Sunday, December 9, 2018

Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema (2018)

The best part of the film- Anthony Wong
Calum Waddell's Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema is a really big mess of a film. Calling itself a look at the Hong Kong cinema rating that filled cinema screens with with sex and violence for adults, it is more a badly edited piece of film on film that is missing way too much  to be anything in the way of the whole story.

For those that don't know, Category III is the strictest rating for films in  Hong Kong. It was brought into existence in 1988 when the Mainland Chinese film THE MEN BEHIND THE SUN about Japanese atrocities in WW2 pushed the envelope with graphic violence that included a real cat being eaten by rats and the autopsy of an actual dead child. The need to protect audiences resulted in the new classification.  Some filmmakers embraced the rating and soon began turning out films like EBOLA SYNDROME, SEX AND ZEN, DR LAMB, RICKY OH, Johnnie To's ELECTION films and even Wong Kar Wai's HAPPY TOGETHER (which could show a normal gay relationship).

A mix of talking heads, the most notable being actor Anthony Wong, and clips from trailers (owing to copyright issues) the film tries to chart the course of the category from it's inception until today. Unfortunately the film is all over the place and other than really dealing with the films during the first ten years of the the rating's existence there isn't much here.

Part of problem is that the  film is severely lacking in filmmakers who have worked on films rated Category III. Aside from Wong, we get Josie Ho and Godfrey Ho so the stories we get are only from a limited perspective. We don't get any other important names such as Simon Yam (who broke through in DR LAMB and according to IMDB wanted nothing to do with the film), Herman Yau (who made some of the best know Cat III films didn't respond to requests-per IMDB), Johnnie To (who has made several films), or any of the other name filmmakers who have made films that fall into the rating. As a result what we learn is primarily limited to a specific time period and only certain films.

The talking head experts (director Daniel Chan, actor producer Bey Logan, Mike Hostench, CEO of Next Day James Mudge and a couple of others) are good but there is a sense that their interviews were severely cut down because they are so compact so as not to give any sense past the point discussed. Watching the film I had the feeling that director Calum Waddell didn't go too far afield in getting interview subjects, sticking close to people he knew, since there are so many other people he could have or should have talked to.

It all might have worked had the film not been so badly put together. What do I mean?  First the film doesn't really explain what most of the films are. What exactly are the films being talked about. What was pushing the envelope? While a couple of films such as EBOLA SYNDROME are explained, many films simply have their titles mentioned and are noted as having sex and/or violence. There is no discussion of plots or how they really fit into the history of the subject.  What were the films other than the exploitative elements? We don't know.

Worse the film makes an absolute mess of the history. The film talks about how the Shaw Brothers were important and really started the march to the creation of the category  but other than talking about KILLER SNAKES in detail (or what passes for detail in this film) and showing some posters of other titles it simply jumps to MEN BEHIND THE SUN and then things get lost.  What happened in the 14 years between SNAKES and MEN BEHIND THE SUN? It's not here.  There is no historical thread only bouncing between ideas. A discussion of Amy Yip leads and SEX AND ZEN it's sequels but then the film jumps back saying that before SEX AND ZEN were the EROTIC GHOST STORY films which mixed sex and horror which morphs into a discussion of Qi Shu and how good and actress she is, before talking about horror and then a talk with Anthony Wong and his films UNTOLD STORY and EBOLA SYNDROME. There is no sense of when the films came out of the progression of  release and upping the ante.

And there is limited discussion of any film that isn't exploitative. Yes there is a longish discussion of Wong Kar Wai's HAPPY TOGETHER, which got the classification because of it's gay subject matter, and some discussion of the more recent crime films, but a large number of films that don't fit the sex and over the top violence classifications are just not mentioned.

Somewhere about half way into the film we get a wobbly discussion of the hand over of Hong Kong to Mainland China which doesn't always seem tied to the films, the changes after the hand over and briefly how everyone is going to Beijing. As with much of what we see in the film the subjects are just thrown out there and floating around.

I apologize if that seems confused but it's because the film is even more confused. I know I left things out but so does the film. Part of the confusion is because of the arrangement of the material and part is because so much is missing (Look at the list of Cat III titles and you'll see how much is omitted or breezed over) . Outside of the Anthony Wong stories there isn't a lot of detail and we jump around time so the history and connections aren't clear.  Actually if you know the subject you can kind of sort of connect things up across the chasms of missing material, but I suspect if you were just walking in off the street you'd be lost.

I was shaking my head early on and I kept shaking it all the way through it. I also was talking to the film out loud asking it why certain bits were arranged as they were and asking why they were leaving other things out. While I will never claim to be an expert on the subject of Category III films, I do know enough to know that how this is put together doesn't work.

To be honest I'm not sure what I think of the film. I had been asked  if I knew anything about it few months ago by people who had heard mostly negative things about the film. As a result I went into the film expecting a horrific road accident. It's a road accident alright, I'm just not sure how bad it is.

Is it worth seeing? Not really. While there are some good stories in here, and Anthony Wong is funny but it really isn't enough to justify the loss of 85 minutes. That's time that would be better spent actually watching one of the films glossed over instead.


  1. Stephen Wilson will no doubt appear soon (like he normally does defending Waddle and then Waddell himself, a man who can't take any criticism whatsoever will call you a troll and ask if you can do any better.

  2. Waddell's commander in chief, Stephen Wilson will no doubt appear and call you a troll from saying such things made by his Prince Waddell, then Waddell (a man who can't take any criticism whatsoever) will make some smarmy remarks and ask if you can do any better.

  3. I was curious to see this but now won't bother, looks like you've saved me from wasting a hour and a half.