The Sophisticated Shocks of Red to Kill (1994) [DCCFF 2017]


CAT III films are important part of Hong Kong cinema. CAT refers to the rating category and number three to the highest rating possible.[1] The discussion about these exploitation films is often built on hermeneutics. Academics use different theoretical frameworks to read these films, sometimes psychoanalytic and feminist theories, sometimes zeitgeist. That approach is understandable because CAT III films often reflect problems deeply rooted in society. This can be the market crisis in Dream Home (2010) or the police force in The Untold Story (1993); individuals dealing with social alienation in Love to Kill (1993) or personal trauma in Red to Kill and Ebola Syndrome (1996); and sometimes these films tend to switch the gender dynamics, as in The Intruder (1997). In his review of Love to Kill Paul Fonoroff raised a question about “the subject of what these films say about Hong Kong society”[2] and that is exactly what I want to avoid. From a moral point of view CAT III films are problematic but from an analytical perspective some of them are fascinating.

I would like to approach Billy Tang’s Red to Kill with purely epistemic ambition. Explain the filmic text through the optics of analytical poetics.[3] Red to Kill utilises its style and narration to build suspense and to confuse and shock its viewers in fascinating ways. I will explain how the villain is used differently in every segment of the film to make the viewing experience more exciting and frightening.

Red to Kill is a about a social worker (Money Lo Man-Yee) and a mentally challenged girl Ming Ming (Lily Chung Suk-Wai) who moves in a hostel for handicapped owned by Chan, a man with dark past (Ben Ng Ngai-Cheung). Chan rapes every girl dressed in red. The film is well known for its cult status as one of the most unpleasant experiences of Hong Kong cinema. But how does the film manage to make the viewer feel so uncomfortable and how does it work in general?


The film makes sure that the link between the colour red and the rapist aggression is established. There is an extraordinary parallel montage that plays with the viewers expectations but at the same time emphasizes the colour red. There are three characters: the rapist (who is introduced through POV shots of dark corridors and loud breathing), a girl in red dress (reduced to be the “victim in red”) and the social worker. The girl notices out-of-order elevator and uses the stairs. She leaves the frame and the aggressor comes out of the elevator cabin and follows her. After that we see the social worker noticing the same elevator and going upstairs too. There is an illusion of temporal and spatial continuity but soon we see that there are two lines of action: firstly, the rapist who is after the girl and, secondly, the social worker who seems to be following them and panicking. But, after few seconds, she arrives to an apartment of a women who is about to commit suicide.

What is fascinating here is the complexity of the films exposition. In first five minutes, we get two different scenes with the illusion of being one. At the same time, it introduces the protagonist, the antagonist and his trigger (the colour red). There is also one explicit rape scene. Red to Kill gets much done in so little time.

There is also other important aspect. The aggressor is shown in fragments as an irrational evil that can’t be seen. We either see through his eyes (POV shots), close-ups of his hands or the shape of his body in the shadow during the rape scene. We never see his face and his identity is denied to us. He is the personification of ungraspable violence. That changes in the second segment. Important flashback reveals Chan as the aggressor. Now the rules of the first segment are changed. We know his identity and that both women are in danger. The film now builds up suspense by postponing the moment of the next sexual assault. The suspense is intensified by the red clothes that both protagonists wear – the assault will happen, the only question is when.

The third segment starts after the owner violates Ming Ming and she tries to sue him afterwards. He is proved innocence and the last thirty minutes change the dynamics for the last time. We have seen the aggressor as irrational spectre and as identified tool of suspense but now he is an opponent. The social worker tries to avenge her patient and there is a gory final confrontation. The film shapeshifts from dark surreal horror to disturbing thriller and finishes as explicit gore exploitation. And every segment is phenomenal.


Now I would like to explain why is Red to Kill one of the most challenging cinematic experiences. And there is a reason why. There are two points in my explanation. First there is the plot and thematic level. We have not just a rape but about four rape scenes and few other violent ones. One of the protagonists is also a mentally challenged girl, which makes it even more morally unbearable. The second thing is even more important. Red to Kill never cuts away. A lot of films build the suspense with not showing things. When something is denied to the viewer imagination can be a powerful tool to intensify the experience. That never happens here, we get to see every detail. When there is a rape scene it seems to never end, as illustrated in the rape segment of the young girl and what happens afterwards.

The frightening but expected rape scene starts a little after 45 minute. Ming Ming is screaming and crying (the opposite of the “consensual rape” in a lot of exploitation films) and the man is groaning like an animal. We get a series of close-ups that reduces them to unappealing fragments. There is a lot of sweat, tears and blood. The camera makes sure that not one drop of these fluids is denied to the viewer. The scene seems to last for two minutes. But after a short pause in tempo (longer shots, less movement in the frame) it continues for another five minutes. We have seven minutes of explicit rape scene in which we have seen every detail of the painful experience. After this segment film cuts to the girls’ room. She is trying to deal with what happened to her. At first it seems like a moment to absorb what we’ve just seen but after few seconds she grabs a razor and tries to scar her hands and genitals. It continues for three more minutes. With close-ups.

Nothing is ever enough for Red to Kill. Every second goes further in intensifying the unpleasantness. We see more violence and repellent sex scenes. Ming Ming is never safe, after the rape she is yelled at in court, she loses her case and even when Chan is dead she is denied the normal life. And she dies. There is not a single pleasurable moment for her in the movie. She is an absolute victim and there is no redemption for her, but neither is for the viewer.

[1] We are talking about films with explicit sex, violence and (or) foul language.

[2] Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies: 600 Reviews from 1988 till the Handover (Hong Kong: Film Biweekly, 1998)

[3] Here I will use the term analytical poetics as David Bordwell did in his work Poetics of Cinema: „It studies the materials and forms of films to bring out the principles shaping them. Here we study theme and subject matter, large-scale form (such as narrative), and audiovisual style“. Bordwell, David (2008). Poetics of Cinema (Berkeley: Routledge), p. 54.

‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.