FILM DIARY: Red to Kill (Billy Tang, 1994)

One of the definitive Cat III pictures to come out of Hong Kong in the early 1990s, RED TO KILL differs from some of its contemporaries (Danny Lee and Billy Tang’s DR LAMB and Herman Yau’s UNTOLD STORY) by not having a ‘ripped from the headlines’ plot: unlike those films, which were based very loosely on true stories, RED TO KILL’s plot is entirely fictional.

An unashamedly combative film, RED TO KILL is anchored by Ben Ng’s incredible performance as Chan, the man who altruistically runs a home for mentally challenged adults but who by night turns into a brutal, absolutely feral rapist/murderer whose assaults are triggered by the colour red. Chan is by turns utterly calm and controlled, suited and booted by day; but by night, he is all jittery tics, rippling muscles and jock straps as he searches for his victims. It’s not a stretch to assert that the transformation from day-Chan to night-Chan is like the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde, with the colour red as the alchemical ingredient that acts as a catalyst for the metamorphosis of the former into the latter.

The film builds some sympathy for Chan by depicting, through a vivid flashback, the incident in his childhood that led to his present-day triggering by the colour red: Chan’s father caught his mother with her lover, and the very young Chan was forced to watch as his mother and her lover butchered both Chan’s father and Chan’s young brother, the blood spattering across Chan’s face. Watching RED TO KILL, one might be reminded of Will Graham’s assertion in Michael Mann’s 1986 movie MANHUNTER: ‘My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks’.

The story builds towards a ferocious climax in which Chan, wielding a sledgehammer and wearing a wrestler’s cossie, hunts down the social worker (Money Lo) of one of his victims, the mentally handicapped Ming Ming (Lily Chung), with whom Chan has developed an obsessive fascination. Tang’s protacted handling of this climax and the manner in which he amps up the hysteria and violence has some equivalence in Tobe Hooper’s handling of the climax of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974).

As challenging as the narrative might be, RED TO KILL is incredibly photographed. For the most part, the night-time sequences are shot with blue gels, resulting in an almost monochromatic palette – shades of blue and black. This is disrupted, however, when the colour red appears on the screen – such as a potential victim in a red dress or wearing red shoes. This aesthetic is incredibly effective in placing the viewer within Chan’s mindset, and, as unlikely as it may seem, one might wonder whether cinematographer Tony Mau was influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES…

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