Color, 1996, 100 mins. 28 secs.
Directed by Herman Yau
Starring Anthony Wong, Wan Yeung-ing, Shing Fui-On, Angel Wong, Miu-Ying Chan
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), Discotek Media (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Illusions Unltd. (DVD) (Austria R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1)
The history of Hong Kong's infamous Category III films is peppered with dozens of jaw-dropping titles, especially from the rating classification's golden era in the 1990s. One that always pops up near the top of the list is Ebola Syndrome, one of the many films by director Herman Yau starring the fearless Anthony Wong -- a collaboration that stretches from the infamous The Untold Story to the 2017 semi-revival of the classic Cat-III aesthetic, The Sleep Curse. Here we get their wildly tasteless and shamelessly entertaining take on the contagion film, essentially playing as something like Outbreak or The Cassandra Crossing built around another completely unhinged Wong performance. Though it never ignited an Ebola exploitation wave, this was one hell of a foul-tempered entry in Yau's output that decade before he settled down into the more socially acceptable Troublesome Night supernatural film series.
In 1986, sweaty Hong Kong sex addict Ah Kai (Wong) gets busted by his boss having some afternoon delight with his wife, which leads to a violent beating, urination humiliation, threatened castration, death by mahjong table, and a tongue amputation. And that's just in the first five minutes. On the run from the law, Kai flees to South Africa where he gets a job at a restaurant and ends up doing a day trip by truck out into the savanna. After a run-in with a cheetah, he ends up running into a tribe dealing with a viral outbreak and, not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, rapes a woman infected with Ebola. Immune to any visible symptoms, he carries the contagion back to the restaurant and, thanks to a cannibalistic plot twist, becomes the epicenter of a deadly pandemic.
A word-of-mouth hit among fans of extreme HK cinema, Ebola Syndrome was a big gray market title once it hit laserdisc and VHS in Hong Kong in the mid-'90s; however, even the Category III version was censored by just over two minutes, with snips both quick and significant to scenes like the urination and tongue mutilation at the beginning, some head smashing, and most significantly, a protracted head-peeling autopsy scene that originally ran for an absurd length of time. A reel of that excised footage later turned up on DVD in 2007 for the U.S. release from Discotek Media, which contained the usual theatrical cut as the main feature (as with all of the Hong Kong video releases in any format). A composite version turned up soon after in Austria, which ran faster at PAL speed and marked the only way to see the film in a complete form for many years. That said, even with the cuts the film is still an insane rollercoaster ride and the perfect companion feature to The Untold Story thanks to Wong's go-for-broke performance (including a spectacular fluid-spitting finale with him running rampant with a meat cleaver in the streets of Hong Kong) and a similar mid-film plot twist involving a restaurant and human flesh. If anything this one amps up the shock value even higher with absurd glee, though there's less child trauma involved here if that's a deal breaker for you.
Proving that we truly live in a time of miracles, Vinegar Syndrome decided in all its mad glory to bring Ebola Syndrome back to the world as a lavish 2021 edition on 4K UHD(!) and Blu-ray, featuring a gorgeous scan from the original negative and completely uncut for the very first time for legit English-speaking consumption. All the cranium abuse, bodily functions, and corpse skinning are here completely intact, and the quality leap here is very impressive with fine film grain, excellent detail, and convincing color timing throughout. The UHD looks especially good, bringing a lot of punch to the more vibrant colors including some very robust red blood when it starts spraying. The DTS-HD MA Cantonese 2.0 mono track sounds great with no issues to report, complete with optional yellow English or English SDH subtitles capturing all of the profane dialogue perfectly. Ported over from the Discotek release are a restrained but sometimes very funny audio commentary with Yau and Wong (which alternates between English and Cantonese, with subtitles throughout) and a video interview featurette with the pair (15m39s), mostly focused on Yau. Between the two you get to find out about how the film evolved from a more straightforward violence and softcore sex project into an "anarchy" movie (i.e., nutso extreme black comedy), what Wong thinks about his significant follicle changes since then, the social commentary buried in the story (a Yau trademark), the decisions about how far to take the more button-pushing material, the changing trends in HK cinema and editorial styles, and the ins and outs of local censorship including the sometimes odd reasons for getting a Category III rating. However, Yau also turns up here for a new video interview (21m52s) looking back at '90s Hong Kong filmmaker, more about the three-tier rating system, a rebuttal to the theory that Ebola Syndrome as a spoof cat Category III films, his working relationship with director of photography Puccini Yu, his approach to action filmmaking including his triad films, and more. Yau also pops up for a brief intro to the film (35s) and an amusing "Cantonese with Dr. Yau" (12m4s) discussing the sometimes intricate (and occasionally lewd) challenges in translating the language to English subtitles, pointing out how some terms can even differ from one generation to the next. But that's not all! The film also comes with an enthusiastic new audio commentary by film scholar Samm Deighan, who notes how the film is close to her heart as the first Category III film she ever saw and notes the importance of having the cut footage reinstated here. She also goes into her love of the director and star, her thoughts on the various kinds of Category III cinema and the nihilistic worldview depicted in films like this, the permutations of HK crime films, the class and racial perspectives in Yau's cinema, the frequent anti-cop bias in these films (concurrent with some of them having underworld financing), and her absolutely understandable favorite plot device in the film. All of these extras are present on the Blu-ray, while the UHD retains only the commentaries so the film can enjoy an extremely maxed-out bit rate. The package also comes with an insert booklet featuring a primer on Yau's cinema by Ariel Esteban Cayer and a 2021 roundtable discussion with Cheng Yu Shing, Honkaz Fung, William Yuen, and Andy Willis about this film, its poor box office performance at the time, and the overall state of Hong Kong cinema.
Reviewed on November 25, 2021.