The Untold Story (1993)

Directed by: Herman Yau
Written by: Law Gam Fai
Producer: Danny Lee
Starring: Anthony Wong, Danny Lee, Emily Kwan, Shing Fui On & Julia Lee

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1994:
Best Actor (Anthony Wong)

When it came to the more notorious Cat III-movies out of Hong Kong, I was very unsure whether I would be able to endure any of them. They sounded extremely grueling and nasty on paper so you could understand ones hesitation. Dr. Lamb was a movie that indeed displayed some graphic images but I didn't react as strongly towards Run And Kill and Ebola Syndrome for example (the latter was mostly fun actually). If I can see a real movie with intentions under all that violence I can sit sit through it and that can be applied to Herman Yau's The Untold Story.

Wong Chi Hang (Anthony Wong from Hard Boiled) runs the Eight Immortals Restaurant in Macau. There lies an aura of mystery behind him and why he owns the restaurant though. The previous owner and his family suddenly vanished and according to Wong he was handed over the establishment. Soon a bag of chopped up human body parts are washed up on the shores of Macau...

The year before this wave of Cat III true crime-films started with Billy Tang and Danny Lee's Dr. Lamb. The structure of The Untold Story reminds more than just a little of the one in Billy and Danny's movie which isn't completely odd since Law Gam Fai wrote both. It may not be fair to criticize though since both movies are based on real life events and what we see is fairly close to what happened in both cases. For director Herman Yau it was the first venture into horror/thriller-movies and nowadays that is what he is mostly known for here in the west. There are qualities to be found in Herman Yau the director (he has also acted as cinematographer on a few films including Legend Of Zu) but they're always not apparent. As I noted in my review of Ebola Syndrome the director couldn't quite find a good pace and rhythm to the film. Here however things flow better but it feels like we have two movies trapped in one. One good and one bad.

The Untold Story is of course famous for it's very graphic depiction of violence. We're rarely spared the details of the acts and the various murders committed by Anthony Wong's character are right up in the face of the viewer to a pretty high degree. Effects wise this production ranks above the standard for a 1993 production which means we get to see a lot of the effort by the effects team. What Herman does though is sometimes turn away from the bloodletting by placing the camera and utilizing different angles without fully showing what is going on. The overall effect of disgust and shock is still made clear though, believe me. This way of handling some of the violence made the whole experience less disturbing for me though.

Since it's extreme violence that's being shown it's important to not make it entertaining, especially since this is based on true events. To me, nothing in The Untold Story is glorified. The killings are horrible, the killer is horrible and we get to witness such a cold and cruel side of reality that we wouldn't dare to dream of even. Then the argument arises that out of respect to the victims families you shouldn't be so graphic. That is a valid argument but I would rather have the whole film unmade than to shy away from exactly how disgusting the murders were. It happened and can happen again somewhere else in the world. I have full respect for what the filmmakers did with these sections of the film and it feels like Herman's intentions were realized.

Chow Wai Kei provides some solid cinematography in this film. The murders take place in the restaurant which itself is seems up and painted to give the impression of a slaughterhouse. Chow Wai Kei then makes it looks even more cold and bleak which works effectively with Herman's direction. Jonathan Wong's (also composer of Dr. Lamb) minimal score doesn't break any new ground but kicks in nicely during the intense moments in the film. The music has an eerie doomsday-feeling over it and is another aspect that the movie benefits from.

That's the parts of the movie that does work, now time for the parts that doesn't. Whenever our 'hero' police force are on screen the movie almost turns into a slapstick-comedy. These contrasts between violence and comedy are in every other Hong Kong film but it's rare when the humour inserted actually is funny! Same with The Untold Story and the constant below the belt jokes, like the police men teasing Emily Kwan because they don't find her pretty, gets old even before they start. I have a strong feeling that Wong Jing may have been lurking behind the scenes. It's my understanding that Hong Kong audiences quite like this type of humour even if it's an ultra serious film. In this film however the gap between violence and comedy is so large that I just can't understand why the filmmakers insisted on so much comedy-attempts. The only time the humor does work is in the first murder scene where the victim dies with a firm grip on Wong's foot. Very darkly humerous but still a touch of humour that seems more appropriate if you must have it.

Another aspect of the movie that is shown in full detail is the high level of police brutality. Wong Chi Hang does get caught eventually and the cops waste no time giving him a physical hell. Again, this may be true to the real life events and it's been seen in movies before. Sure, Wong deserves severe punishment but in this case it's should be up to the justice system and the prison itself to punish him. At moments we do feel sorry for Wong but I think Herman balances that line of not letting him became fully sympathetic. We still see enough signs of him being the monster that he is even amidst the punishment he is the subject of.

I must say that I think the supporting cast of this movie deserve some praise (especially Julia Lee) for the courage they display throughout. It couldn't have been easy or fun to shoot these intense and violent scenes, whether you were behind or in front of the camera (actually Herman says that there was a light atmosphere on set so...). Especially the rape scene and the finale are incredibly strong. That cast and Anthony Wong himself are the movies true assets. There's no doubt that Anthony performs his role well here. We're completely convinced of the evil in Wong Chi Hang and he literally is embodied by this terrific actor. The only quibble I have was during a moment or two outside of the violence Anthony's performance feels ever so slightly too intense.

As written the character isn't fully realized though. We do get some back story to him in the movies opening flashback but then when the movie jumps ahead a few years we're supposed to believe he is evil straight of the bat. But what truly made him that way? Was he shaped over the years to become this killing machine or what? It's never made totally clear but Anthony's acting is so strong that you tend to forget to question the lack of proper characterarc.

Danny Lee plays a cop (again...) and it's really evident that he has taken full advantage of being a producer of The Untold Story His character almost always enters the police station with a beautiful woman with him (although he admits that they're hookers) and for any particular reason or purpose? Well, Herman explains on the commentary that he wanted to change the typical cop image Danny has in movies but it doesn't become any better, only worse.. Danny can act when he tries to but in these Cat III-productions he's been really average. As someone once told me about a Danny Lee performance in another movie: 'He could've phoned his performance in'.

Herman Yau's The Untold Story is a good film despite my problems with the humour. As they say, it's not a movie for the faint of heart but for those who can stand it, it's not a waste of time at all.

The DVD:

Tai Seng's dvd is the full uncut version. Even in Hong Kong the movie required some cuts but this release represents the movie Herman made. The 1.85:1 does look a bit muddled but the detail looks fairly good still. I feel that this look is right for the movie and it further makes the mood even darker. Darker SCENES doesn't come off very well however. It's also a remarkably clean print with only a few select instances of specs and whatnot.

The Cantonese original mono track is on here and sounds ok. It's slightly muffled but dialogue and music comes across as it should. A Mandarin mono track is also on the disc.

The optional English subtitles are in yellow and featured no errors as far as I could see.

In the cleverly designed menus (restaurant menus actually) we find a number of worthwhile extras staring with not only one but TWO audio commentaries. On the first track we hear director Herman Yau along with Hong Kong Film Critic Miles Wood. Miles merely acts as an interviewer and nothing else really but it's a good track nonetheless. Herman talk about a number of interesting topics like shooting locations (very little of the movie was actually shot in Macau), camera techniques, why there's comedy in a film like this and the reactions to the film in 1993. Among the things I found the most interesting was when Herman talked about the research process into the real events and how he decided to go as far as he could in terms of violence, even though he deep inside knew the ratings board would want him to cut stuff out. The big downside to this track is that it has a number of long gaps with no comments from either participants.

The second track features Miles Wood again and he is this time joined by leading man Anthony Wong. This is a decent listen where, among other topics, Anthony shares his views on and how he handled the character. He's also not afraid to critique some parts of the film including the comedy and even one of the costars! Highlights of this track include Anthony's thoughts on Hong Kong cinema and Hollywood plus he adds some good notes about shooting the finale. Miles Wood is a little bit more active on this track and himself discusses nicely the way Hong Kong people see this film compared to western audiences. This track also has a number of gaps between comments but when they do talk it's quite interesting. Note that the second track does end when 5 minutes are left of the film.

(from the Mongkok Story and Ebola Syndrome trailer respectively)

We also get a slew of trailers for Anthony Wong and Danny Lee movies. They are as follows: The Underground Banker , Mongkok Story, Ebola Syndrome, Cop Image, Organized Crime & Triad Bureau, Beast Cops, Armageddon and the theatrical trailer for The Untold Story itself.

Rounding up the disc are pretty good biographies/filmographies of Anthony Wong (nice of Tai Seng to mention his performance in Wilson Yip's Mongkok Story), Danny Lee and director Herman Yau.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson