Often cited as an example of excessive violence or the type of low-grade film produced under Hong Kong’s Category III (most restricted due to sex and/or violence), The Untold Story (d. Danny Lee [Li Hsiu Hsien], 1993) deserves re-evaluation. Clearly commercial in origin and intent, the film (based on an actual case from the mid-1980s) begins with a group of fairly comic and inept cops investigating human remains that washed up on a beach and a missing family that ran a restaurant. The restaurant’s current operator appears first in flashback fleeing Hong Kong for Macau after committing murder in a gambling quarrel. Answering police questions, Wong (Herman Yau) claims he bought the restaurant (and offers the cops pork buns). The bumbling police finally figure out that he did something to the previous owners, and beat it out of him during interrogations. As the cops become increasingly angry and appalled, and once aware of what was in the “pork buns” they scarfed down, their own violence escalates. The killer’s confession is told in graphic flashback, with especially horrifying murder of the children and grinding the bodies up for pork buns. The shift in register from an initial comic tone with buffoon cops to an increasing violence, viciousness, and graphic derangement and police themselves going out of control, challenges the audience to move from laughing at the film (both the police and the barbequed “pork” situation) to stomach-churning discomfort.
In addition to raising issues of disgust in terms of (unsuspected) cannibalism, The Untold Story raises questions of disgust through its use of extreme graphic violence. In trying to specify Category 3 films, a new classification allowing a wider latitude to sex and violence for adult audiences which appeared in Hong Kong shortly after the Tienanmen events, Julian Stringer argues that the Category 3 films often allegorize deep class divisions in Hong Kong in the 1990s.[open notes in new window] With the pending Hong Kong handover to the PRC in 1997 and the repression of Tienanmen in mind, the most privileged sector sought dual citizenship, or moved abroad permanently, or sent their kids to school abroad hoping to establish the basis for foreign citizenship. However the vast mass of Hong Kong people had no such option. Stringer argues that many Category 3 films expressed the political and social anxieties of those who couldn’t leave. The films played in cheaper, more run-down theaters (in contrast to a new set of multiplexes playing many glossy U.S. and pan-Asian films). Stringer’s general point is doubtless valid.
There is always a problem in dealing with films that exploit sex and/or violence, or sex and violence (and other taboos such as drug use). For some people, especially censors and gatekeepers, the mere presence of certain images marks them as unworthy. But the defensive response often acknowledges the existence of offensive material and to then argue for a higher purpose: artistic, moral, political, etc. The point I want to make here is that while close textual analysis is valuable and essential, the question of disgust, often phrased in terms of depictions being “excessive” or “gratuitous,” cannot be settled in terms of the text itself. To argue only the text, can only end with each (or every) side asserting their interpretation is the best. It becomes a King of the Hill battle. Rather, as I indicated earlier in this article, there is a range of audience response to the text, and we have to understand that variation. Where people “draw the line” varies. That is, to use a conventional phrasing from contemporary film theory, meaning is a constructed relation between a text and viewer/audience. And that viewer exists socially, with variation.
Tony Williams, who frequently writes on horror films, follows Stringer in offering a social analysis of The Untold Story. “Despite its graphic violence, The Untold Story is not to be dismissed as a sleazy, gratuitous production. It also deals with real-life social issues involving violence and exploitation in Hong Kong society.”(209) Yet the argument here is slippery. True, the film depicts violence and exploitation, but does it really examine it in any way that allows for a greater understanding? And if so, of what? As opposed to a naturalistic depiction of the environment, which at least recognizes the material form of social relations as shaping character behavior, The Untold Story tells us very little about Hong Kong (or more accurately Macau which is where the main action is set after the initial pre-title violence).
Williams puts aside the sexual violence of the rape and murder of the waitress. In contrast to Williams, I would argue that Wong is shown as cheating at gambling, quick to anger and rage, and in no way remorseful. When he himself is victimized by police interrogation and by other prisoners, he tries to kill himself by biting his wrists—ironically a kind of self-cannibalism. After medical torture by police and medical staff, he finally does kill himself, slashing his wrists. He is never sympathetic and in fact he kills two of the most sympathetic characters—the restaurant cook and the waitress—in brutal ways (and they, of course, are true proletarians), and an entire family: parents, grandmother, and five young children.
William’s reading of the film as a social-political statement critical of the authorities and showing the desperate situation of those at the bottom of the social/economic ladder tends to special pleading. Yes, the authorities will do anything including physical and medical torture. But there is nothing redeeming about Wong, while his victims are shown dying horrible deaths that they don’t “deserve.” For Williams, the social message compensates for the violence. He reads Category 3 as showing “tragedy and farce,” while I would tend to assign it to melodramatic excess, the grotesque, and farce. The rape/murder sequence, for example, does aim to frighten the audience by showing something so extreme that there is no possible excuse for the character’s behavior. Similarly, after killing the family in the restaurant, Wong goes out of his way to get the grandmother and bring her to the scene of dead bodies so he can murder her too. He tells the police that she was a perennial “busybody” who came over to the restaurant simply to get a free meal. In this barrage of angry violence, there is a depiction of violence begetting violence, but no resting point.
[Click here to see next sequence of images: attack, rape, murder of the waitress. Captions follow here below.]
Taken to a hospital to recover, the police devise a new torture plan with the doctor. Wong is kept hyper stimulated on drugs for three days and sleep deprived. Finally in near-delirium, he confesses. In flashback, we see the murder of the restaurant owner and his family.
[Click here to see next sequence of images: murder of restaurant owner's family. Captions follow here below.]
The escalation of violence, by the murderer and then by the investigating police, is a theme and defines the rhythmic trajectory of the narrative. My visual analysis here stresses key moments, but a much more fine and close analysis of acting, shot composition, lighting, and editing is possible. Overall, the film balances between cheap exploitation and serious statement. Or in other words, it shows a plurality of themes, moments, actions, and affects. It can, then, be read either way or as an amalgam of both. Undeniably, it is commercially effective, with the genre’s requisite suspense and horror, excellent performance and cinematography, and effective sound and music tracks.