Directed by Herman Yau, Yi boh lai beng duk (Ebola Syndrome, 1996) is an infamous Hong Kong CAT III entry. Since 1988, Category III has been Hong Kong’s most restrictive certificate – “No persons younger than 18 years of age are permitted to rent, purchase, or watch this film in the cinema.” The content of the films are extremely graphic in nature with gory depictions of violence and/or are sexually explicit. It stars Anthony Wong, who also starred in Yau’s earlier, and equally vile (in a good way), Bat sin fan dim: Yan yuk cha siu bau (The Untold Story, 1993). Kai San (Wong) is the most despicable human being you could hope not to meet – a perverted, violent, demented scumbag who has no qualms of raping and murdering.
Kai contracts the Ebola virus. This fatal disease dissolves the internal organs, causing the victim to bleed both internally and externally, with other symptoms including fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. With no cure, death from massive blood loss occurs during the second week of infection. However, Kai just so happens to be one in ten million immune to the lethal disease, and unbeknownst to him, he becomes a carrier, spreading it around to anyone who is exposed to his bodily fluids – blood, saliva, and semen. The film is as disgusting and mean spirited as expected, although black as coal humour is employed throughout these horrid proceedings.
In the setting of Hong Kong in 1986, the gripping and shocking opening sequence depicts Kai being caught by his mob boss with his wife in a compromising position. Kai brutally massacres both of them, and his boss’s henchmen, then pours petrol all over the couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Lily. Before he gets the chance to set her alight though, a concerned neighbour interrupts him by walking in, and Kai runs out.
Flashing forwards to present day: Kai has been on the run ever since, and has relocated, hiding out in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has started a new life working as a chef in a Taiwanese owned restaurant. His boss’s wife, Ling (Lu Cheung), is a mean person who constantly picks on Kai. The grown up Lily (Wong Tsui-ling) is now working as a flight attendant, and she just so happens, maybe in a matter of fate intervening, to have a stopover in Johannesburg. She goes to the restaurant with her boyfriend and two friends, who are all co-workers, and although she does not recognize Kai from his appearance, she does remember his scent, as his smell reminds her of her traumatic ordeal that makes her feel sick and brings on flashbacks, and later that night, she has a nightmare of the tragic event.
The next day, Kai goes on a trip with his boss, Kei (Meng Lo). They drive a pickup truck to the South African outback to visit a native Zulu tribe to buy some cheap pig meat for the restaurant. This is set up in an earlier scene as Kei’s usual supplier, a local butcher, is charging him too much. When they get there, they witness some kind of strange ritual in the curing of the tribe’s sick people. When a herd of elephants walk out into the road on their way back, Kai crashes the pickup into a tree. When they get into an argument, Kai gets out and walks off, leaving Kei to fix the vehicle.
Kai comes across one of the tribe’s Zulu women, who he spotted on the way there. She falls to the ground as if fainting, Kai runs over to her, and seeing this is an opportunity, he rapes her while she is unconscious. She then goes into convulsions, but Kai cannot pull out, and she vomits all over his face. In order to break free, Kai reaches for a nearby rock, and repeatedly caves her face in until she is dead. When Kai gets back to the pickup, Kei has fixed it, and they make their way back to the restaurant. Kai starts to get sick coming down with a high fever, but suddenly it stops. Outbreak mayhem ensures, all the way back to Hong Kong, with Lily in pursuit, convinced Kai is the man who butchered her family.
This certainly lives up to its notorious reputation, as gruesome sequences of violence and depravity abound in this one sick puppy. Kai is a deeply unpleasant, crazed and perverse character, yet we are in his company for most of the runtime, as he is the central player that moves the narrative along. Having such an unlikable character as the lead should not work, as there is no way we can identify with him; and if anyone can, then they need serious help. Kai is an angry and hateful man, who holds a grudge against anybody he feels has “bullied” him, and he commits the most heinous and repellent acts. Yet this works very well due to Wong’s magnificent charisma, with a powerhouse performance bordering on the comical that helps to keep us invested in his character’s fucked up story.
The violence and other disgusting scenes are deliberately presented in an over the top fashion that gels with the crazy nature of the plot. Never once though does it feel forced – violence for the sake of violence – as it is all instrumental to the story and in aiding Anthony Wong’s blistering portrayal of the maniac Kai, which the actor seems to relish with much gusto in showing what a perverted and psychopathic shitbag he really is.
As unashamedly sleazy as it all is, and as unflinching as the violence is with fantastic special make-up effects, the blacker than black comedy sprinkled throughout is handled so cleverly that it makes us laugh at the most inappropriate moments. So much so, that it may force you to ask yourself what kind of person you are to be laughing at such horrific displays of sub-human abomination. At the same time though, this never takes away the seriousness of the ghastly situations, as the characters themselves react with natural terror. Well researched, the realistically depicted symptoms of the Ebola victims and their suffering make for the film’s most disturbing elements.
Ebola Syndrome is highly entertaining. From Wong’s engaging performance, the zaniness of the storyline with what is essentially distasteful subject matter, the revolting imagery, to the pitch perfect timed dark humour; it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of exploitation from beginning to end.