Sentenced To Hang (1989)
by: Taylor Wong
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1990:
Best Supporting Actress (Seung Tin Ngo)
I'll be discussing aspects of this movie that some readers may perceive as spoilers so if you want as little knowledge as possible beforehand, skip reading this review.
This is the true story of the three friends Ah Huai (Tony Leung Kar-Fai), Qiang (Kent Cheng) and Ah Jing (Elvis Tsui) and how a kidnapping scheme of theirs turned to murder.
Taylor Wong's Sentenced To Hang is based on an actual 1960s murder case and was the first Hong Kong movie to be given the Cat III-rating (the highest given out by the ratings board). A few years later, more true life crime-productions surfaced such as The Untold Story and Dr. Lamb. All rated Cat III and each one raising the bar for depiction of violence in Hong Kong movies. Wong's film is one of the more high profile ones in terms of its cast including one particular actor that would become almost synonymous with sleazy Cat III movies. First thing you'll notice is the odd cover art showing our three main characters with wolves heads! That comes from the literal Chinese title of the movie which is 'The Strange Case Of The 3 Wolves' and the three men disguised themselves with wolf masks in order to hide their identity from the kidnapping victims.
When you choose to immortalize a real crime case on the big screen there are certain points that are important to do well. This and other similar movies don't have positivity within it but you need to maintain a sense of darker reality when filming. Sentenced To Hang has three characters that at one point are good-natured but chooses a path in life that is just plain wrong. They're no heroes no matter what and you need to remind audiences that from time to time. Whatever you do, don't exploit an event like this for the sake of entertainment either. If anything, that is the single most important thing to think of. Did director Wong and crew fulfill these criteria's? I believe so, despite flaws that have less to do with the above mentioned points.
Taylor wants to recap what happened so many years ago and he chooses the straightforward way of doing it, a correct decision. How close to reality the movie is I can't say but to me it seems plausible that it would play out this way, even when stupidity enters the plot. Stephen Shiu and Johnny Mak simply writes the story of three lifelong friends that are striving to be acknowledged by society, whether it's in a big or small way. When their confidence is crushed once and for all, it triggers a need to punish to gain respect. It's only up to the point where they decide to walk down the wrong path that we do feel sorry for Ah Huai, Qiang and Ah Jing. No one deserves to be pushed down like that and in the men's minds, there's no other option than criminal ones next. Only Qiang makes the point that it'll be difficult or even impossible to get back on the right track after a crucial choice like this, something that never reaches the other two. Loyalty among friends is more important.
Tayor establishes these character arcs that are not classically multi-layered but functions nicely in the hands of actors like these. Their shifting from underdogs to criminals can be seen as rather flimsy but I think the human mind works in this way. First option or easiest option is quickly accepted as the right one in some people's heads. First 40 minutes of the film are very serious and as we witness The Wolves (as they call themselves) making their plans reality, a slight sense of unease trickles into the piece. Whether it's through simple music cues or violence doesn't matter, it is very effective. We're once and for all reminded of the dark nature of the tale. Compared to later Cat III productions there's not a whole lot of graphic violence in the movie. Wong is more interested in creating the feeling of death instead of shoving it into the viewers face, which in the end proves more suiting. The actual murders themselves aren't the gory types so it makes sense having less on-screen violence. The rating in this case is probably because of the subject matter but also one scene features frontal nudity.
It falters a bit in the middle section though. Many of the screenplay's instincts are correct when it comes to the humour that now enters. Scenes and situations are good in concept but are played out too broad, which doesn't fit this kind of film. You've gotten used to the fact that Hong Kong cinema inserts comedy at the most odd moments but more than often it's always something worth criticizing (at least when viewed with Western eyes). It's there and I'll live but what Wong should've done was rework all scenes featuring police. They are a bunch of clumsy morons that does nothing right on the field and beat up criminals when they do happen arrest them. It's apparently a trait that works because subsequent movies like Dr. Lamb painted the same picture of the police force. Having said that, Sentenced To Hang isn't nearly as distasteful in its comedy compared to movies in the same vein that followed.
Thankfully Wong leaves the silly comedy routines behind and delivers a powerful finale. He turns up the melodrama a few notches too high but this section still provides many good character moments. It doesn't forget who the three, now imprisoned, men are and they can regret what they've done for the rest of their lives. The only sympathy is for those who are left behind. The hanging scenes themselves ranks as highlights. That may seem like a cold thing to say but stylistically it's terrific. The scenes aren't about cheering or being horrified. It's a document about what happened and presents that in a respectable manner. Ah Huai, Qiang and Ah Jing were the last criminals that were sentenced to hang in Hong Kong. That punishment was abolished shortly afterwards.
Director of photography is none other than Herman Yau. He later, coincidentally, directed violent Cat III shockers like The Untold Story and later mature works like From The Queen To The Chief Executive. Herman helps realize the directors vision really well through a very non-stilized look. Only the atmospheric black & white opening stands out in terms of stylized visuals. By holding back, he instead captures so much from intent behind every scene to production design in an almost brilliant way at times. Again, the hanging scenes toward the end are really eerie with people looking down from above and the only real bright spot is the noose itself. As for production design, this film doesn't need to be big in scope. What it does needs is both subtle and obvious design to effectively take us back to this era and it truly does. It is so evident that a lot of care went into every aspect of this production (not totally common with every Hong Kong movie at the time) including acting.
Have always regarded Tony, Kent and Elvis highly as actors even if the latter does more wild, whacky roles than drama ones. Elvis did prove already in the 80s that he had a pretty good screen presence when he got a chance to show more mature acting. This is one of those performances by Elvis Tsui. The audiences are tricked into believing that his character is one dimensional but we get glimpses throughout of a man that is more than just a simple murderer. Tony Leung Kar-Fai is very good but he and his co-stars do look bad when the movie is in that same territory (the comedy mentioned earlier). Not even they can correct these misjudgments even when acting at the best of their abilities. Tony saves the best acting till last and he's one of the reasons that the ending is so powerful. Kent Cheng is excellent as Qiang who is torn between what's right, be loyal to the law or his friends. Not even he can resist what's waiting at the end of that dark tunnel though. His depth is the greatest because of these layers of doubt, temptation and desperation and this multitalented large man should've had an acting award nomination at least that year.
Sentenced To Hang does many things right and is a powerful true life story. The flaws it possesses are not forgivable but Taylor Wong direction throughout is still very dedicated. Certainly the best movie I've seen him do.
The 1.80:1 print Universe has provided comes with good and bad points. Only two scenes feature extensive print damage and the rest is very clean. Dayscenes look colourful and detailed but the many night scenes are very dark. Almost to the point where it's hard to see what's going on.
Whatever reason Universe had for not remixing this Cantonese dub into 5.1 Dolby Digital, I applaud them for it. The 2.0 mono sounds as good as you would expect for a 1989 Hong Kong production and that's a very good thing. The muffled Mandarin dub is 5.1 though but Cantonese is the intended language anyway.
The English subtitles came out ok but still had its share of errors. Nothing distracting though and certainly better than having the original burned in ones. Bahasa Malaysian, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
Good Star's Files for Tony Leung and Kent Cheng are included and I like that Universe listed Tony's awards on a separate page in this file. Trailers for Sentenced To Hang (that combines movie footage with real life interviews with people who may or may not remember the case) and Beloved Son Of God ends a slim extra's package.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson