Would you like virus with that? EBOLA SYNDROME (伊波拉病毒) (Herman Yau, 1996)

Director Herman Yau has made a bit of a career from telling stories of “innocent cannibalism”, in which diners in restaurants unknowingly eat human flesh. His 1993 film The Untold Story was based on the “Eight Immortals Restaurant murders” of a family of ten, which took place in August 1985 in Macau. Portions of the bodies were never found, leading to speculation – yeah, you got it.

Following Gordon Gecko’s statement that “greed is good!” in Wall Street (1987), the 1990s saw a spate of films about entrepreneurs selling human flesh for fun and profit. Beside The Untold Story, Untold Story II and Ebola Syndrome from Hong Kong, we saw Delicatessen from France, Aranyak from India, The Deathmaker from Germany, Perdita Durango from Mexico, while the Americans contributed Ice Cream Man and Fried Green Tomatoes.

You see what I’m up against, trying to update you on all these masterpieces?

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This film gets even weirder, because there is also a pandemic involved – Ebola, the so-called “flesh-eating” disease. Ebola never really got the public going like COVID-19, maybe because it only affected people in places like the Congo and so did not keep the rest of us awake at night. Also, it spreads much more slowly but, if you do get it, you have a 50-90% chance of dying, and it isn’t “just” pneumonia – it is haemorrhagic, meaning that you can bleed out “through your wazoo”, as they say in Last Man on Earth.

“People with Ebola first have symptoms of influenza, but within 72 hours after infection, the virus will dissolve the internal organs”

Ah Kai (Anthony Wong) is an escaped criminal from Hong Kong who bolts to South Africa after killing his former boss, his boss’s wife and another employee. Here is an image showing Hong Kong industrial relations in action.

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In South Africa, he works at a Chinese restaurant and one day travels with his boss to a Zulu tribe that is infected with the Ebola virus [NOTE: there is no record of Ebola among the Zulu]. He comes across a woman dying of the disease, and decides to rape her – he’s that sort of guy.

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He is immune to the effects of the virus, so becomes a living carrier, spreading the disease to others through his bodily fluids. He kills his new boss and his boss’s wife and cousin (seems to be becoming a habit), but he has already given the virus to them, so when he cuts up their corpses and serves them as hamburgers in the restaurant, he spreads the virus all over South Africa.

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He heads back to Hong Kong with the boss’ cash and moves into a fancy hotel, where he proceeds to spreads the virus to the prostitutes he hires, and everyone else he encounters – dramatic music accompanying each new infection.

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Cannibalism as a carrier for pandemics seems apposite right now. Cannibalism and incest, Freud said, were the two great taboos of civilisation, but their prohibitions also define civilisation, so it is not unreasonable to expect at least one of them to pop up in a civilisation-wide disaster. COVID-19 hasn’t been spread by cannibalism yet, or incest (as far as we know) but this movie looks at more than just crime and disease as social disrupters. Ah Kai is aggressive and violent to anyone whom he believes bullies him, usually the rich people who take advantage of his fugitive status. In South Africa (not a place known for Ebola), he is subject to casual racism from the whites, including prostitutes who refuse him their services. The whites, he complains, treat him like a black, and the blacks treat him like a white. He and his victims are dehumanised, which is a precondition for cannibalism – humans are animalised, animals are objectified and become meat.

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Chinese restaurants, where he works, use a lot of pork, and several scenes problematise the close proximity of pigs to humans in the way they look and, according to some informants, the way they taste. The Ebola is caught at a Zulu camp where multiple people are dying from it; Kai and his boss are there because the racist white butcher is charging too much for pigs.

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When they go to pick up their purchases, Kai uncovers human bodies instead, before he finds the pig corpses.

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Is there really such a difference between corpses? More than 75% of emerging diseases originate in other animals. COVID-19 is said to have originated at a fish market, where close contact between humans and live animals in a small space made it easy for the virus to jump species. Other coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), not to mention bird flu and swine flu, all spread due to the human appetite for flesh.

We used to assume that exotic diseases came from wilderness areas where they had been hosted in exotic animals, which then, like the dying Zulu, were used and abused by humans. But a lot of current research seems to indicate that it is actually our destruction of habitat and biodiversity that causes the spread of diseases like Ebola and COVID-19.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

David Quammen in the New York Times January 28, 2020

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Really?

Dread Central summed up the movie:

“The horrid acting and paper thin story are forgivable only for the hilarity with which it’s presented.”

That’s a bit harsh! Chinese movies are not as a rule exemplars of subtlety, but Anthony Wong as the virus super-spreader gives it all he’s got, and a bit more too. It’s a rollicking yarn, and it asks some serious questions too. I was surprised to find I quite enjoyed it.

The full movie can be watched at:

Cannibalism and the limits to appetite: THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (Greenaway, 1989)

Michel Montaigne wrote, back in the sixteenth century, that savagery is not all on the side of the cannibal:

There is more barbarisme [sic] in eating men alive, than to feed upon them being dead; to mangle by tortures torment a body full of lively sense… than to roast him after he is dead”.

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Peter Greenaway’s The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover (1989) is the perfect representation of the savage cannibal within our own civilisation, even though the actual act of cannibalism does not occur until the closing minutes of the film. The film however is replete with images of physical and metaphoric incorporation and abjection: eating, corpses, excrement, violence and humiliation. This is such a perfect representation of abjection that the Reelviews reviewer was “at a loss” to find anything disgusting that had been left out.

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The film is almost entirely set inside the upmarket restaurant Le Hollandais which has been bought by gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) who torments and humiliates the patrons, staff, his men and his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren). Crystal Bartolovich describes this process as “making everyone around him miserable in ways that depend upon the alimentary canal”. Another reviewer observed that the restaurant metaphorically presents a reversed alimentary canal: the back door with its dog-shit is the anus, the stomach is the kitchen where the food is processed and finally the dining room is the mouth, the site of cultured discrimination, but also of abuse.

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While Spica eats and belches and spouts abuse and absurd bon mots, Georgina escapes, in brief interludes, to have a sexual and then a loving relationship with the very refined bookshop owner Michael (Alan Howard), with the connivance of the cook, Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer). The world of the restaurant is surreal, with each room coloured differently and the costumes of the protagonists changing to match as they move between them. Tables in the kitchen and the dining room are groaning under the bodies of dead birds and mammals. Spica shows little distinction between his three pet subjects: food, excrement and sex. The pleasures of sex and eating and the abjection of excretion are important messages from Greenaway’s film: Spica sums up “the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together, that it just goes to show how eating and sex are related”.

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He forces an enemy to eat dog-shit, his men gorge on the fine dining and vomit on the table, and his wife reveals that sex for him involves only violence and degradation. Spica’s favoured method of torture is force feeding: he feeds excrement in the opening scene to a man who owes him money, he feeds buttons to the kitchen boy, and when he discovers the love affair, he promises to catch the lover, kill him, and eat him. He and his men kill Michael by making him eat one of his books.

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Georgina persuades Borst to cook Michael’s body; in a ceremonial scene, she reverses his force-feeding tactic and at gunpoint forces him to make good his earlier threat to eat the lover, suggesting he starts with Michael’s cock: “it’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been”.

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As she kills Spica with another phallic symbol, his own gun, she hisses at him (while looking at us, the viewers) the single, final word of the film: “cannibal!”

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The film’s alterity focuses on the criminal crew against polite society. It was made toward the end of the long period known as Thatcherism, in which Britain was hugely polarised between followers of “libertarianism” and their opponents who felt that money and power were crushing all vestiges of civil society. The film has widely been interpreted as a protest about the politics of that time, with the thief as Thatcher and her greedy plutocrats and the lover as the ineffectual left opposition, the cook as the civil service and the wife as the people, being alternately wooed and abused. Roger Ebert saw a more universal message about an entrepreneurial class that is raping the earth and its environment while the “timid majority” finds distraction in romance and escapism. The New York Times felt that Greenaway was asking the question: what happens when “the most crass and sadistic people” gain power? Greenaway himself said that his use of cannibalism was a metaphor of consumer society: “once we’ve stuffed the whole world into our mouths, ultimately we’ll end up eating ourselves”.

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Some critics, however, sees Greenaway’s message as elitist: consumption is only an issue when the “wrong” people are doing it. Spica and his crew debase the high culture of Le Hollandais with their ignorance, crudity and violence. Georgina (whom Spica insists on calling “Georgie” as if trying to alter her gender), Michael and Borst are refined, aesthetic and vulnerable, like the high culture which the thieves despise and aspire to at the same time. Greenaway seems to be accusing the “low culture” thieves, and his audience, of the same “voracious hunger” that colonialism cited to calumniate the natives they wanted to subdue.

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Greenaway is exploring these “limits to appetite” in his scenes of sex, food and excrement; the contemporary cannibal demonstrates a new and uncertain relation to commodities. The cook is a film about abjection, but also desire. Cannibalism reduces the human to a roast dinner, but at the same time questions the limits we increasingly need to put on our meals, as we overconsume our share of natural resources.

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