Saturday, October 10, 2009

Herman Yau's The Untold Story III (1999)

Herman Yau's The Untold Story III (1999) is the third in a series, no doubt cashing in on its infamous original and Category III classic, Yau's The Untold Story (1993). Although the original's director, producer, Danny Lee (who also stars in both as Inspector Lee), and writer (Kam Fai Law) return, there is little linking The Untold Story III to its previous films. The title card of The Untold Story III reveals the film is allegedly based upon an actual event: a murder committed by four young men, who were later convicted in Hong Kong for the crime despite the absence of any physical evidence or witnesses. The only police proof offered into evidence were the young men's confessions.
At the local police station, a young woman (Emily Kwan) enters, where two smiling idiot cops sit behind the counter. She complains that her brother, Ma (Ken Lo) has been missing for four weeks. She returns to the police station three days later after having a nightmare where the ghostly visage of her brother appeared and told her to go looking for Man. The sister reports her nightmare to the police (who think the woman is a little crazy by now). A few days later after consulting her father, Lo Lieh in one of his final performances, the sister believes her brother must have been kidnapped. During her final complaint at the police station, the cops listen to her story. Inspector Lee (Danny Lee) is assigned to the case. After a botched ransom sting, the police visit Ma's home where they discover a ledger, revealing a list of names and money lent and owed. So Ma was a loan shark. The police begin questioning the names in the ledger about the debts. One young man, looking tired and defeated, Man (Sam Lee), admits to owing money to Ma and also admits to killing him with three accomplices, Lui (Alex Lam), Hau (Samuel Leung), and Cheng. The police nab Lui and Hau and begin to piece together their case by collecting evidence; however, there is none to be found...On paper, The Untold Story III reads as a compelling police procedural, including the recreation of the crime leading to the trial. However viewer, that ain't what you're going to get. The film's irreverent director is one of Hong Kong's most creative and interesting working, while its producer, Lee, and writer, Law, bring back the disturbing and bizarre hybrid tone of the horrific and the humorous of the original Untold Story. The end result is The Untold Story III being compellingly watchable and intriguing, if just alone for its imaginative execution. The sequences vary in the extreme in tone: from slapstick comedic to very dark and intense, sometimes very close in proximity. One of the most disturbing aspects of the original Untold Story was the juxtaposition of ridiculous and nonsensical comical scenes (often with Danny Lee) with scenes of dark and sinister violence (with Anthony Wong). Like Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972), the comedic scenes don't balance the film's horrific scenes, creating a more easy-going experience for the viewer; rather, the inclusion of the sometimes very light comedy made The Untold Story even more disturbing with its drastic shift in tone during scenes. The Untold Story III doesn't match its original in terms of violence (it's Category II, like a "hard" R-rating), but there are multiple shifts in tone to accompany its multiplicity of treatments: the scenes go from slapstick comedic, to dramatic, to horrific (both supernatural and real-life), often changing tones within the scenes. The first time the viewer sees the four young men, they are wandering the streets in a daze, almost zombie-like. They are looking for a new apartment or looking to buy paper offerings to burn for Ma. Apparently after the murder, none could sleep or eat. Yau doesn't show many supernatural scenes but just their effects on the alleged perpetrators: the viewer can't tell if its paranoia or guilt or Ma's ghost which is plaguing them. Sleep deprivation and hunger leads the four into psychosis, so as their fear builds they actually start believing in the hallucinations that they start seeing. The four spent the money that they borrowed from Ma on partying, and these scenes are laughably bad and fun. They look like bad pop-music videos or teenage clothes commercials, accompanied by the most vapid imagery in dance clubs and in the street. The even weirder sequences follow in the events of the evening after the murder, as the four go to play Mah-jong or shoot pool ("We needed to relax," says Hau). When one of the four has a perfect hand in Mah-jong, they take it as a bad omen and split. Danny Lee's Inspector Lee was a ladies' man in the original Untold Story, and his scenes often involved him sashaying into the police station with a lady under each arm. In this film, Lee's character is dressed like a Japanese high-school student with a jarring affectation, a Sherlock Holmes-ish pipe. In one scene, during the police confessions, Lee is summoned from a party and he arrives wearing a ship captain's outfit, as if he just disembarked The Love Boat. It's completely nonsensical, and perhaps the humor is an intentional commentary on the crime: it's almost mind-boggling that four could be convicted of a crime absent any direct evidence, let alone proof of the corpse. The police are often depicted as inept and misguided, as in the opening scene with Ma's sister, and even their investigation is far-fetched and ridiculous. For example, the four admit to dismembering the body and dumping it in the trash. The police can only speculate that the body is in a local landfill; and their solution is to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to comb the landfill, perhaps for months, to find the body. Of course, in a unintentionally humorous sequence with Lee, the prosecutor finds this idea, and the whole "case," ludicrous. Danny Lee is perhaps best known to Western Asian cult film fans for his role as the police officer who becomes Yun-fat Chow's reluctant ally in John Woo's The Killer (1989). In the 1990s, Lee produced (and often starred as a police officer) in some truly nasty Category III productions, such as Billy Tang's Dr. Lamb (1992) with Simon Yam, The Untold Story, Parkman Wong's Portrait of a Serial Rapist (1994) and Shoot to Kill (1994). Lee is just as infamous as Yau and Billy Tang in the 90s HK Category III scene as anyone else. His performance in the film is just bizarre: there is no adequate way to describe it, as if Inspector Lee doesn't seem to flow from logic and deduction, but....somewhere else. Sam Lee is a great actor and has appeared in numerous films. He can perform comedy as well as any other young actor and can play intense just as well (see Wilson Yip's Bio-Zombie (1998) and Pou-Soi Cheang's Dog Bite Dog (2006), respectively). Sam Lee is called upon by Yau to perform at both ends of the spectrum here and he succeeds very well. This is one of the last performances by the Shaw Brothers' greatest cinematic villian, the charismatic Lo Lieh, and he shines in his few scenes. Herman Yau, as I've stated on this blog before, makes exciting cinema, period. When Yau is nontraditional, which is often, he is without equal. The scene in The Untold Story III where the four plan and practice the murder of Ma is brilliant. I could watch it over and over. Yau owns low-budget cinema, primarily because of his imagination and his innovative visual style and risk-taking. The Untold Story III is so bizarre and unusual that it feels original and unexpected. When film makers can accomplish this feeling, they have earned a fan, here, for life.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

Superb review, Hans. If you love Herman Yau so much, why don't you marry him? And that is large and in charge.