Friday, July 14, 2006

The Untold Story (1992)

The Untold Story (Herman Yau, 1992)
Cantonese Title: Baat sin faan dim ji yan yuk cha siu baau

The plot of Herman Yau's cult classic The Untold Story is not unfamiliar. It has been told repeatedly in the form of tall tales, tabloid stories, and urban legends. However, unlike the the bizarre tales reserved in hush-hush settings or sleepovers, Yau actually presents evidence that his film is based on a true story. An actual case happened in the port-city of Macau. Part police procedural, part sadistic gross-out spectacle, and part soft-porn romp, The Untold Story is quite an achievement in exploitation filmmaking.

Wong Chi-hang (Anthony Wong) is the new owner of the Eight Immortals Restaurant. With his unkempt hairdo and eyeglasses whose frames are as big as coasters, Wong does not have the common look, not even the slightest indication, of a mass murderer. As it turns out, looks can be deceiving because Wong is in fact a serial killer who has killed the previous restaurant owner's family, and each and every employee that crosses his path. To add sickness to his propensity for murder, the meat buns that he serves the customers of his restaurant are actually are filled with a sizable serving of ground human meat, freshly harvested from his victims.

Anthony Wong, whose size and good looks can be an unnecessary burden in giving life to the role of a murderous lunatic, pulls off a performance that is unsettling yet believable. His huge eyes give off an uncomfortable sense of evil brewing beneath his normal guy-exterior. Actually, the entire film is carried by Wong whose character beat off Hannibal Lecter in the insanity department. While Lecter is a man of intellect, Wong is your everyday man, a man who you'd probably encounter in one of your trips in Chinatown. Lecter's profession makes him harmless to the general public but Wong's is a bane to all health inspectors and especially those, who are more interested in quick, tasty and more importantly cheap lunches. Finally, Lecter is far too intelligent as his plans are perfectly planned and timed. Wong is dumb and crude, and his motivations are primarily human without the need for much philosophical or cultural musings.

The film's biggest downfall is the unsatisfying portrayal of the police. Lecter is provided with brilliant captors and chasers, There is Will Graham in Manhunter (Michael Mann 1986), and and Clarise Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001). Wong is given the Macau police, or as how Yau, producer Danny Lee, and the screenwriters depict them. Wong's captors are a bunch of chauvinistic stereotypical cops and a man-crazed lady cop whose side story is far too distracting to be of any material import to the film. The cops are basically there as plot devices, utilized just to push the film forward, to represent the fact that crime does not pay and even if you have the most inhumane, dumbest, and ridiculous police team in the world, the crook will end either in jail or dead. This inadequate and insulting representation of civility and order is ultimately a huge disservice to the maniacal villainy of Wong.

That is how The Untold Story is told. It moves forward when we are given glimpses of Wong's insanity, but slows down or completely halts when we are offered the perspectives of the law enforcers. While Yau's vision is enjoyably brutal, with scenes that are unflinching and unforgiving to the unwary viewer, as blood gush out of opened up arteries like glorious fountains, limbs are thrown like, and men, women, and children are slain like ordinary cattle, it evidently struggles and ultimately suffers when the exploitation stops.

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