The Untold Story Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: October 20, 2020
Audio: Cantonese and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Herman Yau
In 1978 in Hong Kong, an argument over gambling debts results in a grisly murder. Eight years later, children discover the severed arms and hands of another victim washed up on a Macao beach. A ragtag, dysfunctional police unit investigates the crime and suspicion falls squarely on Wong Chi Hang (Anthony Wong), the new owner of the Eight Immortals Restaurant, which is renowned for its delicious pork buns. The mysterious limbs belong to the missing mother of the restaurant’s former owner, who, along with his wife and children, has disappeared. Wong can’t produce a signed bill of sale and, despite a lack of evidence, the police arrest him, in order to torture a confession out of him. (From Unearthed Films’ official synopsis)
In 1988, Hong Kong introduced a rating system that included something called Category III (or Cat III). It was essentially equivalent to the MPAA’s NC-17 (which hadn’t been invented at the time) and BBFC’s 18 certificate. Cat III movies were not hardcore pornography, but did include X-rated softcore sex, full frontal female nudity, graphic violence, and depiction of Triad gangs. Combined with a small collection of films that were retroactively re-rated Cat III, there was a short Golden Era between '88 and ‘97, when the colony was absorbed by Mainland China, that endures as legendary among exploitation film lovers. The most notorious of these are likely the Unit 731 (or Maruta) movies – T. F. Mou’s Men Behind the Sun (1988), Godfrey Ho’s Laboratory of the Devil (1992), Ho’s Narrow Escape (aka: Destroy all Evidence, 1994), and Mou’s Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995) – which depict some of the real-world atrocities committed against Chinese and Siberian prisoners by Japan’s 731 (covert biological and chemical warfare research & development unit). However, given that the Unit 731 series was so shocking as to be banned and censored across the globe, three other films (arguably) became the international poster children for Cat III: Michael Mak’s charming erotic comedy, Sex and Zen (1991), Danny Lee & Billy Tang’s true crime horror film, Dr. Lamb (1992), and its pseudo-follow-up, Herman Yau’s The Untold Story (1993), which was produced by Lee, who also appears in a leading role. The latter was designed as an exploitation movie, but fell into prestige territory, due in large part to Anthony Wong’s powerhouse performance, which won him Best Actor at the 13th Hong Kong Film Awards (his first).
In the tradition of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), as well as Dr. Lamb, The Untold Story (Cantonese: Bat sin fan dim: Yan yuk cha siu bau; aka: The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story and Bunman: The Untold Story, 1993) was purportedly based on a true story. The claim wasn’t entirely exploitation hullabaloo. Yau and writers Law Kam-fai & Sammy Lau did begin by researching an infamous incident in Macau in 1985, when one Huang Zhiheng entered a restaurant and murdered, then dismembered the family of ten that ran the establishment after they had failed to repay their gambling debts. Against all odds, the killer then continued operating the Eight Immortals Restaurant, leading to an urban legend that Huang had cooked the remains of his victims and served them to the public in pork buns. According to Steven Jay Schneider’s Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe (FAB Press, 2004), Yau visited Macau and conducted interviews with an inmate who had shared a cell with Huang, renamed Wong for the film, and reporters who covered the story when it broke. As to the pork bun rumors, Yau said "You know, when people who had eaten buns sold by the restaurant read about it, it was enough for them to feel sick, even if the possibility of the reporting to be true was only one percent." Fair enough.
The film was made in the wake of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991), which, after becoming a surprise blockbuster and multi-Oscar-winner, spawned a glut of serial killer movies that were sold as “psychological thrillers,” instead of horror movies, in hopes that they, too, would garner critical accolades. The fad wasn’t limited to Hollywood, of course, and plenty of connections can be drawn between Demme’s film and Yau’s movies. Both are loosely based on actual criminal cases (Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill is based on at least seven real serial killers), they both devote considerable screen time to explore the psychology of murderers (The Untold Story does this in a less clinical manner), and both feature female protagonists struggling through the male-dominated world of law enforcement (The Untold Story’s men are much less subtle in their obnoxious misogyny). Wong and Buffalo Bill also, uh, appropriate the remains of their victims, but they were based on historical murderers and, in the case of The Untold Story, was probably partially inspired by the character Sweeney Todd.
The Untold Story’s controversial nature isn’t strictly tied to its nihilistic violence, but its distasteful morality. It’s difficult to refer to Wong as a sympathetic character, given that the film attempts to frame him within a bleak social and environmental context, Yau explicitly illustrates the economic disparities throughout Hong Kong and depicts the corrupt authorities (including nursing staff at the local hospital) to be as sadistic as Wong. Again, the movie doesn’t ever excuse the killer’s behavior, but, in another interview snippet found in Fear Without Frontiers, Yau confirms that the portrayal of cops is, “in a sense, an anti-police, anti-authority statement.” This verification of intent muddies the moral grey areas, though similar movies, like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), also challenge their audiences to recognize dreadful circumstances without identifying with the actions of their characters. Unlike Taxi Driver’s murderous anti-hero, Travis Bickle, Wong doesn’t only kill societal outcasts (specifically pimps and Johns), which makes it more difficult to justify his brutality. On the other hand, The Untold Story’s disturbing violence is also played for laughs. It’s difficult to reconcile the tonal differences between goofy cop antics and absurd scenes where people are hacked up and cooked into steamed buns with a prolonged rape/murder (easily the most appalling sequence in the entire movie) or savage slaughter of crying children.
Yau’s career trajectory doesn’t help clarify his intentions for the film. Following The Untold Story, he made two even more obvious odes du Taxi Driver – Taxi Hunter (1993), in which a mild mannered businessman (played by Wong) goes on a killing spree after his pregnant wife is hit and killed by a careless pedicab driver, and Cop Image (1994), in which a low-ranking traffic cop (also played by Wong) tries to fashion his life on those of action movie stars. He continued making similar, marginally satirical crime movies about blue collar losers, but eventually embraced his reputation as a transgressive Cat III pioneer by making one of the most shamelessly vulgar and mean-spirited Hong Kong horror movies of the ‘90s, Ebola Syndrome (1996), starring Wong (yet again) as a scumbag who discovers he is a symptom-free carrier of a particularly nasty strain of ebola and begins to intentionally spread the virus throughout the city. He also directed standard fare crime thriller entitled The Untold Story III (1999), though it had nothing in common with the original film or Yiu-Kuen Ng’s The Untold Story 2 (1998, which featured Wong in the role of Officer Lazyboots).
I’m going to guess that, like myself, most North American viewers of a certain age were introduced to The Untold Story via a 1996 Tai Seng Ent. VHS tape or a bootleg dupe of the company’s letterboxed Laserdisc. Then, we had a slightly shabby, but extras-rich DVD from HK company Tai Seng. I had thought that none of the DVDs available were anamorphically enhanced, but DVDCompare.com claims that the Thai disc from Magic Picture is anamorphic. Still, for most fans, The Untold Story is jumping directly from non-anamorphic letterbox to HD. The Blu-ray debut came from Koch Media in Germany and, based on some shared specs and extras, I’m going to assume that Unearthed Films (under their Unearthed Classics heading) is using the same 1080p, 1.85:1 HD transfer (the box art mislabels it as 1.78:1). A lot of Hong Kong movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s have looked like trash and, frankly, it sucks. Part of the issue is that these movies were shot and edited quickly and on the cheap, so the final product could sometimes appear rougher than Hollywood counterparts. The Untold Story has its share of this roughness, but no more than similar movies from the era. The bigger issue is the manner in which these films were preserved for home video. Very recently, companies, like 88 Films and Eureka Entertainment, have begun remastering classics from original negative sources, but I don’t believe that is what has happened here. More likely, this is a weaker scan that has been bolstered by good grading and a decent clean-up. The base image is a bit foggy and soft, both likely done on purpose by Yau and cinematographer Cho Wai-kee, which leads to some washed-out backgrounds, posterization, and telecine noise. But the dynamic range is stronger than, say, the particularly disappointing Dragon Dynasty HK releases from a decade ago, as is its color vibrancy (there are a only a couple of instances where neutral hues pulse warmly), which pays off when the film starts juxtaposing gory reds with sterile white surfaces. The chunkier grain and various debris are limited to a handful of moments, many of which involve some kind of optical effect or layering (like credits). The Untold Story could possibly look better, but this is almost certainly the best fans are going to get. It’s a significant upgrade over the DVDs, at the very least.
Unearthed Films has included Cantonese and Mandarin dub options, both in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono. It was common practice during the period to shoot without synced sound and post dub tracks for the Cantonese market, which was more prevalent in Hong Kong, and the Mandarin market, which was more prevalent on the mainland. VHS tapes would usually include a Cantonese soundtrack along with both Mandarin and English subtitles, since the country was still a British colony at the time. The two tracks are comparable in terms of dialogue, effects, and music levels, so I opted for the Cantonese track under the assumption that most of the cast was dubbing themselves on this dub (it turned out to be a bad assumption, because, according to Yau’s commentary track, only Lee and Wong dubbed themselves). In keeping with similar movies, the soundtrack is relatively thin, so the value of the LPCM is found in the ways it evens things out. Other releases are also mono, but their lossy qualities tend to compress Jonathan Wong’s synth score to mush and congest the single channel. Here, things sound more natural, despite the lack of range and inherent flatness of the ADR processes.
This disc also includes a LPCM 2.0 mono isolated score track.
Commentary with star Anthony Wong – I’m not positive, but I believe this track and the following director’s commentary first appeared on the Tai Seng DVD. It is in English and moderated by critic Miles Wood. It’s a little thin on content, but Wong is a charming guy and fun to listen to.
Commentary with director Herman Yau – The second English language catalog track, again moderated by Wood (who doesn’t introduce himself), also suffers from long stretches were nobody speaks, but is valuable for archival purposes, especially when Yau is pressed to defend some of his choices.
Commentary with Art Ettinger and Bruce Holecheck – In this factoid-fueled track, Ettinger, editor and writer at Ultra Violent Magazine, and Holecheck, editor and writer at Cinema Arcana (among others), explore the making of the film and the true crimes that inspired it. The discussion expands nicely upon the older tracks and various written critiques of the film.
Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema (83:10, HD) – Calum Waddell’s documentary on the subject of the phenomenon has been made available elsewhere, but this will most likely be North American viewers’ first chance to see it. Waddell explores the cultural context and legacy of some of the most transgressive movies the era had to offer, including The Untold Story.
Cantonese Carnage (13:38, HD) – Eastern Heroes’ magazine’s Rick Baker (not the make-up effects guy) talks about struggling to release, sell, collect, and write about Hong Kong’s Cat III era movies in the UK.
Q&A with Herman Yau (7:04, HD) – This footage was recorded at an unspecified screening.
Trailers for other Unearthed releases
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