Ebola Syndrome (1996)

Directed by Herman Yau

Produced by Wong Jing

Written by Chau Ting

Music by Brother Hung (Mak Chang Hung)

Starring Anthony Wong (Kai), Vincent Wan (Yeung), Mariane Chan (Ha), Shing Fui On (Triad boss), Wong Tsui Ling, Lo Meng (Kei), Peter Ngor, Cheung Lau, Lam Chiu Wing, Ng Shui Ting

Ebola Syndrome (1996)

Caught red-handed with his triad boss' wife, sleazy street-punk Kai is brutally beaten and threatened with castration until he turns the tables, leaving a grisly trail of slaughter behind him. Absconding from the law, Kai relocates to South African city of Johannesburg where he takes up the role of chef in a restaurant nestled within the Chinatown district. Exhibiting all too disgusting kitchen habits, Kai is vilified by owner Ling, but lauded by her husband Kei for his immeasurable cost-effectiveness. On a purchasing trip into the wilderness, as a means of under-cutting the local butcher on pig carcasses, Kai and Kei posit themselves in a village decimated by an outbreak of the flesh-eating virus Ebola. Unable to err from the desires of his sex-drive, Kai takes the opportunity to rape a village girl in her final spasms of the disease. By a one in ten million chance, Kai becomes a carrier of the disease, bypassing infection completely. After murdering his employers and filleting their corpses into dining treats, he once again absconds the authorities to return to Hong Kong. Once there, the deadly contagion threatens to spread, unless Inspector Yeung of the Hong Kong Police can locate the elusive Kai before the contamination spirals into an epidemic.

Whatever you do, don't believe 'em! Listen to the Hong Kong kid when he tells you that Herman Yau's "Ebola Syndrome" is no 'masterpiece' of Hong Kong horror cinema, nor bonafide successor to Yau's previous "The Untold Story" (1993). Before everyone throws up their arms in disbelief, let me say that it is simply JUST another HK sex & gore flick that copped a Category III classification, and one intended as a blackly-comic parody of some of Anthony Wong's prior roles, and that's all there is to it! I'm starting to believe that the only thing that garners these things their cult reputations is their relative unavailability on any sort of home video format. Back in '96, it seemed every fan of Hong Kong cinema I happened across was expounding the virtues of new shock-on-the-block, "Ebola Syndrome". Having seen it some months before the 'word' started to spread, I could hardly fathom the ludicrous reputation that the film was beginning to muster. Surely people had cottoned on to the fact that the film was a pisstake of Wolfgang Petersen's "Outbreak" (1995) by way of Yau's own "The Untold Story", or had they? Six years later I'm still not convinced that general genre buffs and Hong Kong film enthusiasts actually 'got' the joke…

Similarly, exemplary cinematographer Yau (who most recently lensed Tsui Hark's superlative "Legend Of Zu") seems to have been sleighted with the tag of a Hong Kong goremeister, solely on the grounds of the two titles most international viewers have seen out of his directorial body of work that runs to nearly thirty feature films! Apologies, but am I one of the few who have seen SDU drama "Best Of The Best" (1992), courtroom drama "No Justice For All" (1995), triad romance "War Of The Underworld" (1996), romance "Fascination Amour" (1999) and cartoon comedy "Master Q 2001" (2001)? I'm off on a tangent, I know, but how any of the above films pinpoint Yau as a gore guru (like countryman Billy Tang before him, who is equally diverse) is beyond me! But anyhoo, onto the film at hand, which of course is the flawed-though-entertaining black comedy, "Ebola Syndrome". I only suggest 'flawed' on a couple of counts, most notably that if you haven't seen either "The Untold Story" or "Outbreak" the joke falls pretty flat, and secondly much of the humour is uniquely Chinese, as well as playing off Anthony Wong's screen/recording persona (yep, he's turned out a few four-letter-word-heavy metal/rap albums!).

Cheekily scripted by Chau Ting, who went on to work on a handful of the "Young & Dangerous" series of films, as well as the adaptation of Ma Wing Shing's "Storm Riders" comics to the big screen, "Ebola" sets itself up fairly quickly with tongue planted firmly in cheek. After kicking off with some grotesquely comic killings, inclusive of one by mahjong table, Chau and director Yau waste no time in investing Wong's character with as little redeeming characteristics as they can muster. Wong's Kai is foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, and hugely racist in his worldview (Kai doesn't just despise whites & blacks…he hates everyone equally! Are you starting to get where this is coming from now?). Once he returns to Hong Kong and starts spreading the Ebola virus by either unprotected sex, or similar transmission of bodily fluids, his character becomes a fairly straight-forward metaphor for the widespread dissemination of multiple human traits that undermine the moral fabric of society. Be it sexism, racism, bigotry, adultery, greed, theft, or vice, it's all there plain as day.

However, even under the guise of a cheesy sex & horror flick, Yau's brand of social satire and edge of black comedy is aided and abetted by slick cinematography from Puccini Yu ("War Of The Underworld", "Master Q 2001") as well as an effective electronic score from rocker Brother Hung. Wong plays Kai wildly over the top, seemingly enjoying himself immensely in the process, while regular supporting player Vincent Wan is Wong's straight-man in the form of staunch Hong Kong police inspector, Yeung. There's a big surprise in store for fans of the old Shaw Brothers films, as former member of the 'Venom' team Lo Meng (inexplicably credited as 'Law Mong' in Japan Shock's liner notes!) pops up as Kei, owner of the Johannesburg Chinese restaurant, even engaging a brief though funny sex scene (per the Category III motto of baring as much skin as the running time permits!). Category III regulars Wong Tsui Ling and Cheung Lau are on hand to display their not-unattractive forms when the script calls for it, but readers will be disappointed to hear that the delightfully cute Mariane Chan does not (but then, she IS a mainstream actress and unlike Hollywood, commercial actresses in Hong Kong by and large don't do nudity). All up though, it's a gang of fun, as the proceedings are generally played for broad cartoonish laughs, and Wong appears to be having a grand old time lampooning his "Untold Story" character. If you approach this as intended, a black-comic parody of "Outbreak", then I'm sure it will provide an hour and half of none-too-demanding, albeit gory, fun.

Outside of the Japanese DVD (which was in Cantonese with Japanese subtitles), and Hong Kong VCD from Universe Laser & Video (expect an extremely affordable DVD release in the not-too-distant future; probably in DTS if their recent back catalogue releases are anything to go by), Japan Shock's DVD is the first proper digital release of Yau's "Ebola Syndrome" made available for Western audiences. Presented letterboxed at its original theatrical aspect ratio, it looks rather good and extremely colourful to boot. There's hardly a hint of print damage, and there's precious little to fault with Shock's transfer bar some murky blacks and a hint of smearing. The audio is Dolby digital 2.0 mono (not Stereo as the packaging states), but as the film was screened with monaural audio this is hardly an issue worth bursting blood vessels over! English subtitles are variable at best, and seem directly lifted from the film's original Hong Kong theatrical subs complete with hokey grammatical snafus (but with the original's spelling errors corrected). Hey, it worked for me! Extra features are limited to the unsubtitled Hong Kong theatrical trailer (does anyone actually CARE that HK trailers don't have subs?), a brief animated Stills gallery and an animated Herman Yau biography (that simply flitters by way too fast to effectively read! It also contains the rather amusing misnomer that Herman Yau is 'also known as Yau Lai To', when it SHOULD read something akin to 'Yau Lai To (Cantonese) is better known by his English name, Herman Yau, to international audiences'. But that's just nit-picking…I'm sure foreign correspondents will get their head around the way the whole HK thing works, one day!).

Oh yeah, per my other Hong Kong review this month, "Doctor Lam" there's also been a lot of dirty laundry aired over the fact that this edition of "Ebola" is 'cut'. Well, guess again! Although there's been some VERY minor trims (we're talking SECONDS here) made to the film for it to be released with that all important Category III classification (does everyone understand that without these cuts the films don't get official sanction for release?), it's still a pretty gory little opus. If you're concerned that there's a brief shot of a head being severed from a body missing, or that the scene of Cheung Lau urinating on Anthony Wong's face is curtailed by a second or so, as per their government-enforced removal for the Hong Kong theatrical edition, then may I suggest that you avoid Japan Shock's excellent disc? May I also suggest that you also not worry about getting out of bed tomorrow, as there's bound to be something in the day that's going to disappoint you equally as much as a few missing frames from a film that's never been exhibited with them intact! Really, I'm sick to death of the sad spoilsports that have turned the DVD format into their own personal soapbox. Go back to whatever you were doing before you tried to ruin the genre for people that still do enjoy it, miniscule amounts of nothing missing or not! For everyone else, check it out, it's a hoot!

Review by Mike Thomason

Released by MO Asia (Shock DVD Entertainment)
DVD format: DVD-5 (NTSC Region 0)
Running time - 98m (packaging lists 90m)
Ratio - Widescreen 1.85
Audio - Cantonese Dolby digital 2.0 (optional Dutch; English subtitles)
Extras :
Theatrical trailer; Stills gallery; Director biography; 4pp-insert booklet

© 2001, Icon In Black Media