The Untold Story (1993)
Studio: Unearthed Films
Release date: October 20th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
In 1985, a frequent gambler who’d already evaded one murder charge in his life stormed into the Eight Immortals Restaurant in Hong Kong, incensed that the owner hadn’t paid up on a gambling debt. Seeking restitution, the madman began threatening violence toward the owner’s family, eventually taking one for a hostage as the others watched on in horror. By the end of the night, all ten members of the Zheng family were butchered, their bodies dismembered with a cold, calculating efficiency as the murderer set out to cover up his tracks by discarding the evidence before taking over the restaurant himself. Claiming that the owners had left for the mainland and sold the restaurant to him, this charade lasted for months before police uncovered the grisly truth. It should come as no surprise that such a notorious case—which eventually birthed the urban legend that the restaurant served food stuffed with the meat of the madman’s victims—would eventually inspire a movie. Maybe it is surprising, however, that such a horrific event inspired The Untold Story, an offbeat black comedy of sorts that was also marketed under the titles The Human Pork Bun and Human Meat Roast Pork Buns in a sensationalist attempt at exploiting the more salacious rumors surrounding the ordeal.
Or maybe it’s not so surprising when you consider that The Untold Story hails from the wilds of Category III Hong Kong horror, a notoriously unrepentant filmmaking scene where giving any sort of fucks about sensitivity was considered optional. Hell, it was downright discouraged. These are some of the strangest, most idiosyncratic films ever made, with a tone and approach all their own that reads as totally unreal to the uninitiated. Often blending the comedic with the macabre, their tonal dissonance is matched only by their audacity: these movies really go for it, and they don’t particularly care that they’re ruthlessly dragging the audience along for the ride, bashing their skulls on every bump in the road. The Untold Story is a sterling (which is to say, grimy) example of the form, a movie that shamelessly exploits a horrific tragedy for inappropriate laughs and squeamish shocks. It’s absolutely tasteless but powerfully so: it’s one of those compelling, well-crafted tours of the vomitorium that rewires the conventional binary notions our brains are accustomed to adhering when it comes to evaluating art.
To its credit, The Untold Story lets its especially squeamish audience members what they’re in for almost immediately. In 1978, Wong Chi-hang (Anthony Wong) beats a man within an inch of his life before lighting him on fire, effectively broadcasting that 1.) shit is going to get nasty and 2.) someone was willing to set themselves on fire for your entertainment. Five years later, Wong resurfaces in Macau, where a group of children discover a pile of neatly severed limbs washed up on the beach. The police swiftly arrive on the scene, which is standard procedure; what isn’t so standard is the offbeat quartet that shows up bumbling their way through the crime scene. Bull (Parkman Wong), Robert (Eric Kei), and King Kong (Lam King Kong) are a perpetually horny trio of guys who lust after every woman they encounter, save for their partner, Bo (Emily Kwan), who they tease because she’s a tomboy. Not that it bothers her because she’s too busy being thirsty on main for their supervisor, Inspector Lee (Danny Lee), a brash Lothario who shows up with different women on each arm every time he’s on-screen. Multiple running gags with the cops—whether it’s the boys busting each others’ chops or Bo dressing more provocatively to catch Lee’s eye—introduce an unexpected strain of humor. Calling it levity would be misguided because levity implies an intention to undercut the horror; The Untold Story’s two halves seemingly unfold oblivious to each other, creating the sensation of channel surfing between two different movies.
Eventually, the cops do decide to investigate and happen upon Wong, now operating a restaurant he claims to have bought from the original owner. Letters from the mainland indicate that the entire family that once owned the joint has disappeared without a trace, and it’s not like Wong is trying too terribly hard to control his impulses and stay off the police’s radar. He bludgeons a nosy waiter to death for poking around in his business, then brutally rapes and murders another employee when she cozies up with the cops during their visit. The violence is absolutely heinous stuff, particularly when the latter encounter ends with Wong shoving a pair of chopsticks into the woman’s vagina. Herman Yau’s direction is unflinching in its brutality: The Untold Story is one of those movies that wants to rub its audience’s noses in its unseemliness, subjecting them to every putrid corner of the deranged imagination that brought this tale to life on-screen.
It’s not just all schlock, either: Wong is an unhinged but compelling nightmare person, his wild, manic eyes magnified by thick glasses. I’m not sure when exactly we started referring to this look as “serial killer glasses,” but I like to think Wong’s appearance here played a role: the guy just looks like he’s hacked up some bodies and stuffed the entrails into food. And yet you can also catch a glimmer of charm in Wong’s performance, which he deploys whenever he needs to fend off the police, who aren’t incompetent so much as they’re distracted by free pork buns.
Eventually, though, the police do catch on, and The Untold Story grows more unhinged as their suspicions grow. Screenwriters Law Kam-fai and Sammy Lau eschew a more conventional narrative arc, which would find the police slowly piecing together the mystery, leading to a climactic confrontation. Instead, the cops nail Wong a little over halfway through the movie and promptly beat the shit out of him when they have him in custody. As if The Untold Story didn’t feel chaotic enough, these good-natured goofs become bloodlusting savages themselves, sending the story on an unexpected spiral through police brutality and twisted justice. Somewhere in this madness, a possible conscience emerges when The Untold Story connects the barbarity of those in power with Wong’s own wickedness, implying that this ruthlessness has infected society like a disease. Tonal whiplash is an understatement, mostly because Category III Hong Kong exploitation sees genres and their associated tones more as a suggestion rather than a hard fast rule.
So it comes as no surprise that each new development in The Untold Story is more outrageous than the last. With their aggressive techniques denied them, the police hatch a plot for Wong’s fellow inmates to bludgeon a confession out of him, soaking the screen in more violence and filth until the madman—finally reduced to a blistered, drugged insomniac—confesses, setting the stage for Yau’s pièce de résistance: an extended flashback where Wong describes in rotten detail how he dismembered an entire family, including their small children. The sight of such young kids in peril is inherently distressing, if only because it’s a taboo that’s rarely breached by American cinema. Yau has no qualms about wallowing in it though, and the kids’ performances are so raw that you’re left hoping they weren’t traumatized just from filming the scene. If the rest of the film feels like Yau nudging and poking the envelope, this is where he shoves it right over the limits of bad taste. This is the moment The Untold Story becomes more provocation, almost as if it’s daring you to be offended.
Whether or not it actually reaches that limit is personal, of course. I find that, like a lot of its Cat III brethren, The Untold Story almost feels a little too juvenile to be truly galling. It pushes the limits precisely because it can: in many ways, the Cat III rating is like a safety net, or a license to go wild because audiences knew exactly what they were in for, and the filmmakers took it as a personal challenge to meet (or even exceed) those expectations. There’s a sense of gamesmanship and hucksterism that’s too charming to be truly offensive. Don’t get me wrong: nobody in their right mind would program something like this for family movie night, but this kind of grindhouse provocation has been standard issue since the inception of the exploitation movie. They peddle filth and lunacy into one ear, all while whispering “it’s only a movie” into the other. Endorsing the likes of The Untold Story also feels like an act of complicity, as if you’ve been enlisted to pass along some salacious ware that might get you put on a government watch-list. This might be the greatest triumph of Cat III filmmaking: convincing and encouraging diehard, degenerate mutants to transmit the kind of trash that distorts the prism of taste. Good? Bad? The Untold Story resists these labels. It simply is, and you have to see it to believe it.
Released over 15 years ago on non-anamorphic DVD in the United States, The Untold Story has floundered about in relative obscurity, making it an apt title to be released by Unearthed Films. Not content to simply excavate this notorious title, Unearthed has gone all-in on restoring it for its Blu-ray release, where it boasts a nice, solid transfer along with Mandarin and Cantonese PCM mono tracks (an isolated score track is also provided). Wong and Yau provide a pair of commentary tracks, while Art Ettinger (who also provides liner notes) and Bruce Holecheck pair up for another. A 7-minute Q&A session with Lau captures the director at a screening for the film, and “Cantonese Carnage” features Eastern Heroes magazine’s Rick Baker (not that Rick Baker) discussing the struggle to find these taboo films in the UK, a country going through a notoriously puritanical streak just as Hong Kong filmmaking started stretching boundaries.
However, the big centerpiece here is Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Filmmaking, Callum Waddle’s feature-length documentary that traces the origins of Cat III before discussing its present day status. Featuring both scholars and filmmakers, it’s a strong, sharp overview covering nearly 50 years of movies since it stretches all the way back to the Shaw Brothers’ earliest horror efforts in the 70s. Far from a simple list of notable titles, it’s also an ode to some of the scene’s most famous stars, including Wong, who can’t believe he’s actually a star. Despite receiving a Best Actor award for his turn in The Untold Story, the actor hesitated to embrace these roles, often dismissing them as junk, though he does seem to have a newfound appreciation for them. The documentary also pays tribute to Geoffrey Ho, Josie Ho (whose appearance in the excellent Dream Home is highlighted as a noteworthy example of modern Cat III), Simon Yam, and Amy Yip.
Every corner of the exploitation scene gets its due: the horror movies, the erotica movies, the action movies, the gangster movies--you name it. You might want to have a notepad handy as you watch just to keep a running tab on all of the movies mentioned. Many—such as the various Shaw Brothers movies—have received their due on home video during the DVD/Blu era, but others—particularly a lot of the 90s movies—have faded into obscurity because they’re out of print. Hopefully, The Untold Story is just a precursor to more Cat III releases from Unearthed: there are so many wild, deranged movies out there that deserve a chance at a second life on home video.
Even if this isn’t in the cards for Unearthed, at least they did provide this documentary to put the devoted on the right path. Equal parts primer and potent analysis (the various subjects provide solid historical context for the various movements, not to mention some insightful social commentary for some films), Category III is a great starting point for anyone looking to dive into this scene. That it’s a supplement to one of the era’s best movies speaks to how awesome this release is. I know 2020 provided a bounty of noteworthy discs and collections for genre enthusiasts, and, while this one might not be the flashiest, it’s also one you don’t want to sleep on, especially if you’re looking to start a new obsession with Category III movies. And you absolutely do want to start that obsession.
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