Letting it all hang out

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-29 20:25:05


A scene from Due West: Our Sex Journey  Photo: CFP
A scene from Due West: Our Sex Journey Photo: CFP

If you ask people to name the most impressive Chinese films from last year, many will cite Love Is Not Blind or You Are the Apple of My Eye. Some may also name 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, a Category III film produced in Hong Kong.

Though kung fu and gangster films have long been associated with Hong Kong, Category III films from Hong Kong, the equivalent of R-rated films in the West, also boast a reputation of their own.

After Vulgaria debuted in Hong Kong this August, Due West: Our Sex Journey raised discussions on Category III films regaining steam.

Category III films refer to works containing extreme violence, horror, graphic sex scenes and dirty language. Such works are restricted to those over 18. Category III films occasionally refer to erotic films.

During their prime in the 1990s, these films were not only popular in Hong Kong, but also trendy in the Chinese mainland's black market. Since the mainland does not have a rating system, such films are banned.

A brief history

It's unclear what the first Category III film in Hong Kong was, but looking back, certain films made during the 1970s were quite risqué.

According to a report in New Express, a Guangzhou-based daily newspaper, early Category III films in Hong Kong were influenced by the liberal movements in Western countries during the 1960s. One of the earliest works, Sampan, was made by a Westerner in 1969. Eroticism was taboo those days. The film, though it sparked discussion, ultimately did not leave much of a dent in the market.

From the 1970s on, Hong Kong filmmakers began producing Category III films, including Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) directed by Chor Yuen, Legends of Lust (1972) and The Golden Lotus (1974), both directed by Li Han-hsiang.

The 1990s saw a rise in Category III films from Hong Kong, with Sex & Zen (1991), Pretty Woman (1992), Ancient Chinese Whorehouse (1994), Viva Erotica (1996) and Happy Together (1997). During this time, the term "Category III" was created.

A number of actors and actresses, like Elvis Tsui, Veronica Yip, Shu Qi and Amy Yip rose to fame through these films. Many directors, including action film directors Jonny Mak and Derek Yee, also worked in this genre.

These films experienced a decline in the late 1990s. Film critic Fang Liuxiang attributes this to the increase in pirated films, Hong Kong's return to China, and the impact from overseas films. Zhu Yuming, general manager of China 3D Entertainment, has a different angle.

"In the age of DVDs and the Internet, Chinese audiences were able to watch adult films from Europe, the US and Japan. Category III films no longer seemed fresh," he said. "Hong Kong filmmakers were not innovative. Most of them produced Category III films that were poor in quality." Zhu noted, however, that the number of films in this category increased during this period.

Subculture and meaning 

Category III films are not just shallow works containing erotic sex scenes and foul language. Many films examine social and political issues.

In a column in Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly, film critic Fang writes, "Besides exciting the senses, Category III film express ideas… they present freedom of speech."

According to Fang, Vulgaria, directed by Pang Ho-cheung, is similar to Wong Jing's Gigolo of Chinese Hollywood. Both mock the film industry in Hong Kong.

Vulgaria reflected political shifts in 1997, when Hong Kong returned to China. There was often hostility toward mainland visitors, as Hong Kong natives were resistant of mainstream ideologies and were nervous about fighting for resources. 

"The dirty language used [in Vulgaria] represents the emotions among the masses," Fang said. 

Zhu Yuming agrees. "The Category III [label]… cannot be equated with the quality of a film," Zhu told the Global Times. "Category III films are for adults. Thoughtful content satisfies adult audiences."

"A good Category III film does not simply expose naked bodies … but it goes deeper to discuss humanity and other questions," Zhu noted, adding that 3D Sex and Zen examines desire, while Due West, an adaptation of a popular online novel, addresses maturing men in Hong Kong.

Compared with erotic films in other countries, Hong Kong's Category III films have their own features.

"They contain a hodge-podge of sexual elements, skills and its applications," Zhu said.

He explained that erotic films in Japan are often artistic. South Korean works appreciate beautiful scenes. European works are classical, and American films are more direct.

Passing phenomenon?

In his Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly column, Fang writes that Hong Kong Category III films were making a comeback.

 In an interview with the Global Times, Fang said that the popularity of 3D technology helps Category III films. Also, Category III films now seem more fresh, upon revisiting.

Reeve Wong, a Hong Kong film critic, disagrees. "It is a temporary phenomenon," he said, believing that the recent popularity of these films is the result of 3D technology's influence.  

Zhu shares Wong's opinion. "The solid performance of 3D Sex and Zen, Vulgaria and Due West at the box office  proves that these topics appeal to public tastes. This reflects room in the market for Hong Kong Category III films. But it does mean that there is currently a revival of these films," he said. 

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