The Untold Story (Bat sin fan dim: Yan yuk cha siu bau)

Hong Kong (1993) Dir. Herman Yau

Sometimes, when you watch a brutal film about a sociopathic serial killer the last thing you want to see in the credits is the legend “Based on real events”. The Untold Story is unequivocally one of these films.

1978, Hong Kong and gambler Wong Chi-hang (Anthony Wong) murders Keung (James Ha) by burning him alive for refusing to lend him some money. Wong then changes his identity and flees to Macau. Eight years later, severed limbs are found washed up on the beach. A police forensics check reveals they belonged to a female relative of Cheng Lam, owner of the Eight Immortals Restaurant.

Visiting the restaurant, the police discover it is now run by Wong, claiming he bought it from Lam before he emigrated. The police receive a letter from Lam’s brother, currently imprisoned in China, asking them to find Lam who has disappeared. Further investigation raises questions about the veracity of Wong’s ownership of the restaurant and Lam’s disappearance. Bur Wong is hiding an even deadlier secret.  

Wong is based on Huang Zhiheng who slaughtered all 10 members of the Zheng family in their Macau restaurant, the Eight Immortals over unpaid gambling debts. Herman Yau, now a respected high profile director, began his career with low-budget films like The Untold Story which was so graphic and disturbing it earned a notorious CAT III rating in Hong Kong.

Not that it is hard to see why, starting as it means to go on with the first killing occurring less than two minutes in, riffing on a murder Zhiheng committed in 1973 in Hong Kong. In depicting these gruesome crimes Yau leaves little to the imagination yet decides to turn this into a semi-comedy, with outdated sexist material arguably as offensive as the blood and (literal) guts!

This light relief comes at the expense of the police, who could be out of a Stephen Chow comedy. There’s muscle head Bull (Parkman Wong), feckless Robert (Eric Kei), smarmy senior King Kong (Lam King Kong) and tomboy female Bo (Emily Kwan), all desperate for the approval of dapper work shy boss Inspector Lee (Danny Lee). The recurring gag is Lee always showing up with a hooker on his arm for the men to drool over and Bo to be jealous of.

Quite why writers Law Kam-fai and Sammy Lau thought this would work in juxtaposition to the grotesque violence and explicit imagery of Wong’s murders is a mystery. It might be to give the audience a break from the graphic horror of Wong’s actions, but the tonal shift is too abrupt to work. If, on the other hand, it is to exemplify the notion of the police being useless, again, there are more subtle ways of achieving this.

Back to Wong and it is never explained why he is the way he is, and this appears to be true of Zhiheng, who died from suicide in 1986 whilst in prison, just as Wong did. The adapted story really does closely follow most of the key events of the real saga, with minor things like names and timelines altered slightly, and one other facet which we’ll get to later.

One thing we do learn is Wong is quick to temper and clearly paranoid, more so once he is in Macau. At the restaurant, he hires waitress Pearl (Julie Lee) and soon after a waiter, both of whom he kills in cold blood. The waiter saw Wong cheat at Mahjong which led to his brutal death, whilst Wong suspected Pearl said something incriminating the police. Pearl’s murder is the worst of the two, preceded as it is by a vicious rape.

If you think this is bad enough, it does actually get worse. Wong realises the mistake of dumping the body parts of the Lam family in the sea, and adopts a new method of removing the flesh first then dumping the bones in bags in the rubbish skip. But what about the flesh I hear you ask? Well, Wong does run a restaurant and their barbecue pork buns are popular due to their unusual taste…

As I recall, there was a scandal a few years ago when it transpired that some burgers and other meat products purported to be beef where actually made from horse meat! This didn’t sit well with many people as you would expect, but now we know there are far worse things we could find in our meat. However, this part of the story is exclusive to this film and not based on fact.

Yet, it is hard to reconcile the fact much of what is shown here did actually happen and that someone as deranged as Zhiheng existed. Obviously, we shouldn’t feel anything but disdain for this psychopath but when Wong is imprisoned and suffers at the hands of his cellmates and the police wanting a confession, Yau somehow paints Wong as almost sympathetic – albeit temporarily.

Much of this is also down to the exceptional performance from Anthony Wong, another esteemed figure in Hong Kong cinema today, making the character Wong as terrifying as possible often by doing very little. His Macau persona has a shaven head and large, coke bottle glasses, magnifying the unhinged sadism of his eyes when in full psycho mode, belying the comedic simpleton image he otherwise projects.

Calling this a horror film is a stretch but the gore and violence on display is worse than many genuine shockers. The apex is the flashback of Wong killing Lam’s family, which includes five young children, which we didn’t really need to see, leaving us hoping this didn’t traumatise the young actors. Similarly, I hope Julie Lee was paid well for what she had to endure during Pearl’s rape/murder.

Forgive the pun, but if you have the stomach for it, The Untold Story is a powerful look at a seriously dark chapter in Hong Kong history and will leave an indelible impression on you whether you like it or not.

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