Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Untold Stories of the Dinner Table

I wouldn't call it a torrent of food-oriented horror movies, but Asian audiences are most definitely being served a steady dribble of them. They continue to ooze forth like pus from an untreated sore.

The latest I can find is Koji Kowano's Cruel Restaurant (Zankoku hanten, 2008).

Kowano's last effort was The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, a horror flick that combined the living dead with competitive swimming. Despite its novel premise, and its generous footage of nymphs in swimsuits, it was derailed by directorial ineptness and rotten performances.

Unfortunately, Cruel Restaurant is derailed by ineptness also. Clearly influenced by Herman Yau's The Untold Story and Fruit Chan's Dumplings, it is a familiar tale of murder, betrayal, and serving humans as dumplings. Tonally, it is all over the place, and the exploitations elements are not well blended into the mix.

Much has already been written about The Untold Story (Bat sin fan dim ji yan yuk cha siu bau, '93), the slightly uneven but shockingly effective horror hit from director Herman Yau.

Several days after seeing it for the first time, my ex-wife and I visited a favorite Chinese restaurant in Box Hill, an Eastern suburb of Melbourne. This restaurant could usually be relied on to serve excellent yum-cha and the best cha siu bau (roast pork buns) in town.

The human-laced delicacies of The Untold Story had not succeeded in turning me off visiting a Chinese restaurant. Clearly, my stomach was capable of overriding my brain.

The ex- ordered in Chinese (which she was), and we waited a few minutes for our treats to arrive.

I sipped some Chinese tea and glanced at a flyer for an upcoming double feature at the Chinatown Cinema. For us, it was a typical Friday evening.

When the plate of roast pork buns arrived, I didn't notice their deflated, sub-par appearance. I was famished, dammit! I didn't find it strange that something didn't smell good.

I picked one up and bit into it.

Traditionally, biting into a roast pork bun at this particular restaurant resulted in zesty, immediate pleasure.

This bite was different somehow.


Something spurted onto my tongue from the insides of something residing (perhaps living happily) in the bun. It was cold. Just like the bun. Which was unusual. It was supposed to be hot. Steamed.

It took me a moment to react. To know that something was terribly wrong.

I pulled the half-eaten bun away from my mouth. It looked like a broken heart just ripped from a chest. It was soaked in blood.

That's when I noticed the other buns on my plate. Strange, they weren't very white any more. They were turning red. It was as if they were bleeding internally.

I spat the contents of my mouth onto the plate. Had I contracted tuberculosis? Or was my stomach being eaten by parasites?

There was a commotion behind me as the restaurant's owner rushed forward.

"You OK?" he asked in broken English.

"Does he look OK!" my ex-wife shouted.

The bloody mess was removed. Lots of tea was gulped down.

And a fresh plate of steaming pork buns were rushed to the table!

No, fuck, no! Get them outta here!

I was speechless.

"Please get them outta here!" I said, turning away, away, away.

I was ready to vomit. I tasted bitterness deep down.


They never brought the bill (check).

Months passed and accumulated into years, and I ventured back into cha siu bau territory cautiously -- although I never returned to Box Hill's House of Blood-Soaked-Siu Bau's.

This is my Untold Story.

And the content of those devilish buns? Well, it still remains untold.

Herman's Yau's follow-up to his celebration of roast pork bun culture was Ebola Syndrome (Yibola bing du, '96), a sleazy, grotesquely outrageous amalgam of Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak ('95) and The Untold Story.

The film cleverly capitalized on the then-current panic about the flesh-eating ebola virus. This is what I love so much about the Hong Kong film industry. They have no shame, and there is nothing that is not fair game for them. As a result, they have one of the most vital film industries in the world (or did, anyway).

Anthony Wong, who folded humans into pork buns in The Untold Story, is transported to South Africa here where he is working as a filthy chef in a filthy Johannesberg restaurant. One day, he accompanies his filthy boss to a filthy settlement in the countryside where raw, filthy, maggot-ridden meat is sold out in the open. As his boss negotiates a deal, Wong notices an African woman falling beside a pond. He offers her assistance, but when she acts strangely, he decides to rape her impoverished body. He calls her "filthy" in the process. How one thing leads logically to another is not for us mere mortals to ponder. While Wong is raping the unfortunate woman, she vomits up blood. The blood, we later discover, contains ebola particles.

Once Wong is infected, it's on for young and old. Turns out the filthy chef/rapist is also a wanted killer, so it's not long before a visiting Chinese tourist identifies him as the filthy someone who tried to set her on fire when she was a little girl. Oh, yeah, he killed her parents, too. Not a nice bloke really. Just a filthy one.

Although the film uses Outbreak for structure, it's more a horror film than a sci-fi film. Contracting ebola gives Wong plenty of opportunity to spread it through his cooking, rape, and murder.

It's a shame Chef Gordon Ramsey didn't pay a visit to Wong's filthy palace of culinary delights. Hell's Kitchen barely describes the Chinese rapist's work environment. With enough food crimes to inspire a half hour chorus of 'F' words, the Wong/Ramsey combination would have been a winner.

I'm still hanging out for Bird Flu Rapist (Half Man/Half Bird/All Rapist).

There Is A Secret in My Soup (Ren tou dou fu shang, 2001) was still trying to ride the gory coattails of The Untold Story.

Based on a true story in which the remains of a prostitute were found inside a Hello Kitty Mermaid, it takes the traditional flashback route to document the woman's sad life before she became a soup ingredient. Unfortunately, the scripting is abysmal, so any effort to add some meaning to the horrific murder is destroyed. On top of that, the film is boring.

Of all the food-focused horror pics, Fruit Chan's Dumplings (Gaaui ju, 2004) is the most technically accomplished and artful. It is pretty horrific, too, although the horror is tempered by stunning aesthetics (courtesy of cinematographer Chris Doyle).

In a nutshell, it is the story of a young woman who adds aborted fetuses to her exotic, much sought after dumplings.

Using this grotesque premise as a starting point, it deftly explores modern culture's obsession with youth and appearance.

Exquisite in every way, it is one of the decade's very best horror films.

A truth that runs through all these films is that we really don't know what's in the stuff we eat; we trust others with our lives.

An equally horrific look at the stuff we're putting in our bellies comes courtesy of Food, Inc., a very scary, spellbinding doco that is currently in theaters.

Not all untold stories remain so thankfully.


  1. The Man -- probably best you don't know.

  2. The Man -- you mean 'Motel Hell"? Yes, I saw it at the drive-in when it first cameo ut, have it on DVD, have the poster on my wall, and love it.

    And how remiss of me not to include it in this piece. It probably influenced all of these.

    Thank you.

  3. Great idea for a post. And I was beginning to think I was the only person that sat through Ebola Syndrome...what a filthy mess of a movie.

  4. Don't forget The Unpublicizable File. It's pure garbage that's clumsily cobbled together like a Godfrey Ho flick but it joins the ranks of Bunman-inspired HK Cat III sleaze.