(A.k.a. THE EIGHT IMMORTALS RESTAURANT: THE UNTOLD STORY; BUNMAN: THE UNTOLD STORY; BAT SIN FAN DIM: YAN YUK CHA SIU BAU)
During a prologue set in 1978, our gambling antagonist Chan Chi Leung (Anthony Wong) loses an after-hours game of Mahjong and takes this turn of events very badly, proceeding to smack his gloating opponent over the head several times before dousing him in petrol and setting him alight.
Beneath the film's opening titles, we witness Wong burning his Hong Kong Identity Card. This is followed by his escape to China, by which time he's acquired a Chinese Identity Card and assumed a new identity - Wong Chi Hang.
And so, THE UNTOLD STORY begins proper in Macau, 1986. A mother cavorts frivolously on the beach with her two sons, who stumble upon a bag washed up on the shore containing human limbs. Naturally the woman rings the police: enter the most inept team of detectives imaginable. Bo (Emily Kwan), the sole female of the team and the lowest ranking officer, is required to inspect the limbs more closely - something she does purely to gain the respect of her team's leader, Officer Lee (the film's producer Danny Lee). He seems like a local celebrity in his own right, flanked as he is wherever he goes by glamorous women.
Upon inspecting the grisly remains himself, Lee insists there must be more washed ashore somewhere, and in the meantime asks muscle-bound dimwit Robert (Eric Kei) to bag the limbs up so they can be investigated further at the morgue. The team is completed by horny dorks Bull (Parkman Wong) and King Kong (King-Kong Lam).
Meanwhile, in the bustling centre of Macau, Wong is busy running his business, The Eight Immortals Restaurant. He appears to be an intense and conscientious chef, although early signs indicate that his waitress Pearl (Julie Lee) is a tad uneasy when she spies him admiring her legs from afar.
More disconcertingly, it appears Wong bought the restaurant off its former owner Cheng (Siu-Ming Lau) but he's unfortunately done a moonlight flit ... so Wong has no deeds to prove that he now owns the place. Repeated visits to a local attorney prove fruitless, even after offers of bribery, so he's left struggling to prove he took the business over fair and square.
While the police are busy bickering amongst themselves in-between running fingerprint traces on the severed arms they recovered, Wong is dealing with a new employee who's caught him cheating at another after-hours gambling session. Wong slays the unfortunate in a cruel, gory fashion before gutting him like a pig and dispensing of his bones in the outdoor waste bin. The innards? He runs them through the mincer and serves them up to customers the following day as "barbecue pork buns". They prove to be extremely popular.
Well, we know by this point what Wong is capable of. And the cops, eventually, realise that all their clues - the fingerprints, a letter from a concerned relative searching for his missing brother Cheng - lead to The Eight Immortals Restaurant.
So, the cops call by Wong's place of business and question him - while enjoying some complimentary pork buns. Feeling the heat, Wong knows he has to protect his violent little secret (still to be revealed via flashback at this point, but I'm sure you've gathered he didn't acquire the keys to the restaurant via legal means) and so sets about slaughtering the suspicious Pearl in a stupendously grisly, unsavoury manner. It's the "chopstick" scene, which I'd recommend going into blind if you're not already familiar with the film and are looking for the shock factor.
From here onwards the police investigation intensifies, focusing exclusively on Wong. But where is the evidence required to secure a conviction?
THE UNTOLD STORY blows up quite spectacularly during its second half, but my golden rule is to never offer spoilers beyond the midway point! It's safe to say you can expect some fairly extreme, brutal content along with high drama, a couple of narrative twists and more imbalanced humour from the crazy cops.
THE UNTOLD STORY is pretty legendary in underground circles, a Hong Kong exploitation classic based loosely on a true crime case that came to light in 1985. With this in mind, director Herman Yau's choice of tone must come into question. As enjoyable and truly memorable as the film is as a whole, the decision to pepper it with slapstick comedy from the bungling cops and downbeat excessive bloody violence elsewhere, is a bizarre one at best.
This gives proceedings a slightly schizophrenic feel, akin to how the juxtaposition between the breezy scenes of the hapless cops in Wes Craven's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT with the raw, almost documentary-style sexual violence experienced later in that film sits ill for many people. It could be - and has been - argued that the light relief is just that: it's there to offer occasional respite from the otherwise unrelenting darkness of the story and content. I get that, and the more I watch the film I acclimatise to these tonal shifts, but for me alone I'd be really interested to see how this film played out if it were completely serious from beginning to end. I imagine it would've been utterly horrific, in the best possible way.
As it stands, I still love THE UNTOLD STORY. The light relief may not be to my taste, but it does suggest the police are somewhat inept and vain (though Yau insists this was not his intention), which lends events a slightly political edge. This does sit well with the film's underlying social commentary: the suggestion that Wong is a member of the underclass and as such will literally kill to upgrade his status in life; Lee's status as a pseudo-celebrity while those working beneath him are dancing around aimlessly like headless snakes; the police brutality which goes unchallenged; the savage portrayal of life inside a Hong Kong prison and your lack of human rights once you happen to be incarcerated within one.
Wong gives a fantastic performance, portraying a man constantly on the edge and clearly capable of tipping over at any second into acts of unspeakable violence. He's clever enough to talk his way out of situations and attempt to cover his tracks once he's snapped, but also too hot-headed and arrogant to fully outwit those persecuting him. He never flinches during the film's most contentious scenes (we're talking rape, sexual violence, infanticide, beheadings etc), creating a character who is at equal turns monstrous and compelling. The fact that we almost feel sympathy for him during the film's latter half is testimony to Yau's brutal depiction of how he's tortured into his confession by the ruthless police. But that sympathy is fleeting; the flashback finale erodes any such empathy. Wong won the Hong Kong equivalent to an Oscar for Best Actor in this film ...
Snappily paced, beautifully photographed, well-lit and laced throughout with unforgettably gory, mean-spirited set-pieces, THE UNTOLD STORY has undeniably been crafted with care. It's not only a "once seen, never forgotten" experience; it's also a film that holds up to repeat viewings and retains its powerful punch to this day, almost thirty years since its initial release.
Unearthed Films bring this infamous gem to blu-ray for the first time anywhere, as part of their Classics sideline. The disc is region-free (thankfully, the packaging's claim that the disc is region A encoded is incorrect).
The running time here is 95 minutes and 49 seconds: THE UNTOLD STORY is presented fully uncut.
Described by Unearthed Films head honcho Stephen Biro as a "Holy Grail" acquisition and a "labour of love", these words are backed up within seconds of viewing this all-new 1080p HD scan - the film looks marvellous. You know how, for the longest time, a lot of classic Hong Kong cult cinema suffered on blu-ray from somewhat washed-out transfers? Well not here; the presentation is pristine, bright, boldly colourful, rich with texture and natural grain, and filled with fine detail. It was almost like seeing the film through fresh eyes. The print has been cleaned of all specks and dirt while retaining an authentic filmic look and feel. Some scenes are marginally softer in appearance than others, but when considering this is a low budget Hong Kong film from the 90s, I don't see that as an issue. The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio and is anamorphic widescreen.
Likewise, the original Cantonese 1.0 PCM audio offers a sterling, problem-free and evenly balanced playback. There's also an option to watch the film in Mandarin 1.0 PCM too. There's even an isolated score option.
Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read at all times.
Pop-up menus include a scene-selection option allowing you to access the main feature by way of 12 chapters.
Now, on to the extras:
We begin with no less than three audio commentary tracks.
The first is from Wong, speaking in very clear English about how he got into acting at the age of twenty-one, and that one of his classmates while studying the form was none other than co-star Kwan. He mumbles awkwardly when British moderator Miles Wood (author of the book "Cine East: Hong Kong Cinema Through the Looking Glass") asks what was Danny Lee was like to work with, and seems reluctant that he imbued his character with any sympathetic attributes. Wong doesn't appear to be too keen on the film to begin with - admitting he did very little research into the true case the film bases itself on - but acknowledges its cult appeal, and towards the end of proceedings lightens up somewhat, even laughing at some scenes. There are some pregnant pauses along the way and Wood doesn't always ask the pertinent questions, but the tone is natural and relaxed throughout. It's definitely a worthwhile listen.
Our second commentary comes from director Yau. This is moderated by the same uncredited moderator, but he takes more of a backseat here allowing Yau to talk fluently about the film's background, its inspiration and its making. Yau also has an excellent grasp of English, and has plenty to say on virtually every aspect of the production: music, editing, acting, tone, effects, the true crime origins, locations etc. He reveals early on that the objective with THE UNTOLD STORY was to see how far a Category III film could go. Wood's questions are more technical here - asking about budget etc - and Yau is forthcoming at every turn. Yau speaks openly about the film's extreme violence and reveals that it courted censorial hardship in its home country due to the censors classifying its violence as being of the troublesome "domestic" variety. Again, there are a few breaks in the commentary, but by and large Yau has a great deal to say on the matter.
As fascinating and worthy as the above archival commentary tracks are, both originally recorded for Tai Seng's 1999 DVD release, I found the third one - a newly recorded effort from "Ultra Violent" editor Art Ettinger and "Cinema Arcana" curator Bruce Holecheck - to be the most engaging. The pair bounces off each other enjoyably throughout, sometimes being scene-specific but also digressing to offer an abundance of background information on key players. There is inevitably some repetition by this stage, but there's also a wealth of further contextual facts proffered here ... as well as a passion which undeniably rubs off on the viewer/listener. They race through a history and explanation of Category III cinema - with lots of other titles referenced - and give us a comprehensive, fairly amazing list of values not permitted in anything other than these adult-only films (crime must not be seen to pay; expletives are not allowed; nudity is a no; religion must not be challenged etc). The true crime behind the film is discussed, as are locations etc, its three-week shooting schedule, and even the thorny issue of the depiction of rape is discussed in an academic manner. Both are unabashed fans of the film, with Ettinger holding it in the same esteem as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Ettinger and Holecheck, at the end, even briefly talk about how they met.
"Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema" is an excellent 83-minute documentary from High Rising Productions, focusing on a rating system imposed on Hong Kong films in 1988 - category III (or CAT III) movies being those that were not suitable for people under the age of eighteen. This soon led to a slew of excessive cinema aimed squarely at CAT III (adult) audiences, offering a tidal wave of gory violence and/or (non-hardcore) erotica, which became popular at midnight screenings and the like.
Including contributions from the likes of critics James Mudge and Sean Tierney, actors Gan Kwok-Leung and Anthony Wong, actress Josie Ho, film historian Bey Logan, directors Godfrey Ho and Daniel Chan and SITGES festival deputy director Mike Hostench, this consistently engaging feature begins with the rating's origins - which ironically was thanks to the controversy raised by the Chinese propaganda film MEN BEHIND THE SUN.
The content style of CAT III films is traced back to the Shaw Bros films here, in particular their horror titles such as 1974's mental THE KILLER SNAKES. MEN BEHIND THE SUN's impact is explored in greater depth, as well as being assessed critically.
A multitude of films are mentioned along the way as the category's history is charted, with some being discussed with more reverence than others. Important titles are given their due, while clips and stills cover many films - such as (to name but a handful) TAXI HUNTER, ELECTION, STORY OF RICKY, NAKED KILLER, SEX AND ZEN, ROBOTRIX, EBOLA SYNDROME, EROTIC GHOST STORY, NAKED WEAPON, HAPPY TOGETHER, DREAM HOME, DR LAMB ... and, of course, THE UNTOLD STORY.
Addressing THE UNTOLD STORY, Wong recalls how he signed up to star in the film prior to reading the script - which he ended up hating. He believes he channelled his subsequent anger into creating his memorable character. He also dismissed his acting award for the film as "a joke"; however, he seems genuinely touched when he recalls the moment he realised that - to his utter amazement - he had become a cult icon outside of his homeland.
This well-edited, well-lit and well-produced documentary is presented in crisp and colourful HD. More importantly, it's well-paced, informative and impassioned. It sits very comfortably on this disc, feeling perfectly placed as a great bonus feature on the definitive release of perhaps the most notorious and celebrated title in all of CAT III cinema.
"Cantonese Carnage" is a 14-minute featurette wherein Rick Baker of UK video label Eastern Heroes speaks of how he first came across Category III while holidaying in Japan with his partner in the mid-90s. This prompted them upon their return home to look into securing UK rights to a string of such titles and release them in the UK, where they soon discovered a market hungry for the likes of THE NOCTURNAL DEMON, SEX AND ZEN, THE STORY OF RICKY, HOLY VIRGIN VS THE EVIL DEAD, NAKED KILLER and ESCAPE FROM BROTHEL. Censorial issues are unsurprisingly discussed at length, as is the importance of a good salacious cover to sell these films to their curious niche audience. Baker is a likeable, sometimes excitable and certainly engagingly passionate screen presence. He also talks without pause, which means you get plenty of mileage out of these 14 minutes of screen time. Baker ends on an interesting note, highlighting that although Cat III films are still being produced, it's the 1990s ones - the likes of DR LAMB, RED TO KILL etc - that are still being discussed. The newer ones don't seem to generate much interest.
We also get treated to 7 minutes of filmed footage from a Q&A session with director Yau. This is again in English, with long-haired Yau speaking fluidly and with a welcome degree of humour about the tribulations of dodging censorship and finding distribution in Hong Kong. I'm not sure where or when this filmed, but it's clearly at some UK-based festival.
Next up are several trailers. The first two are for THE UNTOLD STORY itself. One is quite lengthy - 3 minutes and 23 seconds - presented in standard definition and with original Cantonese language sans subtitles. It focuses largely on the film's darker moments, playing down its more comedic interludes. The other - 1 minute and 41 seconds in length - is more honest in its depiction of the film's shifting tones, with an American voiceover excitedly rasping out exclamations such as "creepy!", "darkly witty" and the like.
The remaining three trailers relate to other titles in the Unearthed Films roster. These are Ryan Nicholson's FAMINE, Domiziano Cristopharo's HOUSE OF FLESH MANNEQUINS, Bruce R Cook's NIGHTWISH, Stephen Biro's own THE SONG OF SOLOMON and THE UNNAMABLE.
This amazing package is rounded off by a 4-page colour booklet in which the aforementioned Art Ettinger recounts his own introduction to the film in an entertaining manner, and a limited slipcase which offers different cover art to that which adorns the one in the standard keepcase beneath.
THE UNTOLD STORY stands the test of time as a hard-hitting horror-crime crossover, remaining as potent as ever during its more dramatic and ultra-violent passages. Wong's performance is wonderful, teetering on the verge of mania but never sliding into ridiculousness. Of course, the more comedic moments are still jarring, but without them this may have been one of the bleakest films ever. That wouldn't have concerned me personally, but I can see how the comic relief is probably a welcome addition for many.
Unearthed Films have assembled a fantastic package here, which I imagine will endure as the definitive release of THE UNTOLD STORY.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Unearthed Films|