“I’ll fuck up whoever busts my balls!” snarls the protagonist of Herman Yau’s notorious 1996 Cat III exploitation film Ebola Syndrome (伊波拉病毒), seemingly filled with internalised rage in a sense of oppression as a little guy continually at the mercy of bosses who exploit and belittle him. Then again, Kai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) is not a nice guy and his various crimes are less those of an emasculated man towards an unfair society than a sociopathic disregard for conventional human morality.
Even so, his first act of violence is a result of his attempt at petty class rebellion by sleeping with a mob boss’ wife only for the boss to come home and ritually humiliate him by ordering his wife to pee all over his treacherous underling before threatening to cut his bits off with a pair of secateurs. Kai, however, goes crazy and uses the shears to take out the boss, the associate, and the wife, pausing as he leaves to douse their terrified little girl in petrol in an ironic piece of foreshadowing only to be interrupted before he can light a flame. 10 years later in 1996, Kai is on the run working in a Chinese restaurant in Johannesburg where he is once again oppressed and belittled by the Taiwanese manager and his wife not to mention further displaced by the complicated racial politics of mid-90s South Africa.
A minor comment on colonial corruptions in the anxiety surrounding Hong Kong’s imminent transition, Kai and his boss Kei (Lo Meng) find themselves in a difficult position in facing discrimination from all sides. Needing meat for their restaurant, they decide to strike a deal with the local indigenous community after being insulted by a white butcher but on their arrival walk into some kind of ritual conducted over the bodies of numerous locals who each have bloody welts all over their skin. On meeting with the leader, the pair immediately rip him off while he plays a grim joke on them as they discover two human bodies in place of the pig carcasses they’d intended to buy before he returns to set them straight.
This early moment of foreshadowing has its own dark irony as Kai will eventually end up once again murdering three people he accuses of busting his balls before mincing them up and turning them into “African Char-sui Bao” hamburgers. By this point Kai is already a “super spreader” having unknowingly contracted the ebola virus after raping a near comatose indigenous woman at the waterside who vomited white liquid in his face as he climaxed. In another instance of cruel cosmic irony, Kai turns out to be one of small amount of people effectively immune recovering quickly from what seems like flu but almost certainly having infected Kei and his wife and through them anyone who ate the African Char-sui Bao which is how ebola winds up in the city and eventually travels all the way to Hong Kong after Kai cuts his losses and goes home to live the high life on Kei’s savings.
Yau does not hold back on the gore nor on the very real terror of the ravages of ebola as a doctor gruesomely dissects a human body remarking on the disintegration of its internal organs. At this point, Kai doesn’t know ebola’s what he has or that he’s passing it on but it’s unlikely he’d care. When the truth is finally revealed he runs anarchically through the streets with a meat cleaver shouting “ebola for everyone” and spitting at passersby as if taking his revenge against humanity itself. Yet he’s ultimately a wild animal trapped in civilised society caring for nothing other than the satisfaction of his immediate needs aside from his desperation to affirm his masculinity, not to be looked down on or bullied. We see him impassively chop up live frogs and witness the heads being torn off live chickens for others to drink their blood seeing him for what he is, an urban predator with no sense of conventional human value systems.
Even so, the film seems to suggest this breed of malicious selfishness and amorality cannot be exorcised from the contemporary society while the infection continues to spread exponentially, the film’s bleak conclusion implying that the innocent will continue to suffer while the systemic causes of the disease go unexamined. Then again, Yau approaches his material with absurdly dark humour that implies that this really is some sort of cosmic joke in which all you can really do is laugh at life’s immense cruelties.
Trailer (no subtitles)