The Ebola Syndrome

This is one of those films I have had in my to-watch list for longer than this blog has been in existence, harking back to my Horror Movie love, rather than anything Asian-influenced.  It has quite the reputation, but I have always ignored it as out and out gore films do not really interest me.  What is more interesting it that it is directed by Herman Yau and stars the always great Anthony Wong – two people which always get good reviews here, and who are teamed up again in the NEXT film I want to talk about.  And the fact it was produced by our friend Mr Wong Jing… well that just adds an extra nuance. 

In “The Ebola Syndrome”, we follow the misadventures of outright loser Kai (Anthony Wong).  Before the opening credits we find him having sex with his Triad bosses wife, and when caught in the act, he proceeds to murder 3 people, and is about to murder a young girl, but is stopped before he can light the petrol he has doused her in.  He escapes to South Africa, and finds a job in a Chinese Restaurant.  The owners are aware of his past, and use him as a cheap dogsbody.  After 10 years things reach a head, when he joins his boss on a trip to a Zulu village that is in the grip of an Ebola outbreak whilst in the search to buy some cheap pork.  The ever-horny Kai decides to rape a dying native, and contracts the disease himself.  However, he is one of those rare individuals that does not actually succumb – after a bout of man ‘flu, he is it and healthy again, but a carrier of the disease.  He is bullied by his boss and his wife one time too many – he rapes the wife, kills them both, and then chops them up and serves them as Hamburgers in the restaurant.  This starts an outbreak of Ebola in Johannesburg, but Kai is not one to hang around – he finds the savings of his now deceased boss, and returns to Hong Kong, to continue his spreading of the disease.

Right, let’s just make this clear.  At face value, this is an exploitation film that covers all the bases – Rape, Racism, Cannibalism, Necrophilia, Food-Based Masturbation, Autopsies, and child peril.  I’ve probably missed a few taboos out.  It’s pretty graphic, and frankly not something that anyone other than the hard core gore/CAT III fans would actually want to see.  But it is also the blackest of comedies, and has a quite amazing central performance.  Oh, and for us sensitive Brits – several scenes of animal dismemberment – not a happy film for any live Frogs and Chickens!

I remember the furore over Ebola back in the late 1980’s – after the AIDS scare, but before SARS, this was the great flesh eating plague for darkest Africa which was going to destroy the world.  It never quite happened (although it does exist although outbreaks have really been quite small and limited to small villages in Africa and the odd laboratory accident).  The reality is here that whilst the film is using the cause célèbre for the poster, it really is a treatise on AIDS – its no accident that most of the infections come from the fact Kai just cannot keep his pants on.

Wong is utterly fantastic.  I have come at his career somewhat backwards – whilst he is now an elder statesman of the Hong Kong film industry – it really was not always that way.  He made his name in CAT III films like this, and has a large back catalogue of unsavoury characters.  Yet, even though his Kai is a loathsome and unkempt individual, Wong plays him with such Charisma, that you know the film just would not have worked at all with anyone else in the role.  In-between the moments of (at best) lewd and (more usually) repulsive behaviour, you actually find yourself feeling kind of sorry for this man – he is bullied by all and sundry, used and abused by those around him.  It does not go so far to make him sympathetic, but it does raise it above pantomime villain.  And you can just see the fun that he and Yau are having – knowing the off-the-cuff manner in which most Hong Kong cinema is made, you just know so much of this is either made up on the day of the shoot, or improvised.

If you can live with the graphic, over the top and unsavoury moments, then there is also a downside to Wong being such a powerful presence.  Any periods when he is not on screen, the film frankly slows to a crawl.  Any moments with the Hong Kong Police are just painful, and utterly lacking in any interest.  There is a sub-plot which involves the young girl who was doused in Petrol, who has grown up to be a Cabin Attendant.  She encounters Kai, and is overwhelmed by his odour, reminding her of what he did 10 years ago.  And despite it being bought up a number of times, not an awful lot is done with this whole idea – and has a pretty perfunctory conclusion during the final moments.  It is like the inventiveness of the first two thirds of the film has impacted on the time available to develop much of the original script.

So in the end, I enjoyed this film far more than I actually intended to.  Graphic gore movies are not usually my thing, and really I watched this in order to gauge the growth of both Wong and Yau.  I’ve seen far worse visually, but it was actually unusual in that it had a sensible progression of story.  Coupled with a brilliant and fun central performance, I am going to shock even myself and give this – Recommended!!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nekoneko says:

    I've never seen this one, although I've had the opportunity a couple of times over the years. Much like you, the “gore just for the sake of gore” school of film-making has never been anything I liked. (Give me a good ghost story over gory slashers or rapists any day…)

    Still, nice review, and I like your comparison to the AIDS epidemic… I never made that connection, even though I'd heard the plot before. 😉


  2. ElPeevio says:

    Thanks Neko. It is a film I knew well by reputation, but even though I am not adverse to a bit of exploitation, it sounded like something I would get nothing out of. But these CAT III films are an important part of HK Cinema, a last hurrah of freedom, before the Chinese Handover only a year after this film was released. More importantly, I wanted to have a look at Anthony Wong in his heyday, before he became the elder statesman. The biggest draw was to get a look at the work that Herman Yau made his name with, before he became a much more interesting Director. My next review is Yau's latest, and I can't think of anything further apart in terms of style and content.


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