Blu-ray Release: August 29, 2023
Audio: Cantonese LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 89:40
Director: Herman Yau
After his pregnant wife perishes through the actions of a careless (and callous) cabby, mild-mannered Ah Kin (Anthony Wong) declares war on the entire profession. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
(This intro is taken from my review of The Untold Story)
In 1988, Hong Kong introduced a rating system that included something called Category III (or Cat III). It was essentially equivalent to the MPAA’s NC-17 (which hadn’t been invented at the time) and BBFC’s 18 certificate. Cat III movies were not hardcore pornography, but did include X-rated softcore sex, full frontal female nudity, graphic violence, and depiction of Triad gangs. Combined with a small collection of films that were retroactively re-rated Cat III, there was a short Golden Era between '88 and ‘97, when the colony was absorbed by Mainland China, that endures as legendary among exploitation film lovers. Given that the Unit 731 (or Maruta) series – T. F. Mou’s Men Behind the Sun (1988), and Godfrey Ho’s Laboratory of the Devil (1992) and Narrow Escape (aka: Destroy all Evidence, 1994), and Mou’s Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995) – was so shocking as to be banned and censored across the globe, three less controversial films came to define the early Cat III era: Michael Mak’s charming erotic comedy Sex and Zen (1991), Danny Lee & Billy Tang’s true crime horror film Dr. Lamb (1992), and its pseudo-follow-up, Herman Yau’s The Untold Story (1993), which was produced by Lee. The latter was designed as an exploitation movie, but fell into prestige territory, due in large part to Anthony Wong’s powerhouse performance, which won him Best Actor at the 13th Hong Kong Film Awards (his first).
Dr. Lamb and The Untold Story were built on the international success of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar winner Silence of the Lambs, but both also owed a debt to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 psychothriller drama Taxi Driver. Specifically, all three films revolve around murderous, but (arguably) sympathetic loners and challenge their audiences to recognize the dreadful circumstances that turned them into killers without identifying with the actions. The Lee/Yau movies are more sensationalistic and easier to hold at arm's length, because their protagonists aren’t only killing societal outcasts and the disturbing violence is also sometimes played for laughs, making it difficult to reconcile the tone, but the connection was strong enough to continue informing Yau’s creative output minus Lee. Following The Untold Story, he made two even more obvious eaus du Taxi Driver – Cop Image (1994), in which a low-ranking traffic cop, played by Untold Story’s Anthony Wong, tries to fashion his life on those of action movie stars, and the subject of this review, Taxi Hunter (1993), in which a mild-mannered businessman, also played by Wong, goes on a killing spree after his pregnant wife is killed by a careless pedicab driver on the way to the hospital. It’s really more of a randomly taxi-themed variation of Death Wish, but Yau is sure to recreate Taxi Driver “You talkin’ to me?” scene, in case we weren’t already convinced.
Taxi Hunter maintains the vital components of the Lee/Yau model – a pathetic wretch on a killing spree, corrupt city officials, and a general atmosphere of cruelty – but it’s also a deescalation from The Untold Story, which is a relentlessly brutal film that combined sincere human horror with exploitation excess and uncomfortable slapstick laughs. Taxi Hunter better fits this darkly humorous sensibilities, in part because it’s so patently absurd. It’s a violent satire of a vigilante story, rather than a droning serial killer drama. Those previous films split the shock horror and comedy between scenes focusing on the killer (shock horror) and the police (comedy), but, in this case, the film’s entire universe is populated by silly weirdos and bitter creeps. Wong is, in some ways, cast against type as the straight man to a city’s worth of indifferent grotesques. Of all the other men in the movie, only his police detective best friend, Yu (Yu Rongguang), seems capable of empathy.
Taxi Hunter’s surprisingly consistent tone is bolstered by the quality of its action sequences, especially the insanely dangerous car stunts. Coupled with the cartoonish violence (far less graphic than you might expect from Cat. III) and heightened, borderline cartoonish aesthetic, it often feels like an adaptation of a nonexistent comic book. Though a meek salaryman-type, Kin’s origin isn’t that far off from Frank Castle’s, aka: the Punisher, or Stanley Ipkiss from Mike Richardson & Mark Badger’s original The Mask comics (Dark Horse, 1987). It sort of fits in with other R-rated comic book movies from the era, like Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1991) or Mark Goldblatt’s The Punisher (1989). Another connection could be made to Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993), in which Michael Douglas plays an ordinary office worker driven to vigilante violence by everyday annoyances. Douglas and Wong even share a white, short-sleeved shirt, tie, and glasses wardrobe motif. This is probably a coincidence, however, as the two movies were released only months apart and, if IMDb is accurate, Falling Down wasn’t shown in Hong Kong or Chinese theaters, anyway. Still, the similarities are remarkable.
Yau continued making marginally satirical, violent crime movies about blue collar losers, but eventually embraced his reputation as a transgressive Cat III pioneer by directing one of the most shamelessly vulgar and mean-spirited Hong Kong horror movies of the ‘90s, Ebola Syndrome (1996), starring Wong (yet again) as a scumbag who discovers he is a symptom-free carrier of a particularly nasty strain of ebola and begins to intentionally spread the virus throughout the city.
Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe by Steven Jay Schneider (FAB Press, 2004)
Taxi Hunter didn’t get much of a stateside release, but, thanks to Wong and Yau’s cult followings, you could find it on bootleg tape, assuming you knew where to look. Easter Star and Discotek Media eventually released barebones anamorphic DVDs in 2010 and 2013, respectively, or you could import a region free, NTSC VHS tape, DVD, or Laserdisc from HK company Universal Laser. 88 Films’ new Blu-ray debut is presented in 1080p, 1.85:1 HD. I couldn’t find any description of the mastering process, but, based on the harsh contrast and chubby grain, I’m guessing that the transfer was scanned from a printed element. Given how awful, hazy, and noisy Hong Kong DVDs and Blu-rays have appeared over the years, this isn’t bad news in my book. It’s not a standout transfer, but it has some impressively vivid colors that, when combined with the crushy blacks, blooming highlights, and grit make the whole lurid business look extra sensationalistic. Important details are only lost in the absolute darkest shots and there aren’t many signs of unwelcome digital tampering. There’s room for improvement if anyone ever does a full 4K scan of the negatives, but this disc works just fine for the needs of the film.
Taxi Hunter has only one audio option: Cantonese 2.0 mono in uncompressed LPCM sound. I admit I don’t know a lot about Hong Kong dubbing practices in the ‘90s, but I suppose the Mandarin dub simply wasn’t available. Either way, most of the actors are pretty clearly speaking Cantonese on set and many seem to be dubbing themselves. Sound design is as limited as you’d normally expect from an early ‘90s HK movie, including thin incidental effects and flat dialogue, but there’s no significant distortion, damage, or dialogue hiss throughout, and the soundfloor is nice and clean. Won Bong’s score is occasionally hemmed in by its low-budget synth origins, but fits the film beautifully and includes a handful of clangy, driving action themes that help set the tone.
Commentary by Frank Djeng – Everyone’s favorite Hong Kong film expert and NY Asian Film Festival programmer goes solo on this new track, covering Taxi Hunter’s production, release, the lives and larger careers of several cast & crew members, and the film’s place in the Cat. III pantheon. He also walks us through some of the Cantonese word play and points out important Hong Kong landmarks.
Hunting For Words (28:45, HD) – Screenwriter and producer Tony Leung Hung-Wah discusses his entry into the HK film industry, developing Taxi Hunter, the real-life glut of bad cabbies during the ‘90s that inspired the story, writing the script, references to Taxi Driver, Wong’s performance and character, casting mainland Chinese actors, tonal choices, Yau’s direction, and box office disappointment.
How to Murder Your Taxi Driver? (27:06, HD) – Action director James Ha recalls being hired, similarities to Taxi Driver and Falling Down, attitudes towards cabbies at that time, the logistics of the car stunts (using his phone as a prop), working with Wong on his stunts, and the film’s sympathies towards Wong’s character.
Falling Down in Hong Kong (17:57, HD) – Anthony Wong himself finishes things off with a look back at his early life and career, being so busy at the time that he only took the Taxi Hunter gig after a different role sort of fell though, loosely building the character on a friend, not basing his performance on Robert De Niro and not meaning to represent the average HK citizen, Yau’s hands-off direction, avoiding backlash from taxi drivers, the coincidental similarities to Falling Down, and enjoying playing a nice guy, instead of the villain.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.