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Out of the One+One Archive: Horror Film Hong Kong Style: Dr. Lamb


By Garrett Chaffin-Quiray


Originally published in One+One: Filmmakers Journal, Issue 11, July 2013
Serial killers murder for personal gratification followed by intervals of tranquility, and they leave behind a great many victims. Efforts to dramatize the type include Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886), Fritz Lang’s movie M (1931), Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991), TV’s Dexter (2006-2013), and songs like Church of Misery’s “Master of Brutality (John Wayne Gacy)” (2011). Yet the nature of serial killing cleaves to the essence of movies because both experiences often wallow in visually striking crimes.
Running a brief but memorable 89 minutes, Danny Lee and Billy Tang’s Gao yang yi sheng, or Dr. Lamb (1992), displays wild tonal shift and frames several sequences of truly bad taste while exploring the crimes and motives of a serial killer. Dr. Lamb is also a cult phenomenon that delights in the cruelty that earned a Category III rating, roughly equivalent to an American NC-17, without resorting to heroic bloodshed, as in other Hong Kong movies of the time like John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992). Instead Dr. Lamb trades on realism and stylized grotesquerie to fascinate audiences while reveling in the singular performance of Simon Yam as the eponymous star.
Lee and Tang may also use the hunt for a serial killer as an objective correlative of serial killer form, or an uneasy, semi-cathartic, guilt-ridden concentration on violence that alternates with equally uneasy quiet while leaving behind a great many victims.
Based on the true-life crimes of convicted Hong Kong serial killer Lam Kor-wan, Dr. Lamb is a murder mystery told out of order with its solution revealed in the first act. By ignoring the linear whodunit pattern, Dr. Lamb heightens interest about what’s already been revealed. Namely, that Lam Gor-Yu (Yam) is a serial killer otherwise living a banal life in Hong Kong. Knowing this does little to blunt the picture’s impact, however, because the real fascination of Dr. Lamb rests in its second and third act that details Gor-Yu’s capture while giving us glimpses into the mayhem he’s left strewn in his wake through a mix of flashbacks and flash forwards.
The movie opens with a film lab developing a roll of pictures featuring women who appear oddly posed and possibly dead. The police are asked to investigate. Led by Inspector Lee (Lee) the police determine that the pictures are real and they set out to find the killer. They quickly find the Lam family, including Gor-Yu (Yam), a stoic loner.
Unable to fully determine Gor-Yu’s guilt or innocence after a police interview-turned-beating, Lee focuses on the rest of the family instead. Lee shows Gor-Yu’s sister the naked pictures Gor-Yu has taken of her young daughter and in this way unhinges her. An ugly confrontation ensues and Gor-Yu is forced to face the charges brought against him in light of the many photographs he’s taken. He then confesses to a series of rape-murders. From that point the film explores his lifetime of violent impulses to illustrate Gor-Yu’s troubled childhood up through the present where he works as a taxi driver with a mission straight from God to clean up the streets, raping and killing prostitutes if necessary.
While Dr. Lamb begins as a typical police procedural, it evolves into a horror of personality that often shamelessly leers at exploitive elements in its latter half. It’s also an ad hoc mix of realist technique and purposeful stylization used to express the psychological state of a madman, all scored by a synth-pop soundtrack that maintains an indifferent, mechanical rhythm.
Perhaps owing to artistic inspiration, or reflective of a small budget, Dr. Lamb’s visual style is at first quite gritty. Opening sequences employ no unusual angles, intrusive direction, jarring cuts, or much camera movement. The mystery of dead women captured on rolls of film is presented within a real world context. Long takes with a static camera enclose conversations. Panning shots through claustrophobic rooms increase the pressure of looking for evil while investigators seek clues. Scenes cut on static glimpses of dead women’s body parts. Point-of-view shots are kept to a minimum.
In this nuts-and-bolts world Inspector Lee stands out. With a fitted suit and quiet authority, his presence orders the investigation in the first half of the movie. Once Gor-Yu is apprehended, though, Yam’s presence becomes the center of the film.
Since exaggeration and visual excess are key traits of Hong Kong cinema from the mid-1980s onwards, Dr. Lamb benefits from stock characters sent to extremes. Except for Gor-Yu, a serial killer whose nature is predicated on excess, every other person in Dr. Lamb resembles caricature. Ciphers all, each performer behaves wildly and in this way many sequences have a deliciously surreal flavor, which serves to make the violence at the heart of thetale less shocking.
One striking example is the sequence where Lee’s investigators beat Gor-Yu to earn his confession. Obviously dissonant for some viewers accustomed to restraint in stories of police activity, the point of the scene is to make violent action signal character transformation through an extreme clash of wills. Gor-Yu’s interview begins with verbal harassment and quickly escalates through slaps and punches to canings, chokeholds, threats, and, finally, confession under the watchful eye of Inspector Lee.
Afterwards focused on recounting key moments in Gor-Yu’s criminal career, the film’s largely realist aesthetic switch to occupy the serial killer’s fantasy state. Close-ups of Gor-Yu in his cab, typically in a rainstorm and backlit blue and gray, replace establishing shots among Hong Kong landmarks. Separate from his city the taxicab is Gor-Yu’s cell to travel through space, letting him observe the underside of his environment where his appetites can emerge in seclusion.
In this nod to Travis Bickle the difference turns on the question of motive. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) shows how Travis, a war veteran, is unable to re-integrate into society, although he desperately wants to. Gor-Yu’s perversity, beginning with his treatment as unwanted stepchild, is hard-wired evil. He’s not interested in social acceptance, only on celebrating a standard of feminine purity and beauty no individual can possibly sustain, and so he kills women.
Gor-Yu’s dream states are therefore hysterical and frightening. Yam’s handsome features twist into angry mania and his every friendly gesture turns ugly. Amplified through camera movements, lighting, and mise en scene that typically avoid the establishing shot, close-up, reverse-shot sequence, Gor-Yu’s madness is treated through visual hyperbole, literally extruding out of the “real world” inhabited by Lee’s investigators, while underscoring the sexual perversity of Gor-Yu’s life. In fact, once the film’s technique veers away from realism, Gor-Yu’s gleeful attacks on women become nearly comical.
This is partly because Gor-Yu is marked by an awkwardness that suggests deep shame, possibly keeping him from making friends. Instead he sublimates the social urges for companionship, along with all sexual feelings, through a divine prerogative to clean up the streets and so he ends up killing would-be “dates” when he can’t seduce or befriend them. Then he photographs the naked corpses in erotically charged ways.
In some of these sequences Gor-Yu is perfectly calm, suggesting an utter lack of conscience, which ultimately betrays him when he fixates on an innocent schoolgirl. The sequence begins calmly. But when the girl senses danger she flees Gor-Yu’s taxi during a rainstorm scarred by lightening. He mistakes her kindness for coquetry and her withdrawal as incitement to kill. All this happens in a few seconds but the totality of the emotional switchback is all the more jarring once he does finally kill her.
He undresses and bathes the girl’s body in preparation of videotaping himself making love to her corpse, but then becomes so excited he ejaculates prematurely, his sexual inadequacy transformed into an irresolvable crack in character for which women die. Every aspect of Gor-Yu’s search for friendship and love is either an excess of virility or impotence.
Absurdity and Grotesquery
Gor-Yu is interpretable as a response to Hong Kong’s re-unification with China; his depravity may stem from the filmmakers worry over the condition of society after 1997. But Dr. Lamb’s overall style is a vehicle for black humor and physical comedy.
One source for this kind of shift is a strain of Hong Kong cinema that relies on martial artists literally flirting with physical disaster. Whether comic or tragic, the stakes for many martial artists in Hong Kong cinema remain the same since so many situations, be they knife fights, bouts of mistaken identity, alley chases, or even the reunion of star-crossed lovers, depend on physical action.
The other industry source for this style is the predilection of exploitation filmmakers to “hook” audiences with lowest common denominator material. To wit, bodies can always be subjected to more punishment, obsessions can be ever more gothic, and pure evil can exist inside a simple taxi driver.
In Dr. Lamb the Hong Kongese tendency towards absurdity reaches its apotheosis in Gor-Yu’s confession. Not only is he fixated on prostitutes as the signal of a decadent culture, he’s equally enamored, like Ed Gein, of keeping parts of his victims. Herein, the fascination of a serial killer’s trophy case, of a body parts archive, is eclipsed by the more disturbing, and grotesque, quality of that archive. Yet the way Lee and Tang’s movie discovers Gor-Yu’s trophy case slides easily between slapstick and horror.
Witness the scene when Lee’s team visit the Lam home and uncover Gor-Yu’s videotape collection and cabinet of body parts. Opening a jar containing a hacked off breast, the scene’s macabre aspect lifts away when that same severed breast becomes the centerpiece of a gag as it slips from one detective and lands on the back of the lone female in Lee’s crew. She screams, answered by innuendo-filled comments about her bosom, but the conceit of uncovering proof of a mad man’s crimes in his trophy case of body parts quickly resolves into a routine joke that pits man against woman, male heterosexual fetish against a woman lacking the fetish object. Dr. Lamb’s realist impulse thusly collides with the absurd and grotesque fantasy of Gor-Yu’s delusions as a victim’s breast slips from a clumsy investigator to augment the body of another woman. In no time the woman detective vomits.
While it may be true that situational humor may know no bound, Dr. Lamb tests the limit. Throughout Gor-Yu’s other flashbacks, never mind Lee’s investigation into Gor-Yu’s crimes and the lives of his victims, violence and necrophilia crop up over and over, mocking the values of conventional police movies, even of the typical horror film. Subjected to the grind house demands of Hong Kong cinema, though, these taboo subjects flower and become the new floor of expectation for other comparable works at the multi-plex.
Dr. Lamb dares us to recognize the logic of a sickening story. Of course a serial killer covets trophies culled from his victims. Of course he’s erotically charged by this pursuit. Of course he has sex with the dead. Of course we watch it all happen; he’s the serial killer after all.
Responding to the epochal change of 1997, conditioned by a well-established domestic and diasporic international movie marketplace, and built around stars Danny Lee and Simon Yam, Dr. Lamb is a keynote Hong Kong exploitation vehicle aptly demonstrating the island’s cinematic fascination with tonal shift, one of two traits often cited as the legacy of Hong Kong cinema. Opening as a police procedural, the picture quickly veers into psychological horror to explore dream sequences that illuminate a serial killer’s fascination with virginal sexuality and sudden violence.
Quickly stepping from realist technique through hyperbolized characterization and ending with a Grand Guignol of absurdity and grotesquery, the film pushes good taste to the limit. Having spawned a cycle of similarly brutal “true crime” pictures, Dr. Lamb helped form a new standard, both for its misogynistic violence and normalization of that violence in Yam’s eerie performance. Seen through the myopia of 1997, reversion to China might be the metaphorical evil motivating Gor-Yu’s actions.
While make up and other special effects technologies have certainly raised the realist potential of movie carnage since Dr. Lamb’s release, its gross out humor continues to win fans, making the film a roller coaster of sensations, not all of them pleasant. In short, Dr. Lamb is an exploitation masterwork, so purposefully out-of-synch with mainstream tendencies as to suggest an entirely new paradigm for on-screen terror, one equally attuned to the necessity of hyperbolized, even absurd, evisceration along with the oddly delicate, even romantic, qualities of necrophilia.
That this exploitive element stems from a true-to-life story means Gor-Yu’s actions are that much more nauseating. Departing from crime photos, on-the-spot reportage, and the kind of urban terror so prevalent in a millennial city like Hong Kong, the shadow of Dr. Lamb is no less than civilizing assimilation, first to a polite mercantile island society, second to China. Gor-Yu’s crimes are therefore an affront to good taste for those viewers objecting to its subject, imagery, and technique.
More fundamentally, Gor-Yu undermines the conventional order, wherein innocence is protected, evil subdued, order maintained. Issuing such a threat to society, Dr. Lamb’s villain, as in real-life, is finally captured and destroyed. So goes the sexually motivated serial killer in this 1992 primer on Hong Kong horror.
About the author:
Garrett Chaffin-Quiray is a writer, reader, parent, and teacher.