The golden era of Hong Kong cinema—1980 through the mid-1990s—coincided with the peak of the Hong Kong horror genre. At first glance, Hong Kong horror movies might seem to reflect the industry’s—and territory’s—desire to make money at any cost. But the collection of a dozen essays in Hong Kong Horror Cinema show that this was far from the case.
While Hong Kong horror films include ghost stories, slasher tales, and true crime (there’s a chapter devoted to cannibalism), this informative anthology portrays Hong Kong horror movies as particularly sympathetic to women’s rights, the hardships of the working class, and Hong Kong’s not-so-certain future—reflective, in other words, of the most pressing social and political issues of that era.
The rise of horror movies coincided with Hong Kong women gaining more rights than they’d had a decade earlier when polygamy was finally outlawed in 1971. But these rights didn’t come easily. Filmmakers however used horror movies to show this inequality. Despite some seemingly mysogynistic Hong Kong slasher movies from the 1980s and 90s that exploit violence against women, many of the contributors argue that horror filmmakers aimed to give voice to the marginalized, including women.
One of the most popular ways to show women’s equality in film was through the sub-genre of ghost stories, traditionally popular and derived from Chinese folktales. They differ from western horror movies, which typically center around slashers or monsters that are very much alive. They also differ from movies in the mainland, as the subject of ghosts has been banned in China for decades. As Felicia Chan explains in her chapter, the mainland’s “predisposition for social realism mandates a ban on the depiction of the supernatural in films.”
Ghost stories in Hong Kong gained popularity in the 1950s, earlier than other types of horror flicks, and Raymond Tsang writes about them in the first chapter of this book. Ghosts in Hong Kong film are traditionally depicted as women—and often young at that. According to Tsang, the ghost stories of the 1950s were used to criticize feudalism, arranged marriage, and traditional values like superstitions and Confucianism, all of which kept women down.
As for the working class and politics, many horror films take place in low income areas in Kowloon and parts of the New Territories, rather than the more wealthy in Hong Kong Island. The 1980s and first half of the 1990s had been a time of social mobility but not everyone had moved up the socio-economic ladder. The contributors argue that horror films from this era show this inequality by focusing on marginalized characters like taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and prostitutes, to name a few.
Social issues are most apparent in Category III movies, a classification that was introduced in 1988 to warn viewers that gore, sex, and violence would be present in these films. In his chapter, Andy Willis writes that Category III horror films serve as social commentary about “a hyper-extenuated version of raw capitalism, and where the economic structures seem almost designed to leave behind those who cannot contribute to its success.”
Herman Yau is one of the horror directors to appear in multiple chapters of the book. He directed ghost stories, slasher flicks, and other Category III ratings during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. Yau, who earned a PhD with a dissertation on the history of Hong Kong film censorship, might not have the international renown of other Hong Kong directors like Wong Kar-wai, John Woo or Johnnie To. But his dedication to the underserved in Hong Kong is unparalleled in the film industry and this is most prevalent in his repertoire of horror movies.
In his film The Untold Story, a down-and-out restaurant worker murders anyone he comes into contact with that will threaten his career. To take out the ultimate revenge, he cooks up bao or steamed buns with human meat. This isn’t a far-fetched story, and was based on an urban legend that resulted from a series of murders at a restaurant in 1980s Macau. In her chapter about Yau, Lisa Odham Stokes writes that The Untold Story promotes
the increasing importance of women in society, the fragility of their newly found position, and the shift from a fear of the Hong Kong underclass uprising to a fear of Mainland Chinese taking over. While the causes of these tensions may have changed, the underlying subtext, a threat to ruling-class male Hong Kong, remains the same.
Yau also directed several films in a ghost series starting the year of the Handover. From 1997 to 2007, the Troublesome Night series stood out because ghost films were on the wane in Hong Kong. China still outlaws films that deal with the supernatural, but other sub-genres of Hong Kong horror movies have also drastically dropped in numbers, as has the Hong Kong film industry in general. In her concluding chapter of this book, Vivian Lee praises Yau for empowering the female characters in the movies he directed in the series.
It’s interesting that for all the talk about women’s rights in Hong Kong horror films, the only female director mentioned is Ann Hui, who made ghost films. It seems like a huge omission to leave out Clara Law, the director of The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus, a popular ghost film during this heyday of Hong Kong horror, among others.
Toward the end of Vivian Lee’s concluding chapter, she writes about Juno Mak’s 2013 horror film, Rigor Mortis, produced by Japanese director, Shimizu Takashi. In an interview after Rigor Mortis came out, Mak stated at a press conference that this film showcases “the anxiety of being forgotten.” As the essays in the book show, Mak’s statement can also be a metaphor for the Hong Kong horror film industry itself.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.