Director Calum Waddell talks CATEGORY III Doco!
Academic and prolific documentarian Calum Waddell has made it his life’s mission to delve into the darkest corners of underground cinema, bringing back treasure in the form of his revelatory films. The best thing about Waddell’s work is the keen intellectualism he brings to every project, which proves there is value to even the grisliest and most challenging cinema in existence!
Waddell’s latest project is probably his most fascinating, as he shines some light on a delightfully gonzo form of cinema unfairly neglected even by genre fans. CATEGORY III: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HONG KONG EXPLOITATION CINEMA focuses on the wave of truly insane, taboo-shattering films that came out of Hong Kong after their introduction of an adult-rating film category in the late 80s. Everything from rape, necrophilia, cannibalism and child murder is loudly (and proudly) contained in these films.
Ahead of the film’s Australian Premiere at MONSTER FEST VII: THE HOMECOMING, Cult of Monster’s David Churack caught up with Calum Waddell to discuss his enduring fascination with cinema’s darkest corners, his top Category III film recommendations and what form of underground cinema he’ll be digging up next!
You’re a proven fan of underground or ‘transgressive’ cinema, having made documentaries on giallo films, Italian cannibal films, slasher films and 80s action films (to name just a few). What appeals to you about this type of cinema?
I like to call this ‘marginal cinema’ – filmmaking that appeals to a small audience of very dedicated cinephiles who generally want to collect every last word spoken or written on the subject. There have been attempts to categorise these movies as ‘cult’, ‘paracinema’, ‘psychotronic’ or even generally just with the ‘exploitation’ tag, which I do not think is entirely helpful. Indeed, as I’ve gone on these strange travels I’ve found that those of us who really love this stuff are in the margins – and that is, in my own roundabout way, how I would answer your question.
When something is in the margins of popular culture, I think it needs to be detailed and documented or else we are going to lose it entirely. And I am on a sort of two-person mission, along with Naomi Holwill who edits, produces and films these documentaries, to exhaustively try and chronicle as much marginal cinema as possible before we both push up daisies. Part of that is also that we both tend to think you can learn more about a society’s identity from what it expresses, and genre cinema – especially since so-called exploitation films, whatever one thinks of them, are all about a very visual expression – than what it represses. There is no dressing anything up in a Category III film, for instance – it knows it needs to be buckwild and it does not need to pander to ideas of ‘art’.
What was your entry-point into Category III films?
I read about a film called BUN MAN, which is actually another name for THE UNTOLD STORY, in an issue of The Dark Side. The editor of the magazine, Allan Bryce, had mentioned that it was the most horrific thing he ever saw as there is a sequence where a murderer kills children and it really upset him. So I thought to myself, being just a young teenager, ‘that is not something I would ever want to see’.
But then, of course, years later I saw it and, with all respect to Allan who has become one of my dearest friends, I’m not sure he is grounded in Hong Kong history or its culture to quite recognise what the film was saying and doing – and I sort of love that, actually. It means making a documentary on the form, and hopefully I will write a book on Category III as well eventually, to sort of say: ‘No there is more to this than just that’. So that was my entry into Category III – knowing I should stay away from THE UNTOLD STORY because it offended the editor of a popular horror magazine [laughs].
There’s a fascinating part of CATEGORY III where Sean Tierney describes how watching an infant die onscreen can be an ‘enjoyable’ experience due to the sheer transgression of it. This seems key to the appeal of Category III cinema: how do you account for the enjoyment behind these transgressive scenes?
I think these films are basically representative of a culture that felt it was running out of time. And if you are told that in 1997, whatever crimes the British committed in Hong Kong – and it is important to remember that up until the end of the Second World War, the colony was treated as an afterthought and Chinese residents exposed to racism and limitations of where they could own property. That democratic power is being replaced by the country of Mao and Tiananmen Square – you might well panic. So Category III films, to me, seem to be dedicated to going as far as possible in order to outrage as many people as possible, all in the name of ‘free speech’.
Now when you go back and watch the likes of RUN AND KILL and EBOLA SYNDROME it’s as if these are movies beamed from another planet entirely and you honestly cannot get over how transgressive they are. So part of the fun, in the context of understanding that concern about the Handover to China, is recognising the intention to push the boundaries of taboo as far as possible. And the fun is of ‘oh my god, how did the filmmakers think to do something THAT crazy?’ kind. I also liken it to THE ARISTOCRATS – the joke that comedians know of and which is about shattering all forms of common decency. That is basically Category III and why one might enjoy these movies.
You obviously have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Category III films: which ones would you recommend to those looking to experience the sub-genre?
I would tell everyone that they need to check out SEX AND ZEN of course, because of its importance – and also the old Shaw Brothers horror THE KILLER SNAKES – but my top ten would be, and this is no order, THE STORY OF RICKY, THE UNTOLD STORY, THE UNTOLD STORY 2 (which gets a bad reputation but is really great too), RUN AND KILL, EBOLA SYNDROME, TAXI HUNTER, WOMEN ON THE RUN, ROBOTRIX, RED TO KILL and bringing things a bit more up-to-date I would have to recommend DREAM HOME which is excellent. It might surprise some viewers of the documentary but I was never as taken by DOCTOR LAMB.
What was the favourite discovery you made through making the documentary?
I think it was finally getting to see the sequels to THE UNTOLD STORY. I had always heard they were worth avoiding but to my surprise the second film is one of the first Hong Kong movies to touch upon the problems that stem from integration with the Mainland, which has obviously now become such an issue you have the Hong Kong Legislative Council banning anyone from even suggesting that the island should be independent!
Do you think the Wester perception of Category III films as incredibly taboo and confronting is partly due to cultural differences?
Well I cannot speak as a ‘Hong Konger’, of course, but as a layman looking at the island from the outside I would argue that Hong Kong is still very ‘British’ by design, at least in my experience of being there several times. It operates under a law system modelled on England until 2047, and Hong Kong island feels like London transported into East Asia. So I don’t think the culture is too far removed from the decadent West, at least among the citizens who are born and brought up there – but obviously it is an island that was largely built by enterprising Chinese refugees and immigrants fleeing the civil war in the Mainland. So you have this interesting mix of Confucius and Western capitalism – as well as the ideology of protest and free speech, which the British brought with them but could not exercise in any formal democratic way due to pressures from Beijing after 1949.
So in a way I think Hong Kong Category III movies, and even some of the best horror work from the Shaw era such as THE KILLER SNAKES, HEX or BEWITCHED, touch upon things that are very Confucian – loyalty, morality, patriarchy, sex, the family unit – and yet there is also this social concern with class and individual aspiration that is quite British. I think, to be honest, there is much more in these films than even the documentary gets into – hence probably the need for a book! I still feel more passionate about, and in love with, Hong Kong – and that might be growing up with its cinema – than I do the UK or Scotland, where I’m from. I think part of making this documentary is my concerns for the island’s future freedoms under the iron grip of Beijing.
You have some amazing guest like Anthony Wong (THE UNTOLD STORY), Josie Ho (NAKED AMBITION) and Godfrey Ho (MEN BEHIND THE SUN 2). How did you get them to participate, and what was it like meeting these Category III icons?
The one person I am bummed not to have gotten is Simon Yam, which I’m still miffed about. As for Josie and Anthony – I just got their email addresses from some contacts we had in common and they were really happy to respond and be in this! With Godfrey Ho, he actually visited a university I was lecturing at in China at the time. I arranged for him to come and meet my students!
Unlike some of the other films you have covered – like slasher and giallo films – Category III films remain comparatively obscure to Western audiences. Why do you think this is, and do you think it might change in the future?
I think by their nature, Cantonese language films cannot really be dubbed into English, like a giallo, because you have no way of synchronising the mouth movements and not drawing laughter. So it meant that you had to see these films with subtitles and a lot of people even to this day just do not want to watch subtitled films. I find that pathetic too, but I used to have a friend who did Film Studies and would not watch a subtitled movie. He was so banal and afraid of foreign cultures that he even chose to watch THE DEPARTED over INFERNAL AFFAIRS. Utterly pathetic, of course.
I think that is what kept them obscure more than anything else. Plus the censorship issues. We still won’t see some of these films in the UK – they would be cut unfortunately – and I am sure it is the same in Australia. I am quite positive THE UNTOLD STORY would face that legendary ‘Banned in Queensland’ sticker!
In making the documentary, did you feel an obligation to attest to the academic or ‘artistic’ merits of Category III films?
I think that we do insofar as we talk about some of the symbolism that is in there and the undercurrents of Hong Kong’s political identity. I don’t think we are too political – I mean, anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I lived in China for three years and did not really enjoy the experience of being placed in that sort of totalitarian environment, no matter how open-minded I was about being there and how much I hoped that kind of one-party, repressive state would eventually win me over to at least some of its merits.
So I’m in favour of Hong Kong democracy, and indeed Taiwan as a democratic entity facing its own future without harassment from the Chinese Communist Party, if the people should want that of course and by all accounts they do, but I did not think the documentary was the place to labour that. Especially because the British government denied Hong Kong citizens the rights to a UK passport – a racist, vile act that has in part caused the current mess out there. And I wanted to point that out in the documentary too, but then its relevance to Category III is quite tangential unfortunately. So we were definitely a little bit academic with this, but not too much… I think anyway!
What are your plans for the future? Can we look forward to you exploring another fascinating category of film?
Well we made a documentary called IMAGES OF APARTHEID: FILMMAKING ON THE FRINGE IN THE OLD SOUTH AFRICA, which is generally about the old apartheid-era B-movies of that country… however, no one on the planet wants to see it so it might never be released! On the other hand, we are doing a documentary on Spanish zombie films of the 1970s – looking at TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB and so on. That is being done for Synapse Films, who are also releasing CATEGORY III on a special edition Blu Ray next year. It is an interesting topic because these films came about under the rule of General Franco and then they tailed off after his death – so there is an academic background there too. Then we have a documentary in the works on Nazisploitation – the entire cycle of these films, such as ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, THE BEAST IN HEAY and all of these insane titles – that will be out in 2019.
And our most ambitious project is SEARCHING FOR CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST– we went to Amazonas, to where they filmed the ultra-controversial CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST– and we found two of the native stars and one of the native crew members. Basically got their stories, visited the locations – we also went to America and shot an extensive chat with the film’s star Carl Yorke… it is a big new documentary on how CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has impacted on so many different lives and the story behind the shooting in the Amazon way back in 1979! And we have two feature length documentaries underway on Italian directors that we love – the first is on Luigi Cozzi and the second is on Aldo Lado. So we are still absolutely dedicated to all things ‘marginal’, meaning we will die poor but hopefully leave a lot of work behind someone, somewhere might appreciate!
You can catch the Australian Premiere of CATEGORY III: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HONG KONG EXPLOITATION CINEMA at MONSTER FEST VII: THE HOMECOMING on Saturday, November 24th at 10:30pm.
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