The Untold Story

Director:Herman Yau                                  
Anthony Wong, Danny Lee, Parkman Wong

Well... this movie was certainly unlike anything I'd seen previously. Though a lot of that can be explained by the fact that it comes from Hong Kong, a film making capital where frequently it seems everything goes. So it is not surprising that in a Hong Kong movie concerning a serial killer, there would be a lot of graphic violence, utterly sick behavior, and being nasty almost for nasty's sake. But the real surprising thing about The Unknown Story is how much of the movie is treated like a comedy. Yes, there are moments of black humor, but that's not what I'm really talking about. I'm talking about har-har humor, where laughs are generated by such things as sex, swearing, and good old macho behavior. And this is between serious segments where people are bloodily hacked up! I'm sure most viewers will be even more flabbergasted than I was, only because I've seen a lot (and before seeing this movie, I thought I'd seen it all.) As strange as it might seem, I'm giving this movie a recommendation, because there are some genuinely good things in it, and it certainly is never boring.

This movie is reportedly based on a true incident, but I have no idea how closely the movie gets to the truth. With the movie's frequent comic interludes, I have to wonder if it is as close to the truth as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was to the case of Ed Gein. It opens in Macau 1986, starting with the discovery of decomposing hacked-off limbs found washed up by the tide on a local beach. Elsewhere in Macau, we are introduced to Wong Chi Hang (Wong, who was in the John Woo movie Hard Boiled), an intense, nerdy looking guy who owns the 8 Immortals Restaurant, a small establishment where the specialty is barbecue pork buns. Actually, he doesn't own the restaurant - when he visits a lawyer early in the movie, we find him claiming the previous owner and himself made an unsigned agreement, and the previous owner is long gone. Around the same time that the police identify the limbs as belonging to a relative of the previous owner, and start investigating Wong and his restaurant, Wong's employees start disappearing. It seems only a matter of time before we'll learn...(ominous music)...The Untold Story.

As you have probably guessed, much of the untold story need not be told at all, since I think it's pretty obvious what happened. Let's deal with this part of the movie first. Wong is the key to whether this part of the movie works or not, and he gives an exceedingly good performance. When his character loses his temper in public, you can sense his madness, yet his character is still smart enough to know not to publicly go too far in his behavior, lest suspicion fall on him. And when Wong's character does snap and kill someone in private, Wong was careful not to go full out insane in his performance. His character does yell and get violent, but not in a way that could even be interpreted as comical. Witness the scene where he carves up one of his victims; Wong is silent, yet his facial expressions are enough to show the intensity and insanity of his character. It isn't a surprise to find out Wong won a Hong Kong equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film.

There are actually not that many scenes in this movie involving Wong murdering as one may think. However, the impact of each sequence is great, because Yau usually doesn't make the murdering go very quickly, instead drawing out each killing so the victim is in agony for a long time. The results are that it's tough to watch these scenes (the torture Wong puts on his female employee is especially hard to sit through.) There is also no hesitation to show gore, with some scenes where the surroundings are absolutely drenched with blood. The movie would get NC-17 several times over if it was submitted to the MPAA.

It's gory and hard to sit through, but that part of the movie is very well made. As I mentioned earlier, there is another part of the movie that has a quite different tone to it. It concerns several Macau police officers on the case, lead by Danny Lee (The Killer), their captain. Surprisingly, Lee doesn't do really anything in this movie, except to constantly walk into rooms at the precinct with a different prostitute in his arm each time. This gets his underlings drooling and making jokes, except for the lone female of the unit. She instead has to fight off their behavior, which would be considered blatant sexual harassment in North America, including that she's butch and has small breasts. She is constantly given this treatment, but she more or less just shrugs it off, and the hilarity just flows. There are also comic scenes outside the precinct, with the squad grossed out and holding their noses over the limbs found at the beach, accidentally ripping a finger off one of the severed arms when trying to take a print, and being so incredibly stupid, they keep forgetting to do the next logical step. When Wong is under surveillance and dumps some garbage, they forget for several minutes that they should check out his garbage bag, so they have to race to the truck and (ha ha!) sift through the stinky garbage. One is simply left speechless by this yuk-yuk humor buried in an otherwise bloody murder story.

I know that Hong Kong has a different culture than North America's, and that they may see this material in a different light. All I can do is comment on this humor and its context from my perspective. Later on in the movie, there is another theme that's radically different in style from how it is typically shown in North America. That's when Wong is arrested, and then put through hell by the police in order to extract a confession from him. He is beaten by the members of the squad repeatedly, thrown into a dangerous cell block where he's abused by his fellow prisoners, and given other kinds of sadistic treatment dictated by the police squad. At times, the members of the squad - and even the film itself - seems to consider this treatment almost like a joke. (Interestingly enough, when the press finds out and publicizes this treatment, nothing changes for Wong, and the squad doesn't seem to get into trouble.) I've seen a similar attitude towards police brutality in other Hong Kong films, so maybe it's a local attitude or just how it's accepted in their film culture. Again, all I can do is comment on it from my perspective. This treatment goes on for so long and is so sadistic, it soon becomes ludicrous. Even if police brutality is a common occurrence in Hong Kong or Macau, I can't see it possibly going on this long and so harshly.

In the end, I decided to take this comic attitude and the brutality to Wong as just two of the many ways Hong Kong movies can be different from movies made on this continent. From that attitude, it was easier to swallow these peculiarities, and they became interesting to watch as a result. And as I said before, the part of the movie surrounding Wong and his sickening deeds is very well done, both scary and convincing. For some people - those who have been significantly hardened by violent North American movies - this might make an interesting and insightful introduction to the frequently bizarre and explicit world of Hong Kong movies. Still, they should prepare themselves - even I wasn't quite prepared for what I was going to see here.

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See also: Confessions Of A Serial Killer, Robotrix, Skinner