Forgotten Classics: Billy Tang's Run and Kill (1993) and the strange world of Category 3 films
The Category 3 label on Hong Kong films can be somewhat of a poisoned chalice for some films, with the rating alienating the films audience with expectations of graphic violence or pornographic scenes. A lot of the films categorised as Category 3 are deserving of this status, but there are some that can be considered worthwhile and others than can truly be called classics, that transcend their exploitation roots and deliver excellent entertainment. Films like Ringo Lam’s School on Fire (1988), Kirk Wong’s Crime Story (1993) or Billy Tang’s Run and Kill (1993) fit into this category, unfairly looked down upon even though they all rise above their rating.
The Category 3 rating was implemented in 1988, with the Hong Kong government’s introduction of a rating system. There was Category 1, suitable for all, Category 2 which was not suitable for children (this was replaced in 1995 by the Category 2A and 2 B ratings) and then Category 3 which were strictly for people 18 and over.
There had of course been adult films before, with extreme scenes of violence. Films such as the nihilistic Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980), and others such as the amusing horror film Devil Fetus (1983) and the cult classic Seventh Curse (1986). These films contained between them violent and gory scenes, rape and animal cruelty, causing the films to be heavily cut before release. After the implementation of the ratings system these films were retroactively rebranded with the Category 3 rating. In some cases this has helped their reputation, making them more famous than they would otherwise be. Certainly films like Seeding of a Ghost (1983) and The Rape After (1986) have no real cinematic value other than curiosity.
In the early 1990’s a lot of production companies realised the popularity of Category 3 films and ended up making similar products. With the success of Michael Mak’s Sex and Zen (1991), probably one of the most famous Category 3 films, a number of copycat films were released. Titles like Raped by an Angel (1993) and A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994) as well as Sex and Zen’s own two sequels, were released in short succession.
Category 3 is not only relegated to soft core sex romps. Although a number of Category 3 films include nudity and violence, they sometimes have interesting plots and characters and feature great performances by some of the best actors on Hong Kong. There are a number of actors who are synonymous with Category 3, like Simon Yam, Anthony Wong and Elvis Tsui. The three of them have done some of their best work under the Category 3 banner. Admittedly they have also done their worst.
Some of the best examples of Category 3 films are based on true crime stories. The excellent Sentenced to Hang (1993), featuring three great lead performances from Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Elvis Tsui and Run and Kill’s lead actor Kent Cheng. The film was based on the real life case The Strange Case of the Three Wolves, which was the last case in Hong Kong to carry out the death penalty.
There is also the excellent serial killer thriller Dr Lamb (1992), which stars Simon Yam as a murderous taxi driver. The film carries with it all the violence and sex you would come to expect from a Category 3 film, but also has a terrific central performance from Yam as the deranged murderer. The film was influenced by the real life murderer Lam Kwok-wai, who had murdered 4 people in the early 1980’s. He gained the name of The Jars Murderer, which was due to Lam’s predilection of keeping his victims sexual organs in containers, which the film gruesomely recreates.
Due to its true recreation of Triad rituals, Kirk Wong’s Crime Story which starred Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan, also ended up with a Category 3 label. Other than this there is nothing evident in the film that you wouldn’t see in other Hong Kong action films of the time. The film is more serious than typical Jackie Chan films and was based on the true life kidnapping of Teddy Wang, a Chinese businessman. Crime Story isn’t the only films to be stamped with the Category 3 label due to its depiction of the Triad lifestyle. Action classics like Runaway Blues (1989) have also been stamped with the rating, a film which is no more violent than some other gangster films of the time, certainly less so than John Woo’s The Killer (1989).A certain amount of Johnnie To films have garnered this rating, namely Election (2005) and its sequel Election 2 (2006) which show the Triad lifestyle in great detail, as well as the uncut version of Exiled (2006), which had Simon Yam using a special Triad handshake. This scene alone was enough to gain a Category 3 rating. The Hong Kong version had this scene removed in order to garner a Category 2 rating.
One of the most famous Category 3 films is Herman Yau’s The Untold Story (1993) A.K.A. The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story. It can be quite an upsetting watch containing scenes of extreme violence, cannibalism, torture, rape, sex and extreme close ups of Anthony Wong’s sweaty face. One of the more surprising aspects of the films is a lot of it is played for laughs, with the scenes between Danny Lee and his team of cops being darkly comic. The film is based on a real life crime that took place in Macau which involved the massacre of a family. The cannibalism part of the story is unfounded and based on the fact that not all the body parts of the victims were recovered. This plays into the films favour, with multiple scenes of bodies being dismembered and put through the mincer. They are then fed to the unsuspecting police who are looking for the missing people. Even though rated Category 3, The Untold Story is still recognised as a genre classic and went on to gain Anthony Wong the best actor award at the Hong Kong film awards that year.
During this time director Billy Tang went on to direct what is undoubtedly his finest film, Run and Kill. The film contains the requisite amount of violence and sex which qualifies it straight away for Category 3 status. In the final third of the film it goes to extremes, and could turn off those without a strong stomach. For those with the constituency for exploitation cinema, they are in for a great time.
The film follows the exploits of Fatty Cheung, played by the ever dependable Kent Cheng. Fatty is a businessman who comes home one day to find his wife cheating on him. Leaving to drown his sorrows, he mistakenly puts out a hit on his wife whilst drunk. From this things escalate, getting progressively worse for Fatty Cheung as the film goes on. He stupidly ends up involving a mainland group of gangsters to help him out, one of which is Simon Yam in a truly crazed performance. The gang go on to make things worse and help lead Fatty down a path of no return. Even the police, led by the most famous of Hong Kong cops Danny Lee, offer no assistance. The finale involves all manner of violence, one scene even involving a child being set on fire. Things only get worse from then on.
Billy Tang is able to combine the more extreme elements with the absurd, with a number of scenes even being comical. The finale of the film is action packed, with Simon Yam chasing poor Kent Cheng around an old factory. It is only slightly let down by some poor special effects work, but at least in this day in age of overused CGI it is a relief to have practical effects on show, even if they aren’t at their best.
This was director Billy Tang’s fourth feature film as director. He started out with the rape revenge movie Vengeance is Mine (1988), which he co-directed alongside Lee Chi-Ngai. The film starred Rosamund Kwan as a young nurse who is raped multiple times and also faces a number of murder attempts until she decides to take the law into her own hands. She is ably supported in the film by Pat Ha, who starred in the equally depressing On the Run (1988) in the same year. Vengeance is Mine shares a lot in common with Lam Nai-Choi’s Her Vengeance (1988), released the same year. Her Vengeance is more watchable due to the extremes it goes to, earning the category 3 rating, and having an overall better cast.
He would follow this up with his first solo directing credit on Dragon Fight (1989) a mediocre action drama that is mainly noteworthy for starring two of the biggest Hong Kong stars in the business in early roles, Jet Li and Chow Sing Chi. Fans of either of the two will be sadly disappointed with Dragon Fight, as neither get to show off their talents. Chow Sing Chi is in a dramatic role and can be quite annoying whereas Jet Li does take part in the films fight scenes, although they are poor by his usual standards.
Before he would go on to direct Run to Kill he would make a number of television movies such as Yesterday Today & Tomorrow (1990) which teamed him up with Melvin Wong whom he would work with on Run to Kill. He would also produce the Hong Kong Criminal Archives series of films, two of which he also directed, Hong Kong Criminal Archives – Gang AK47 (1992) and Hong Kong Criminal Archives – Eight Drug Dealers (1992).
One of the television films in the series he produced was Hong Kong Criminal Archives – Female Butcher (1991), which was an earlier version of the story Dr Lamb was based on, a film Tang would go on to co-direct with Danny Lee the following year. Coincidentally both films starred Simon Yam as the lead character.
Tang would continue to shock Hong Kong audiences by making further entries under the Category 3 banner and would follow up Run and Kill with the even more extreme Red to Kill (1994), starring Ben Ng as a caring teacher who moonlights as a crazed rapist. Red to Kill is a real test of endurance for even hardened Hong Kong cinema fans, although if you have the stomach for film of this type it shouldn’t be missed.
Throughout the nineties he would work on a number of different genre fare with varying degrees of success. He would work again with Simon Yam on the sadly lacklustre Street Angels (1996), which was produced as a cash-in on the recent Young and Dangerous (1996) success. Produced by Manfred Wong who wrote the majority of the Young and Dangerous series, the film does feature some good performances, mainly from Simon Yam and Elvis Tsui, while the film’s star Chingamy Yau doing her usual non acting. Shu Qi makes an impression, although this is more to due to her displays of nudity than any acting.
Tang had also directed another Young and Dangerous rip off in the same year just prior to Street Angels. Sexy and Dangerous (1996) was produced by Wong Jing, who produced the Young and Dangerous series. It is only slightly better than Street Angels, mainly due to an excellent supporting turn from Francis Ng. Both of these films seem to strive to be Category 3 films, but just didn’t quite make it, even with their extreme violence and scenes of nudity.
There was worse to come, with him directing the terrible Web of Deception (1997), the equally poor Haunted Karaoke (1997) and the only slightly better Chinese Midnight Express (1997), which at least pretends to be a real film by having better than usual production values and having Tony Leung Chi-Wai as the lead.
He rounded out the nineties by teaming up once again with Simon Yam on the Triad drama Casino (1998), another category 3 film based on a true crime story. Unfortunately Tang’s return to Category 3 film making doesn’t have the extreme pleasures of Run to Kill or even Red to Kill, with Casino being an extremely slow moving and boring Triad drama that’s further let down by its apparent lack of budget.
Moving into the 2000’s he would go on to direct a number of forgettable movies such as Dial D for Demons (2000), Raped by an Angel 5: The Final Judgement (2000) and Devil Touch (2002). None of these films really have anything worthwhile to recommend. His most recent credit is for directing the mainland china production Death Trip (2015).
Kent Cheng relishes his chance at a leading role. Due to his looks and demeanour, the viewer can’t help feeling sorry for him, as he is continually put through the ringer. He gets a chance to convey multiple emotions throughout and even gets a chance to take part in a number of action scenes, surprising considering his size. He has been in better films but this is definitely one of his better roles, and the fact that it is a Category 3 exploitation film doesn’t faze him.
From the mid 1970’s, Cheng has appeared in around 130 films. A lot of these films vary in quality, with some being beneath him as a performer, but as a character actor, Cheng was probably glad of the work.
Usually cast in supporting roles, he always gives films his all, sometimes even overshadowing the films lead star. Hong Kong film fans will probably recognise his mostly from his role as Butcher Wing in Once Upon a Time in China (1991), a role made famous by Sammo Hung in the Magnificent Butcher (1978). He returned once again to the character in Once Upon a Time in China 5 (1994).
Though routinely cast as a supporting player, Cheng has had a number of leading roles throughout his career, such as Kirk Wong’s Lifeline Express (1984), starring alongside Teddy Robin Kwan and also the drama Why Me? (1985), which was also his second film as director.
He would continue to direct throughout the remainder of the 1980’s and the start of the 1990’s. The best of his films as director are the Andy Lau starring Dragon in Jail (1990) and wacky action adventure The Fortune Code (1990) which also starred Andy Lau alongside a host of other famous Hong Kong stars, including Sammo Hung, Alan Tam, Anita Mui, Max Mok, Michael Miu, Eric Tsang, Shing Fui-On and Kent Cheng himself.
Cheng also starred in a number of Category 3 films before and after Run and Kill. He was one of the leads in the already mentioned Sentenced to Hang, moving on to appear in Sex and Zen then he shared the screen with his two Run and Kill co-stars, Danny Lee and Simon Yam in Dr Lamb. After Run and Kill he would continue with Category 3 films, co-starring with Jackie Chan in the excellent Crime Story and then playing a cop once again in The Kidnap of Wong Chak Fai (1993), where he gives another memorable performance. He would also work again with director Billy Tang and Simon Yam on Casino.
Moving into the 2000’s Cheng cut down on his acting work but still made occasional appearances, most recently making an appearance in the Wilson Yip movies Flash Point (2007) Ip Man 2 (2010) and Ip Man 3 (2016).
Simon Yam adds another crazed performance to his C.V. with his role as the increasingly volatile Ching Fung. He has played a number of similar roles throughout his career. Ching Fung is definitely on a par with his role in Dr Lamb, with his character getting more violent as the film progresses with him killing old women and even children. He also appears to be superhuman with Ching Fung taking a lot of punishment, even being set on fire at one point. Yam doesn’t make an appearance until around the forty minute mark, almost stealing the film from its lead. He shows up with the rest of his gang to initially help Fatty Cheng, before becoming the films main antagonist.
One of Hong Kong cinema’s most popular stars, Simon Yam is also famous for seemingly taking on any role that is offered to him. It would take too long to go through every film in his filmography. His acting career started in the last 1970’s making a number of small appearances throughout the early 1980’s, with his role gradually getting larger and starring in more high profile films. Some of his more memorable films from the late 1980’s would be Yuen Woo Ping’s Tiger Cage (1988), and Chinese Cop Out (1989) where he would co-star with his Run and Kill co-star Melvin Wong.
One of his most famous roles would be the hitman Luke in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990), a role initially earmarked for Chow Yun Fat. Getting a chance to play the prototype John Woo hero role, Yam cuts quite the figure and is easily one of the best things in the film, no easy feat considering he is acting alongside Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Waise Lee and Jacky Cheung.
He would follow this up with a number of leading and supporting roles such as Killer’s Romance (1990), a London set remake of the famous Manga Crying Freeman and Sea Wolves (1991), the seventh part in the In the Line of Duty series.
It wouldn’t be until the start of the 1990’s that Yam would start appearing in more extreme Category 3 films, the first of these being the forgettable Hong Kong Gigolo (1990), starring alongside the underrated Alex Man. In the same year he would star in the equally forgettable Gigolo and Whore (1991). He would then go on to act in two of the more famous Hong Kong Category 3 movies, Dr Lamb and the infamous Naked Killer (1992), which unfortunately doesn’t live up to its reputation.
This would be par for the course for Simon Yam throughout the years as he would repeatedly star in films beneath his talents. There are some bright spots throughout, especially Ringo Lam's Full Contact (1992) where he plays the overly flamboyant villain and even a number of his Category 3 films are standouts such as Danny Lee’s Twist (1995) and the much later Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006), both directed by Johnnie To.
In matter of fact most of his collaborations with Johnnie To are a standout and feature some of his best work. His association began with Johnnie To in his production of Expect the Unexpected (1998), which is one of the best crime thrillers to come from Hong Kong in the late 1990’s. He would follow this up by acting in the highly regarded The Mission (1999) then on to the wild action thriller Fulltime Killer (2001). This association between the two has continued with Yam appearing in other To productions such as PTU (2003), Triangle (2007) and Vengeance (2009) amongst others.
Yam hasn’t just been limited to Hong Kong films, making a small appearance in the Hollywood production of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (2003), although he was wasted in what was a throwaway role. Fans of Hong Kong cinema may be interested to note that Richard Ng and Terence Yin also make appearances in the film. More recently he acted in Korean thriller The Thieves (2012), which comes closest to a Hong Kong action movie outside of Hong Kong.
Yam has also recently turned his hand to directing, directing a segment of the anthology horror film Tales from the Dark 1 (2013). He was in good company with the other two segments of the film being directed by Lee Chi-Ngai and Fruit Chan.
That guy that plays Cops, Danny Lee, has a co-starring role in Run and Kill as Officer Man. His role only amounts to an extended cameo this time round. Unlike some of his other cop roles, his character in Run and Kill is pretty ineffective and doesn’t rush in to save the day, with Kent Cheng having to deal with things on his own. He would play a similar cop role the same year in other Category 3 thrillers, the excellent Love to Kill (1993) and The Untold Story, both of which he co-starred along with Anthony Wong.
Lee is probably most famous in the west for his work with Ringo Lam on City on Fire (1987) and John Woo’s The Killer (1989). He has however starred in a number of under-appreciated Hong Kong movies that have largely gone unnoticed in the West. For every well known film like Organised Crime & Triad Bureau (1994), there are films like Fearless Match (1994) and Walk In (1997) that have never had DVD releases outside of China.
Lee has like a number of Hong Kong actors starred in his fair share of stinkers. Staying in Category 3 territory, he made the shot on video Water Tank Murder Mystery (1994) and in the same year Portrait of a Serial Rapist (1994), a far cry from the stellar work he done with John Woo, Kirk Wong and Ringo Lam.
As the 2000’s began, Lee had cut back on leading roles although he still made a number of decent films throughout, one of which is the excellent Shark Busters (2002), teaming him up once again with his Untold Story director Herman Yau, making this there sixth collaboration. They would work again on the more recent Fatal Move (2008), an ill advised attempt to cash in on SPL (2005) which Herman Yau produced. Fatal Move not surprisingly was stamped with a Category 3 rating.
During his acting career, Danny Lee also managed to direct around ten films. The best of these are undoubtedly The Law Enforcer (1986), a cop drama with great performances and hard hitting violence and Dr Lamb which he co-directed with Run and Kill director Billy Tang.
He was also partly responsible for giving Chow Sing Chi some of his earlier hits, producing and co-starring with him in Final Justice (1988) then producing his other films Unmatchable Match (1990), Legend of the Dragon (1991), which Lee also directed and lastly The Magnificent Scoundrels (1991). It is reported that Lee and Chow Sing Chi had a falling out over Chow not thanking Lee in his acceptance speech when he won best actor at the Hong Kong Movie Awards.
Rounding out the cast is the charismatic Melvin Wong, who sadly doesn’t get much to do this time round. Appearing in Hong Kong films since the mid 1970’s, he has been better used in films such as Finger on Trigger (1984), a sadly overlooked Hong Kong action movie that co-starred Stanley Fung.
He would show up in a number of authoritative roles throughout the years, usually playing the Superintendant like his roles in Yes, Madam (1985), Heart of the Dragon (1985) and Righting Wrongs (1986). In the case of Righting Wrongs this role would sometimes be turned on its head with him turning out to be the villain of the piece.
Like his co-stars, Wong acted in a number of Category 3 films, some noticeably better than others. Before Run and Kill, he acted in the heroic bloodshed movie Heart of Danger (1991), Life is a Bet (1992), The Pearl of Oriental (1992), Vietnamese Lady (1992) all in the same year. None of these films unfortunately have anything to recommend other than curiosity value.
In 1996 Wong obtained a law degree from the University of London and now devotes most of his time as a member of the Hong Kong Bar although up until 2000 he still managed to fit in some film and television appearances. Although Wong wasn’t the best actor to emerge from Hong Kong, his absence is felt.
Run and Kill was produced by Kimmy Suen Ging-On. To date he has only produced 11 films, with his first four films, Daughter of Darkness (1993), Run and Kill, Red to Kill and Brother of Darkness (1994) all being labelled Category 3. Other than Run and Kill and Red to Kill, the majority of his films are forgettable, with even his re-teaming with Billy Tang on Web of Deception (1997) being sub-par.
Scriptwriter Bryan Chang Wai-Hung has been slightly more prolific, also working as a producer and director during his career. His first film as writer was on the heroic bloodshed film Set Me Free (1988), an early film from director Raymond Lee. Starring Alex Man, Cecilia Yip and a young looking Lau Ching Wan, the film unfortunately wasn’t a financial success, which has made it harder to track down than other better know features.
After Set Me Free he went on to write Close Escape (1989), a martial arts melodrama headlined by an early performance from Hong Kong superstar Aaron Kwok. Co-starring Max Mok, Yukari Oshima, Michael Miu and Dick Wei, the film is lacklustre but does have a number of excellent fight scenes, the best of these being between Oshima and Wei.
Chang followed these up with a much better example of Hong Kong action cinema, A Fiery Family (1989), although the quality of the film has more to do with the performers and the action sequences than the script. Starring the terrific Norman Chu in the lead and backed up by Gordon Liu and Lo Lieh in supporting roles, A Fiery Family should please most fans of Hong Kong action films.
He would work again with Set Me Free director Raymond Lee on Blue Lightning (1991), a decent murder mystery that stars Run and Kill actor Danny Lee as well as Tony Leung Ka-Fai. He then went on to write the true crime tale Running on Empty (1991), based on the Han Seng Bank Robbery in 1975, where robbers got away with around seven million dollars.
He followed up his work on Run and Kill with the forgettable horror film Endless Nightmare, then went on to write the cheap heroic bloodshed movie The Other Side of the Sea (1994), starring the beautiful Michelle Reis.
His next two films as writer, After the Crescent (1997) and Among the Stars (2000) also saw Chang on directing duties. Other than City of Desire (2001), the remainder of his films he worked on as writer also had him carrying out directing work, with the film And Also the Eclipse (2004) and a segment of A Decade of Love (2008). After The Other Side of the Sea, his films all fit under the art house category. This isn’t always a problem, but the films Chang worked on in this period border on the pretentious.
Action directing was undertaken by Huang Pei-Chih and Chan Shiu-Wa. Although Run and Kill is not primarily an action movie, there are still a number of extremely violent action scenes in the second half of the film, with the violence being more akin to what would appear in a horror film than an action thriller.
Huang had been working in the Hong Kong film industry since the early 1970’s, working as action director/choreographer on a number of films produced by Shaw Brothers. He also acted in a lot of the films that he was action directing, but also appeared for other directors as well, acting in over 150 films. Some of the best of these are Chor Yuen’s Clan’s of Intrigue (1977), Sun Chung’s The Avenging Eagle (1978) and the Killer Constable (1980). His career as an action director was put on hold in the mid eighties with the film producing arm of Shaw Brothers being reduced, with his last film of that decade being The Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre (1984).
Huang didn’t work on a feature film for almost a decade with Run and Kill in 1993 being his return. After that he only worked on another 4 films , Red to Kill and Brother of Darkness were both for Billy Tang then the following year he worked on Midnight Caller (1995) and Ghost House – A True Story (1995), both of which are a far cry from the work he was putting out in his Shaw Brothers days.
Chan Shiu-Wa isn’t as prolific as Huang Pei-Chih, only working as action director on around 7 films, the first of these being Run and Kill. He had been working as an actor since the early 1980’s, mainly in small roles, and can be spotted in films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. He followed up Run and Kill with Daughter of Darkness before working with Billy Tang again on Red to Kill. The remainder of his filmography is forgettable, with his final credit as action director being the film Scorpio (1996), which seems to have been made to have thinly veiled caricatures of directors Wong Kar Wai and Wong Jing in the film. Definitely one to miss.