WHAT HAPPENED TO CATEGORY 1 AND 2?
Hong Kong films have been a major part of the spread of Asian cinema in the West, both in terms of imports and through the infusion of talented filmmakers. When Hong Kong cinema is mentioned, viewers generally think of action films such as Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire”, or triad thrillers like the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy (soon to be the subject of a U.S. makeover). However, equally important although often ignored by mainstream critics and unseen by the general Western public, are the darker, sleazier films which make up the category III genre.
These are films whose content goes way beyond what is considered acceptable in the West, and whose sensibilities are often very different indeed. Regularly containing graphic scenes of rape, sexual violence, torture, cannibalism, and just about every perversion imaginable, category III films, distasteful though they may sound, are an integral part of Hong Kong cinema. These are the films which never get remade, and which are only spoken of in the context of condemnation or dismissal, or both.
However, to those with strong stomachs and a certain moral flexibility, the genre has a wealth of dubious delights to offer which, though greatly varying in quality, contains some truly fascinating, and uniquely Asian, entertainment.
PEOPLE WATCH THIS STUFF?
Though category III films have been around for many years, it was the success of the infamous “Men behind the Sun” (a.k.a. “Camp 731″) in 1988 which really set the ball rolling. Audiences had never witnessed such a barrage of gore, torture and depravity, and the industry quickly realised that there was in fact an incredible demand for films with this kind of extreme content. The result was a boom in sex and violence that dominated Hong Kong cinemas for over a decade, and which is still going strong today.
Technically, ‘category III’ is a rating garnered by the Hong Kong Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA). The rating system in Hong Kong is as follows:
I: Suitable for all ages.
IIa: Not suitable for children.
IIb: Not suitable for young persons.
III: Not approved for exhibition to anyone under the age of 18.
The main thing to note is that the category I, IIa and IIb ratings are advisory only, and that it is not technically illegal for children to watch an IIb film in cinemas. However, the category III rating is legally binding, and large fines may be applied if it is transgressed, though interestingly enough, it is usually the offending patron, and not the cinema, that is held liable. This helps enact a sort of self-censorship unseen in the West, which effectively allows the state to avoid responsibility and to allow the production and distribution of dubious entertainment by placing the onus on the actual viewer to make their own moral decisions regarding personal access to such material. This also means that category III films have relied on the VCD and DVD medium, often in the form of cheap pirated copies, for much of their diffusion.
In U.S. terms, the IIb rating is roughly equivalent to an ‘R’, and the category III rating is closest to an ‘NC-17′, i.e. being for ‘adults only’, though not containing actual hardcore pornography (which is illegal). However, whilst in the West an ‘NC-17′ certificate is generally the commercial kiss of death and means that the film is unlikely to be advertised in the general press, in Hong Kong, category III films show in large multiplexes side by side with more family oriented fare.
Category III films are in general free from censorship, though there are a number of exceptions. Foreign films, such as the notorious “Ichi the Killer”, have been subject to cuts, as have a few of the more extreme examples of domestic cinema, such as “The Untold Story” and “Dr. Lamb”. Interestingly, these films are available in uncut form in the West, whereas other examples of the category III genre remained banned, or at least untouched, by distributors.
There are other types of censorship which have been seen, some for different, often seemingly innocuous reasons. An odd example of this is in the cannibalistic true crime thriller “There is a Secret in my Soup”, in which a ‘Hello Kitty’ doll that is in the background is covered up with optical blurring, providing an amusing contrast to the graphic atrocities being played out on screen, and are untouched by similar censoring.
HONG KONGERS LOVE THEIR CAT III
Although obviously playing to a more select audience, some category III films have achieved genuine mainstream success, most notably “Pretty Woman” (not to be confused with the Hollywood romantic comedy of the same name) and “Chinese Torture Chamber Story”, both earning high box office returns despite containing explicit content.
The popularity of the category III film and its importance to the Hong Kong film industry as a whole can be seen in the fact that during the 1990s, almost 50% of all films being shown in cinemas had the rating. In video and DVD rental outlets this number is even greater, and again there is no segregation of category III, which sit on shelves alongside other films.
This can be compared to the U.S., where one of the only notable mainstream ‘NC-17′ releases of recent years, “Showgirls”, was a huge commercial failure.
In the West, films with strong sexual or violent content are generally released straight to the home rental market, or to cable, where they have a greater chance of being shown uncut.
Similarly, whilst in the West, films with heavy violent and/or sexual content, and those from the horror genre in particular, are looked down upon by critics, and generally spoken of with a dismissive air. However, in Hong Kong, category III films are very much a viable critical concern, as seen by Anthony Wong’s winning of the ‘best actor’ award at the 1994 Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance in “The Untold Story”. This victory was a huge boost in terms of legitimising the genre, and as such is comparable to the Western success of “The Silence of the Lambs”.
This is not to suggest that in Hong Kong such films are generally well reviewed or given as much press coverage as more mainstream efforts, but simply that they are not ignored to the same degree as their relative counterparts in the West.
The importance of category III cinema in Hong Kong can also been seen in the fact that actors and actresses regularly ‘graduate’ from adults only territory to the mainstream, and even to becoming international stars. The most obvious example is again Anthony Wong, often referred to as ‘the king of category III’, who has gone from starring in sleaze such as “Daughter of Darkness” (to name but one) to featuring in a great number of more acceptable films like the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy and “The Twins Effect”.
Another notable case is that of Shu Qi, who has gone from minor roles in sex films like “Sex and Zen 2″ to big budget productions including “The Eye 2″ and the Western actioner “The Transporter”.
Such career moves are obviously not unheard of in the West, though it is far rarer for genuine stars and respected actors to rise from such sleazy beginnings.
THEY CAN’T BE TEHAT BAD, CAN THEY?
There are many different types of film which earn the category III rating, and as such it is unfair to group them all together. Foreign imports, mainly from Hollywood, are popular in Hong Kong, and in general those which have a domestic ‘R’ are rated III. The main reason for such films earning the rating is overridingly that of sexual content, as interestingly, most which have a domestic ‘R’ for violence alone are effectively downgraded to the merely advisory IIb.
Such foreign films, though popular, are not central to this discussion, and for the purposes of this article will not be included when referring to ‘category III cinema’.
‘True’ category III films basically fall into one of two types. The first is the genre film, which gains the rating due to its content, and the second is the film whose content has been specifically tailored to the rating, and whose purpose is to show varying mixtures of sex and violence.
It is this second kind of film, and its various sub-types, which will be discussed below in terms of defining the actual genre and exemplifying characteristics of category III cinema.
THEY SHOOT GENRE FILMS, DON’T THEY?
A great many traditional genre films do earn the category III ratings, for a variety of reasons. This applies to all genres, and there are category III rated examples of horror, action, thriller, and even comedy films. The distinction between such films and the other type of category III film identified is that while they contain scenes, whilst explicit enough to fall under the rating, this content is not their defining characteristic.
The basic reasons stated by the TELA for earning the rating are as follows:
(a) Whether the film portrays, depicts or treats cruelty, torture, violence, crime, horror, disability, sexuality, or indecent or offensive language or behaviour; and
(b) Whether the film denigrates or insults any particular class of the public by reference to the colour, race, religious belief or ethnic or national origins or the sex of the member of that class.
This is obviously not particularly clear cut, and as such there are a number of films which earn the rating and at first glance may not seem deserving. A recent example would be the horror anthology “Three: Extremes”, which though it does not contain very much actual gore or sadism, deals with themes such as illegal abortions (and the consummation of the resulting foetus) and features scenes involving Siamese twins.
On the other hand, a film like “The Longest Nite” was only rated IIb, despite containing large amounts of brutal violence and lacking only the sexual content necessary to attain category III status.
Many high brow films by established filmmakers have been rated category III, including Wong Kar Wai’s “Happy Together”, which was thus rated on the basis of its inclusion of gay sexual themes. In fact, the majority of films which include any kind of homosexual behaviour, outside of slapstick comedy, have earned the rating, whether they feature any graphic content or not.
BUT EVERYONE’S DOING IT!
The second type of category III film, and the one which I would argue constitutes the genre as such, is that which is specifically tailored to include scenes of extreme sex, violence, and indeed, sexual violence. These films are instantly recognisable from their lurid covers and titles which tend to include one or more of the words ‘naked’, ‘rape’, ‘body’, ‘beast’, ‘weapon’ and/or ‘evil’.
These films are exploitation cinema in its purest form, and their content is far more important than their generally negligible plots, which are more often than not quite obviously written around the scenes of sex and violence.
There are three basic types of these films:
WHAT, MISSIONARY AGAIN?
These films are sub-pornographic, though containing far more sexually frank content than mainstream cinema is allowed in the West. In general, they do display a vague use of generic plotlines, but are overwhelmingly characterised by their frequent, lengthy scenes of sexual activity.
A typical film of this type would probably spend at least 50% of its running time focusing on sequences of intercourse or foreplay, often ending with a spectacular, over the top coupling. A high percentage of these films tend to treat their subject matter quite frivolously, and there is very little angst, soul searching or drama connected with the sex, making such efforts pure exploitation, shameless but cheerful. As such, these films rarely contain much violence, rape or any of the more dubious aspects of those described below, and in many ways can be seen as a potentially guilt free alternative to actual pornography.
Indeed, comedy and farce are common ingredients in this type of film, giving them an atmosphere of being harmless, and often quite charming, despite their obviously sleazy content. A good example of this type would be “The Fruit is Swelling”.
Quite popular in such films is utilising a period setting, and invoking ancient sources of Chinese literature, reusing classic stories and simply inserting sex and nudity. Two important examples are the classic “Sex and Zen” (and resulting sequels) and “Erotic Chinese Ghost Story”, which despite its title and use of the supernatural, is still basically a straightforward sex film.
Often, films which use these settings do contain some fairly surreal scenes, and some form of perversion is quite common, though rarely in a distasteful or threatening way. The purpose of these sex films is to titillate, not to shock, and whilst the target audience is obviously male, there is little misogyny, and the viewer is rarely made to feel uncomfortable.
AND HE WAS SO QUIET, TOO
These are the types of film most commonly associated with the category III tag, and in contrast to the ‘sex film’ type outlined above, are misogyny personified.
Such films generally involve a maniac of some description stalking and killing his victims, who, when female, are often subjected to rape or sexual abuse. The point of these films is to shock and arguably to titillate through their extreme and often over the top content, and though rarely realistic, they generally at least attain a level of distaste and offensiveness not seen in similar Western efforts. Perversion and depravity are the main keywords.
Within this sub-genre, there are a few variations on the theme and plot. One common form is the true crime thriller as introduced and popularised by “The Untold Story”. The financial and critical success of “Untold Story” inspired a number of imitations, including “Human Pork Chop”, “Bloody Buns” and “There is a Secret in my Soup”.
The basic premise of these films is to take a ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach, utilizing the details of a real-life murder/torture/kidnapping case and to fill in the blanks with lurid details. Although their faithfulness to the truth is highly questionable, these films, when competently made, do have a vague sense of realism and believability which lends them a more shocking air.
Cannibalism is another very popular theme in such films, being one of the more disgusting and morbidly fascinating crimes to rear its head in Hong Kong, and as such has been exploited many times in many variations.
Another type of film is the straightforward psycho killer/rapist film, which reduces the form to its most base level. In many ways, these are the most uncomfortable examples of the category III genre, being very hard to justify as actual entertainment.
Such films contain little more than a collection of murder and rape scenes, inevitably carried out with great relish by an unrealistic villain against a series of scantily clad young women. The sheer amount of nudity, and the way the rape scenes are often shot in the same manner as sex scenes, leaves the viewer in no doubt that these films are made to titillate.
This particular sub-category leaves a very bad taste in the mouth of any normal viewer, and the overwhelming impression is that of hatred. A prime example of the type would be “The Peeping Tom”, in which a pantomime psychopath spies on woman, kidnaps and rapes them, and then removes their legs as gruesome trophies.
Of course, not all of these films are quite so reprehensible, and there are some reasonable examples which manage to be fairly entertaining despite their dubious content. Two such films are “Dr. Lamb” and “Horrible High Heels”. Both contain rape, murder, necrophilia and even the sexual abuse of a goose, though the acts are presented in such a ludicrous, gonzo fashion that they pass into the realm of the surreal. These films push the sensibilities of the viewer so far, and so outrageously, that they are very hard to take seriously, and verge on a kind of grotesque lampoonery.
AND YOUR DOG, TOO!
There are a great many category III films which do contain a great deal of sex and violence, but which are more difficult to pigeonhole. Films such as the popular “Chinese Torture Chamber Story”, “Run and Kill” and “The Eternal Evil of Asia” have a great mix of themes and feature iconographic scenes from a variety of genres such as the period drama, horror, thriller, romantic comedy, and even satirical commentary. Although they do contain scenes of sexual violence, and quite often some truly shocking moments, in general they share the good-natured approach of the sex films outlined above. And though not always played for spoofery, these films are free from the hatred of the psycho/rape films, despite having some similarities.
These films are in general rollercoaster rides of incomprehensible plotting and a constant assault on the senses and sensibilities of the viewer, though at heart they generally carry a strangely moralistic message. As such, they can be quite enjoyable, with only a minor feeling of guilt.
YOU CALL THIS ENTERTAINMENT?
This is the overriding question which can be thrown at the category III genre proper, as no other type of film contains the same uneasy mix of titillation and extreme disgust. It is indeed very difficult, on paper at least, to argue the entertainment merits of a film like “Red to Kill”, which features a crazed maniac who stalks and kills scantily clad, mentally handicapped women.
This is the crux of the category III problem, as the majority of ‘true’ members of the genre, as outlined above, are very hard to justify. Some films do make an effort to display some kind of reasoning behind their content, such as “A Lamb in Despair”, which does attempt to mix in a realistic exploration into the mind of a psychopath, as well as showing his crimes in graphic detail.
However, in general, most films that fall into this genre simply feature their content without any form of comment or concession, leaving it up to the viewer to condemn or enjoy, and as such it is often morbid curiosity which first attracts them to the genre. The lurid covers of these films and suggestive titles have a tangible promise of showing unspeakable, indescribable acts, and unlike many Western films, they tend to deliver, and indeed even goes far beyond the viewer’s darkest expectations.
BAD BOYS, BAD BOYS
Whilst it is certainly one which panders to the worst in human nature, it could be argued that the category III genre is often condemned for simply showing the ugly truth behind that which other films simply gloss over.
For example, in a Western action thriller such as “Bad Boys II” (to name but one), countless people are mown down in hails of bullets, there are copious amounts of nudity, and vast tracts of destruction. However, there is never any sense of danger or impact, and thus no risk to the viewer.
Compare this with a film like “The Untold Story”, where there are far fewer deaths, though their drawn out nature makes them far more shocking and felt by the viewer in an almost physical fashion. Since the overwhelming emotions of the viewer when confronted by such scenes are those of disgust and revulsion, it could be argued that these category III films, whilst obviously designed to entertain in a cheap, exploitative fashion, simply offer up a different side of the same coin, a similar contempt for human life, though with a cost to the viewer unseen in mainstream cinema.
This is of course a generalisation, and does not apply to some of the sleazier examples of the category III genre, which would perhaps benefit from a more cultural or even psychological analysis.
YOUR PLACE OR MINE?
The final point, and the final argument in the debate or indeed the justification of category III films as entertainment, is that it really comes down to personal choice. The decision is solely that of the viewer, whether or not they wish to view such material, and indeed what they take from it.
Although to some people, these films may embody the very worst in cinema, to others they represent the best, a twisted kind of artistic freedom which provides an interesting, if ugly, reflection on parts of our own cultures and selves. The very subject of acceptability is obviously one in which every viewer has his or her own view, though the very existence, and enduring popularity of these films prove, if nothing else, their significance.
For, as Picasso famously said, “Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
This, more than anything, is a perfect summation of the appeal and potential for entertainment that the category III possesses, and will continue to possess as long as viewers have a taste for the sleazy, bizarre and extreme.
A bulletin board advertising for “The Untold Story” in Hong Kong.