October 17, 2006


Director Billy Tang Hin-sing says hi to Grady It's October which means that everyone and their dog is engaged in some kind of lame SPOOK-tacular stunt to celebrate this pagan, devil-worshipping, hell-born holiday. Never one to let lameness pass me by, I'm celebrating Halloween on Kaiju SPOOK-down with reviews of horror movies. Some of you may have seen these before. Some of them may be old news. But here they are, all in one place and ready for you to SPOOK them. And when I say "SPOOK" I mean "read". And, just a note, but this is more of an essay about these movies than a review. If you're in it for the plot, then bail out now because I'm giving away the endings.

Maybe he was having a nervous breakdown, otherwise how do you explain it? Starting as a competent yet hardly exciting director, Billy Tang Hin-sing appeared out of nowhere to direct a trilogy of pure urban terror unrivalled in its apocalyptic ferocity, and then went back to journeyman directing, seemingly with no regrets. His eight movies in the last four years show not the slightest hint of the gleeful perversity or rigidly deployed stylistics of his earlier work. His urban trilogy happened at a time of seeming political stasis in the HKSAR. People who could secure foreign passports had done so, and the rest had adopted a “wait and see” attitude towards the future. Unemployment was down, the economy was good, and Billy Tang was the black lizard at the base of the brain whispering, “Maybe this won’t work out, after all”.

The director of DOCTOR LAMB, RUN AND KILL (a scorched earth capitalist nightmare of urban living gone amock), and RED TO KILL (a cinematic transcription of the apocalypse with the HKSAR’s urban landscape standing in for the mind of a maniac) came from nowhere and went back to nowhere when he was done. These three movies are his living legacy, movies no one else could have made in any other country, at any other time.

After appearing in a martial arts movie called SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS in 1974, Billy Tang Hin-sing remained below English-speaker radar, presumably production managing and assistant directing his way around the film industry before his directorial debut in the generally forgettable Jet Li Goes America movie DRAGON FIGHT in 1988.

Rather than going on to direct another movie he again sunk out of sight, which leads one to believe that his directorial debut did not inspire confidence among investors. Four years later, Danny Lee and Kent Cheung Jat-si teamed up to film the true crime biopic of Lam Go-wan, a taxi driving serial killer. This was the first film for Kent Cheung’s new film production company, a company that went south three films later, sending Cheung into an economic hole that took him years to crawl out of. But that’s in the future. In 1992, Lee and Cheung brought on Billy Tang as a co-director (with Danny Lee) of their sleazie cheapie, and category III history was made.

DOCTOR LAMB DVD cover Much has been said about DOCTOR LAMB and it doesn’t need to be repeated here. However, it should be noted that it’s not the mutilations inflicted on his victims, or the depredations of the main character (a beautifully out-of-control Simon Yam) that shock the Western viewer, as much as it is the fact that Lam Go-wan was butchering prostitutes in a tiny three room apartment he shared with his entire extended family and everyone was so desperate not to ask questions that they never even noticed. The physical closeness of the Lam family was in direct contrast to the enormous emotional gulf that existed between them.

DOCTOR LAMB’s wild variations in tone are par for the course in HKSAR movies: slapstick comedy, police procedural, gory Shaw Brothers shocker. But like tuning into a distant radio station there is a dark place way down the dial we reach in some of Simon Yam’s solo set pieces that is more Billy Tang’s world than co-director Lee’s. The cop squad slapstick, the brutal interrogations, the shifting time frame - these tropes are all revisited in Danny Lee’s later works.

Lee, quite clearly, left the rough stuff up to Bloody Billy. These two men’s dueling visions - one a conflicted but dedicated believer in an ordered universe represented through dogged police work, the other a nihilist just begining to entertain his fascination with the violation of the human spirit - are locked into a directly oppostional relationship throughout the film. And the final scene with Lee and Yam makes it clear who wins: Danny Lee gazes into the abyss, only to find that the abyss is out at a discotheque and can't be reached. All a believer like Lee can do is walk away in disgusted defeat while Yam gibbers in his cell.


Lifting Kent Cheung and Simon Yam from DOCTOR LAMB, Bloody Billy’s urban nightmare came into sharper focus in the bluntly-titled RUN AND KILL the following year. Cheung plays the HKSAR everyman, making money, working hard, supporting his family: his adorable daughter, Pinky, and a wife who’s fed up with him and who humiliatingly strays from the marriage bed just long enough to pull someone else back into it with her. Cheung (also named Cheung in the film) reeling from her betrayal gets drunk and accidentally hires someone to kill her, pays them a deposit, passes out, and wakes up remembering nothing. The film comes on like a perky urban comedy, but by twenty minutes in all hell is breaking loose. A gang breaks into his house and via a series of high impact falls and two cleveage shots wife and lover are dead and Fatty Cheung’s life is spiraling out of control. From there he runs. Dashing desperately from one bad situation to another he comes to the end of the line with Fung, Simon Yam’s Vietnam veteran given to spontaneous nosebleeds and who slits throats like most of us wash our hands.

Bloody Billy wears his politics on his sleeve in RUN AND KILL. The site of Cheung’s deal with the devil is a trendy Lan Kwai Fong joint named 1997. The Hong Kongers in this film are out-of-control capitalists, buying and selling human life like so many tanks of propane. But Yam’s Fung is a different breed. He’s a nightmare Mainlander, straight out of the PRC’s blood-soaked past. He was in Vietnam, which is where committed revolutionaries (often the children of Communist party officials) went to fight against American imperialism during the confusion of the Cultural Revolution. They went unofficially and many were slaughtered, including Fung’s brother. Cheung believes in money, prosperity, and family. Fung believes in revenge, commitment to principles, and family. It’s nothing less than the PRC/HK cultural divide that dukes it out in RUN AND KILL. Later in the film a character comes on like Hong Kong, crying “I am only the middleman. I have done nothing. Why it’s a mess now?” A few seconds later she’s hitting the floor as bullets fly, paralyzed with fear.

Bloody Billy is a master of camerawork, and in RUN AND KILL he starts sharpening his chops. The film opens with a fixed, immobile camera, many conversations taking place in long, tightly-framed takes. This dead-on framing breaks into handheld hysteria and wild panning during the home invasion that leaves Cheung’s wife dead, the scene ending with an elegant fade out. In this third film he is already experimenting with geometric framing, lining up his characters in relationship to their environment. Movie screens, louvred windows, and doorways are used to carve up the frame into squares, rectangles and grids, a kind of cubist composition that will bear fruit in his next film.

Geography is all important to Bloody Billy in RUN AND KILL Nowhere is safe, the spirit of war infests every corner of the seemingly peaceful HKSAR: murder happens in homes, in movie theatres, in bars, and in factories. Over the movie hangs the ghost of Vietnam - it’s the conflict that shaped Fung’s character, it’s the place gang members go into hiding, and a Vietnamese refugee camp is a crucial location in the film.  Like fog, the murderous past of the PRC and Vietnam seep into every crack, filling up the empty spaces we thought of as safe. Characters run from the HKSAR to the PRC and back again. Doesn’t matter. Their sins follow them wherever they go.

“We have nothing in Hong Kong. Just lives.” one character says to Cheung. It takes the loss of everything he owns to make Cheung realize that despite all his materialist trappings, that’s all he has too.

Next up for Bloody Billy was the well-made but anticlimactic “Brother of Darkeness”. It contained his standard sense of workmanship, and marked the first time he worked with Money Lo and Lily Chung. Dealing with his normal theme of stress impacting on a family from within and without  it was little more than a gulp of fresh air before, nine months later, RED TO KILL was ripped from his brain. A traumatic story of the life of the mentally retarded in the HKSAR, RED TO KILL is celluloid shock treatment. A high-impact collision of fancy ideas and viscera.

Derek Yee first ground this territory through his camera in his first film, THE LUNATICS, in 1986 THE LUNATICS was a case of a socially engaged, concerned mind examining the fears of people living close to the mentally ill, the lack of money and understanding among higher ups in the Welfare Department, the thankless churn of social work, and the often tortured lives of the mentally ill themselves.Yee ended his movie with a note of hope,a recognition that concerned individuals will always step forward to fill the gap. 10 years later situations had hardly improved, the stigma of mental illness kept the mentally ill from being treated as human beings, and the system was handling a heavier case load worse. In 1984 audiences got the concerned social activist. In 1994, when the colony was prosperous and secure, they got the fevered, unhinged mind of Bloody Billy Tang. His is  an intellect with teeth, and rather than addressing fears, he exploited them.

RED TO KILLIn RED TO KILL, the HKSAR’s urban crudscape is kaledoscopically refracted through the camera lens into a Caligari nightmare of square-cut corridors teeming with the uncared for dregs of the HKSAR’s mental health system. Undiagnosed schizophrenics, the paranoid working class, and the mentally retarded, all warehoused in hulking concrete monoliths, their caretakers overloaded, underpaid and crazier than their charges.

The first ten minutes serve as a billboard that you’re now leaving moral territory, a double-barreled blast of moviemaking brio and twitchy homocidal impulse that no written description can ever really prepare you for. In one corner is a mother, eyes slit tight with paranoia, clutching her retarded kid and threatening to jump. In the other corner, in the same building, a woman in red is stalked by a jerking, sweating psychopath. With muscles ripped and rope-sized veins throbbing with venom he captures, kills and rapes her with the assistance of a squeaky toy. The music - Tangerine Dream synths, deep water sonar pings, raspy breathing - and the variable camera speeds clue us in early: we’re in mental territory. From here on in it’s a psychological free-for-all.

Billy Tang’s sickest and most subtle jokes are in this movie, as well as his most impressive cinematography. His brilliant mise en scene, sick joke shock edits, and precise geometric framing are all deployed to full effect. During a court scene, the passing of hours is depicted by two graceful blinks of the accused’s eyes. The plot often becomes secondary to the style, with the prowling camera and wide angle lenses taking in the triangulations of violated flesh in shockingly abstract arrangements that serve as their own statements. Humanity becomes a debatable point in this movie as the actors and the scenery serve the same agenda with much the same effect.

The plot involves a socially isolated social worker, Cheung Ka-lok (Money Lo), who takes responsibility for a retarded young woman, Ming Ming (Lily Chung), placing her in the Social Welfare Department Sheltered Workshop and Hostel, a light industry factory and dormitory located in a crumbling housing block. The first half of the movie is LEAN ON ME-inspired inspiration as Director Chan (Ben Ng), and Cheung help Ming Ming adjust to her new life in the hostel. She makes friends, learns to dance, jumps up and down, etc. But at night, the halls of the complex belong to the bogeyman, who whimpers and stumbles from floor to floor, dragging his over-muscled bulk behind him, searching for women dressed in red on which to vent his endless supply of homicidal energy. The other residents have formed a vigilante group to patrol their halls and they are starting to blame the mentally ill hostel residents for the crimes. As tensions build, humans arguing over their living arrangements and flinging groundless accusations back and forth, the bogeyman snuffles around just outside the light, picking off anyone stupid enough to stray after dark.

Cheung and Ming Ming become soul sisters, Cheung seeing something of her younger self in Ming Ming. And then the trap snaps shut. Ming Ming keeps blithely putting herself in the path of danger, and when it finally catches up with her there’s a nauseatinfg inevitability to it. From there on, it’s a bloody battle between Cheung and the rapist over Ming Ming’s heart. The rapist claims he wants to start a family with Ming Ming and marry her. Cheung knows Ming Ming can’t cope with this and she fights tooth and claw to keep it from happening. It’s like a traditional face-off between a suitor and his potential mother-in-law, and this triangle blurs the line between sex and mutilation so often that it quickly becomes irrelevant. By the end, sex and mutilation are one and the same.

Adding further complications to this bloody triangle is Billy’s Tang’s portrayal of the mentally retarded. He acknowledges their generally unacknowledged sexuality - most of them are, physically, adults. Few movies give the sexuality, self-mutilation, pain, horror, and genuine humiliation that can often go along with mental illness such centerstage attention. The welfare system is portrayed as being in a never ending state of flux: room mates are missing, the dead are carted about, people leave and never come back home, living situations are constantly adjusted and readjusted. Ming Ming is an adult in this film, and when the transient, joyless world of the welfare system is her only other option it makes the siren call of her tormentor that much more seductive.

Cheung’s motives are made just as suspect as the rapist's. Does she really care about Ming Ming or is she just looking for a human-sized pet to expend her mothering impulse on? Cheung’s and the rapist’s oppositional, yet equally violent, natures are furthered dileneated in the final showdown: the rapist walking through avalanches of soccer balls wearing a lycra Olympic outfit, swinging a sledgehammer, Cheung coming at him with an iron and fake flowers. It’s like watching a mother fight with a suitor over her daughter’s heart. Unfortunately, a translation problem in the subtitles has Cheung called a “bastard” over and over when in fact she’s being called a “bitch”, the traditional name for a woman who just won’t let a man have his way.

As for the actors, they launch into their deranged characterizations with adrenalized gusto. The rapist’s body turns out to be the movie’s greatest special effect as he turns into a blood-streaked killing machine. And Lily Chung turns in the performance of a lifetime. In terms of self-directed loathing, Ming Ming makes Carrie look restrained. By the time she takes a razor blade to her crotch the line between acting and being is crossed and she doesn’t look back once, off in a land of mondo brutality.

RED TO KILL is a movie that may have burned out its director. If ever a film plumbed the depths of darkness and horror and actually hit bottom, RED TO KILL is it. This is a movie that spirals down and down until it passes the point of no return. And then it doesn’t. The characters end up spinning out of control, dead, or locked in their own painful private worlds without comfort, or healing. Bloody Billy went on to direct a lot of workmanlike dreck, never again to reach the heights (or depths) of this urban trilogy during the course of which he mapped out the dark heart of the HKSAR. His later horror films like HAUNTED KARAOKE are fun, but his attitude towards horror is now distinctly slapstick and shows no sign of returning to darker waters. It’s too bad really. The world has lost a seriously disturbed director with a singular vision.

Billy Tang Hin-sing crafted a world where personal relations are poisonous, where families are more likely to do harm than anything else, where all distinction between sex and violence has been lost, and where his characters, traumatized by existence, run around sweating and crying out their pain, looking for all the world like candles melting down to a wick of pure hurt and hatred. We may have lost Bloody Billy, but his three films live on, and they’re just as upsetting to watch now as they ever were.

October 17, 2006 at 01:40 AM in Reviews | Permalink


Funny: I was considering renting Dr. Lamb recently but decided to wait and see. I guess I will now.

Posted by: Simon Abrams | Oct 17, 2006 6:32:12 AM

Run and Kill and Red to Kill are two of the most jaw-droppingly appalling films I have ever seen, and both are intensely well-made. I don't know that I could ever watch them again (especially Red to Kill which I intentionally avoided for years based on the subject matter) but I'm glad I saw them once at least.

Posted by: David Austin | Oct 17, 2006 8:08:56 AM


love the breakdown of Tang's essential works and they really are mot intelligent and valid movies than given credit for. I've been following his subsequent post Cat III output and they sure are nothing on the level of RUn and RED but there's something in there showing he still has it if he dares to go that road again. Still this was a specific era, doubt it'll be as free for all again.

Posted by: Kenneth | Oct 17, 2006 8:52:18 AM

After reading your essay about these movies I don´t think I will ever dare to see them.

I saw Dr Lamb way back when it was new and the movie disturbs me and makes me cringe to this day, whenever i think about it.
If these movies are worse/better than Dr Lamb I will probably never recover lol.

Posted by: Chu | Nov 2, 2006 3:50:31 PM

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