Red To Kill (1994)
by: Billy Tang
Written by: Wong Ho Wa
Produced by: Martin Film Company Film Limited
Starring: Lily Chung, Ben Ng & Money Lo
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Billy Tang's third in a string of hard hitting Category III rated films, Red To Kill, is perhaps the hardest to start reviewing. It takes on the subject matter of rape without flinching and other movies have been really exploitative since scenes of this kind really have been there for commercial purposes. With Red To Kill, director Billy Tang can beforehand be accused of being exploitative but you should be aware of his more serious stance as a filmmaker working with this rating.
Social worker Ka Lok (Money Lo from Brother Of Darkness) is on the brink of resigning due to loss of confidence in her line of work. Along comes the case of Ming Ming (Lily Chung from Daughter Of Darkness) though whose father has been killed in a car accident. Ming Ming has the mind of a 10 year old and is transferred to a hostel for retarded people, run by Chan (Ben Ng from Daughter Of Darkness II). Chan is an inspiration for Ming Ming as well as Ka Lok but underneath the friendly surface, there hides a beast of unparalleled proportions. He is the one responsible for a a series or rape/murders in the same building as the hostel and one night, after Ming Ming wins a dance competition, Chan can't hold back anymore. He rapes Ming Ming but the justice system can't hold on to him due to her being too frightened to fully testify. Chan is let out and only way to stop him is to lure him in towards red...
To say you like this film will spark a whole array of reactions. To say you appreciated aspects of it will also. Think of this, there are countless classics of cinema with content far from enjoyable but what they're judged by is the quality of filmmaking. Same should be done with Red To Kill, coming from an industry that has played around quite a bit with strong, graphic imagery. The Category III rating have allowed filmmakers to stretch the limits quite a bit but from what I've seen, nothing has come to close to the intensity in Red To Kill.
Starting out with a plot that shares similarities with The Lunatics, Tang gives us a bleak look at a Hong Kong where even the social workers have given up. Even with the opening and very graphic rape by our, at this point, unknown beast rapist, there's positivity in the way we see Ka Lok achieving good things in the handling of Ming Ming. Obviously there's horror to come which in itself brings an certain feeling of unease, especially since the rape scene seen prior is strong in every sense of the word. Trust me, nothing in terms of that will titillate though, unless you're one sick puppy. Tang talks about how easy the blame can be put on retarded people when they're closely connected to a crime spree of this sort (living in the same building) but also with that comes the fact that there are such tendencies in them actually (as seen in what turns out to be a very funny scene involving footballs). The twist that it's the apparent normal man that is behind the rapes works reasonably well and that is what I can say about Red to Kill as a whole because it doesn't become better than that. Much has to do with the somewhat valid over the top nature of the film that still lessens the overall effect.
We get a sense of the beast in hiding during the opening minutes of the film. The heavy breathing, close up of sweat and muscles is a fairly effective way of introducing evil. It also works as a way to make sure that there's nothing redeeming about the acts to follow. I will always applaud Tang for trying to break out of the established flashback structure of Cat III films (after he made Dr. Lamb that is) but he would've done himself a small favour if he had stopped for a minute and stripped some of the intensive layers off. Filter the intensity if you will. When we slowly reveal the fact that mild mannered Chan is the rapist of the film, we quickly get the backstory behind his madness; one of a childhood trauma connected to the colour red, an explanation that isn't particularly fresh. On the other hand, this era of Cat III wasn't concerned with being groundbreaking either. Therefore, laziness in writing could be allowed in terms of character motivations and story backdrop so even if screenwriter Wong Ho Wa's written arc for Chan is familiar to a degree, it is actually a bit more deeper than anything other directors did for instance. One other thing is that the way Chan's insanity manifests itself can sometimes be almost comically intense. I don't see any big fault in it though. The human mind works in different ways and go in many directions, big or small so his particular way of insanity in my mind doesn't feel wrong as such. Dr. Lamb also featured a less classy character background that also generated a certain extreme level of madness. It worked in parts for that film because of an effective atmosphere alongside with Simon Yam's performance.
What is clear though is that no matter how many hardships Chan went through and the small inner conflict which centers on a desire not to rape, there's nothing sympathetic about him. It's pure, intense evil that deserves no place on earth which leads me to discussing two scenes. One that is probably THE scene in Cat III films that truly made me uncomfortable and one that is actually one of the worst to an extent in the film. The big rape scene of Lily Chung's character by Ben Ng is so relentlessly in your face and hurts like hell while Tang in the midst of all this adds further layers to Chan's insanity. He actually thinks he does this out of love which suitably makes the audiences hatred build even more. This sequence isn't done with until it's done with and carries over to the aftermath scene with Lily Chung in the shower. We see her as a character not really knowing what has happened to her except that it hurts and boy does this affect us even more (this is also a tour de force moment for Lily Chung). We've of course grown to like Ming Ming and seeing her acts towards herself, to say the least, is extremely harrowing. That worst scene I talked about I'll briefly discuss. There's a subsequent courtroom scene that falters due to some unrealistic circumstances in terms of one witness interrogation. It purely written so that the movie can actually continue for another 30 minutes and not anchored in any reality in my mind. Not to go into scene to scene explanation but the finale is quite something. It does suffer a bit from being way over the top, almost becomes surreal in its relentlessness, but the intensity conveyed by the filmmakers and the dedication from the cast is unlike anything you ever thought existed in Hong Kong cinema.
Behind the scenes, as usual, we find cinematographer Tony Mau and composer Jonathan Wong. Tony provides moody cinematography with emphasis on blue which lends itself to a fitting grim mood (he has great fun with the colour red that appears just everywhere in the film). Wong's score, as heard in other movies, is mostly synthesizer driven and also as heard prior, it can be hit and miss within the same film. The majority of the scenes benefit from his work and compliments the direction and cinematography nicely (a word that is hard to put to use for the movie Red To Kill is). At other times he's overscoring moments and scenes. Also HE could've stripped down some of the layers in his work.
Say what you want about the flaws in terms of intensity but Ben Ng being in tune with Billy Tang's demands generates an amazingly memorable performance. He looks eerily like Jet Li at times and his switching between mild mannerism and all out psycho is, for the genre, work worthy of kudos. Lily Chung, a familiar face and body to the Cat III genre, has always shown dedication and an uncanny ability to radiate sympathy as she's many times a victim of harsh circumstances. She is held back in her childlike acting and it doesn't need to be anything more than that. In terms of the sympathy mentioned, the audiences are subjected to the horror towards her as well and Lily Chung, while on the receiving end, communicates so well what her scared mind is going through for most of the film. She's underrated it's a shame that the likes of Red To Kill rarely gets addressed at awards ceremonies (The Untold Story and Remains Of A Woman are two Cat III rated exceptions though) since Lily Chung's performance here is that good.
Time ran out for Category III and this was really Billy Tang's last of them. Run And Kill remains his overall most successful movie but both this and Brother Of Darkness makes for three strong viewings for the genre aficionados (and maybe a small band of curious ones). Red To Kill subject matter isn't something you'll like or enjoy but despite missteps along the way, Billy Tang's piece of backside Hong Kong cinema is truly one of a kind. It will hurt however.
Previously available on a substandard disc from Ocean Shores, Universe dvd debuts Red To Kill in letterbox (1.75:1) and with optional subtitles. To the best of my knowledge, this edit is the same as on Ocean Shores dvd and probably represents the theatrical cut. There are noticeable audio jumps in the rape scene in the middle of the film but it's unclear how much was removed. The transfer is generally clean, only a few moments feature heavier damage. Colours are good but there's a slight smeary nature to the transfer. Overall, Universe have produced some good looking dvd's of Category III considering the low price.
The Cantonese 2.0 mono track sounds good for what it is. Dialogue is clear and Jonathan Wong's score comes off nicely as well. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also available.
The English subtitles are pretty good with only few grammar and spelling errors. Don't know if they're cleaned up or a copy of the theatrical subtitles but nonetheless a good job, Universe!
Did you expect extensive behind the scenes footage, commentary, interviews and deleted scenes? If you did then this is a disappointing disc since there are no extras whatsoever.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson