Categorize Me: A History of Hong Kong’s Category III Genre

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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.

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