell-O-Vision had been applied to this film, you would have yourself one awful experience whenever Wong's on screen!. The constantly sniffing, smelly and foulmouthed Kai is simply meant for Wong who relishes every opportunity to bring up the sleaze level to its highest. He's also hilarious, humour that definitely feels like it's coming from director Yau rather than producer Wong Jing (their tastes are not far apart in this one though), with his peak regarding all facets of his character coming during the finale. You won't believe your eyes when you see some of the sights here. It's classic stuff, for the genre aficionados that is because many other viewers should have become genuinely offended long before the finale and tuned out.
Poor Vincent Wan has to play his cop role straight though and sadly doesn't get a chance to make an impact as a hero as he's one entering very late and is surrounded by a requisite genre staple; lazy and cartoonish cops. Shaw Brother's Lo Meng is a great sport though, especially in a sex scene where he's equaling himself to some kind of superman!
Ebola Syndrome probably doesn't deserve as much attention as I've given it as it is highly politically incorrect, offensive and disgusting but for the Category III crowd, it's a well-blended recipe of the extremes in terms of black humour and graphic imagery. Who cares if director Herman Yau logs lackluster pace for about a third of the film when there's so many moments on display worthy of the rating and its cult status! This IS a classic that will be a tester for anyone's stomach and I'm mainly referring to Anthony Wong's depraved portrayal of Kai. No, it's not award worthy this time around but by god, this is some sort of highlight and one of the last great Category III rated Hong Kong films of its kind.
In all likelihood the same print supplied to Mo Asia is re-used here as evident by print damage at identical points. However, Universe balances blacks and colours better while sharpness registers more favorably. Edge enhancement is an issue but nothing that will detract greatly from the viewing. See below cap for a comparison (notice the print damage on the shirt on both transfers). Both transfers are framed at 1.80:1 approximately.
(Universe top. Mo Asia below)
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track presents the dialogue, effects and music in a clean and crisp way. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.
Universe only adds trailers for Ebola Syndrome, Young & Dangerous 3 and Young & Dangerous: The Prequel. While more packed in that regard, the photo gallery on the Dutch disc isn't exactly so worthwhile that you need to keep the old disc. Same goes for the Herman Yau filmography and the booklet. I'd say upgrade!