Movies On Fire: True Crime Sleaze

The next installment of the Movies On Fire examination of gonzo Hong Kong films looks at hyperviolent true crime exploitation films!


When Hong Kong came up with its Category III rating in the late 80’s, the given reason was to allow movies with artistic sensibilities but adult content to be shown in theaters, rather than banning them outright. It took savvy producers all of five minutes to figure out that this allowed them to make movies that showed more skin, more gangsters and more blood than ever before. What they unleashed was a perfect storm of sex/horror/triad movies that scorched eyeballs all over the world. But even among Category III movies, there are some flicks that are so horrifying, so brain boiling, so soul-scarring that when they’re over the auditorium cleaning crew has to come in and sweep up all the jaws off the floor. Oftentimes they’re beautifully shot and wonderfully acted but despite their commitment to artistic values, they are, quite frankly, insane. And one of the reasons they’re so skull-thumpingly nuts is that they’re based on true stories.

Tsui Hark was a pioneer in this field with his Dangerous Encounters - 1st Kind (1980) based on a newspaper account of a bunch of kids making bombs. Tsui Hark had them put the bombs in cinemas, added a sociopathic queen bee character, larded it with impaled cats and tortured mice and topped it off with about ten gallons of nihilism. The result? The film was subjected to extensive cuts and reshoots, ultimately banned and only recently made available in its original form. After the Category III rating materialized in 1988, filmmakers tried again with 1989’s Sentenced to Hang based on a real-life kidnap/murder case from the 60’s. It did well at the box office and a boom was born.

The two big dogs in this pit fight are Danny Lee & Billy Tang’s Dr. Lamb and Herman Yau’s The Untold Story, but back in the late 80’s and early 90’s everyone was doing nihilistic movies based on true stories. Jackie Chan was shooting dudes in the face in Crime Story, TF Mou was showing Japanese war crimes in hideous close-up in Men Behind the Sun. Ringo Lam was inspired by news reports of crime among schoolkids to make his harrowing School on Fire complete with teenaged hookers, violent beatdowns and a blaring, end-of-the-world bagpipe soundtrack. Lawrence Ah Mon was doing extensive field research on gangs and hookers to make his Queen of Temple Street and Gangs, two of the most savage indictments of humanity every made and Jacob Cheung was doing the same for folks living in squalid “cage” apartments in Cageman. All of them were rated Category III, but nothing can hold a candle to the sheer insanity of the true crime pictures.

Dr. Lamb was the first of Billy Tang’s “urban trilogy” which would come to include Run & Kill and Red to Kill. Dr. Lamb was based on the real-life serial killer, Lam Go-wan, a taxi driver who butchered four women in the apartment he shared with his family and was only caught when the local Quik Photo wondered where all these pictures of mutilated people were coming from. Danny Lee (The Killer) is a cop trying to torture a confession out of his suspect, and the whole world teeters on the brink of darkness while he looks into the abyss, and sees a lonely Simon Yam (in a career-making performance) gibbering at the bottom. Danny Lee would play a cop again in the based-on-a-true-crime Untold Story in which Anthony Wong played the real-life Demon Butcher of Macau, who became owner of a restaurant by slaughtering the original owner and his family and turning them into pork buns which he gleefully served to the cops investigating his crimes.

Run & Kill (1993) started to pull the movies away from actual true crimes and more towards “inspired by” true crimes, but the rage, depravity and sheer face-numbing horror stayed the same. R&K was a scorched earth capitalist nightmare of urban living gone amuck in which Simon Yam plays a deranged Vietnam vet who comes to Hong Kong, twitching and screaming, his nose dripping blood, to take revenge on the hapless sap who got his brother killed. Hundreds of murders and one four-year old burned to death in front of her helpless father later, things start to get really bad. The next year, Billy Tang tied off his trilogy with Red to Kill, a movie that plumbs the depths of human depravity, and actually touches bottom. The charming tale of a necrophiliac serial rapist stalking a school for retarded adults, it’s an amoral blowout of apocalyptic proportions in which the battle of the sexes gets enacted on the bodies of stabbed, slashed, terrorized and mutilated special needs kids.

1994 was also the same year that Simon Yam starred in the fun, fabulous, but truly wrong A Day Without Policeman. It was loosely (very loosely) based on what were known as the Big Circle robberies, in which Chinese criminals, many of whom had some Army training, took speedboats to Hong Kong, pulled out military grade hardware and conducted cowboy-style takedowns of jewelry stores in broad daylight, often blasting thousands of rounds of ammunition at cops in shootouts on jammed city streets, before hitting their boats and roaring away into the sunset. Day starts with Simon Yam playing a cop whose encounter with an AK-47-wielding gang has rendered him impotent (!) which leads to him losing his wife (!!) and then getting reassigned to a tiny police station on an outlying island with a population of about 30, where he struggles to get his penis working again (!!!). Needless to say, he’s a mess. And he becomes even more of a mess when a bunch of Big Circle strongarm bandits show up to avenge one of their buddies.

A Day Without Policeman has been descibred by critic Paul Fonoroff as “a non-stop orgy of murder and rape” and that about sums it up. But he’s leaving out the part where Simon Yam learns to be whole again via castration, where high calibre gunfights serve as couples therapy and where the sweetest thing a husband and wife can do together is kill thugs. For children of divorced parents everywhere, who always hoped mommy and daddy would get back together again, this is like a blood-drenched, high calibre dream come true. You thought mommy and daddy didn’t love each other anymore, but here they come — reeking of cordite, covered in grue, and with the gristle of a bad guy’s freshly-bitten-off nose stuck between their teeth — to tuck you into bed . Because even in the brutalist world of True Crime Sleaze, there’s always room for a little bit of love.