Sentenced to Hang
Reviewed by YTSL
When the first Hong Kong film to be awarded
a Category III rating was released back in 1989, Paul Fonoroff presciently
suggested that it “may well herald a new genre: the fact-based crime
story” (See the often curmudgeonly critic’s “At the Hong Kong Movies”,
1997:53). What he -- and most other people -- didn’t appear to foresee
though was how much more excessive some of those later offerings would
be in the violence and gross-out stakes than this movie about the last
convicted murders to be given the death sentence in the former British
crown colony; an (ultimately moving) effort whose greatest surplus element
-- particularly during its last half hour or so -- is the relatively innocuous
one of pure melodrama.
SENTENCED TO HANG opens with a scene showing three
young close friends making pledges that include it being so that:
“From now one, we’re brothers...who shall share joys and sorrows”.
Flash forward a couple of decades -- and it’s still only 1963 -- to a time
when those three good buddies are now grown men. Ah Huai is an office
assistant who likes to dress well and pretend that he’s actually minimally
an assistant manager (Tony Leung Kar Fai plays the individual who comes
across as the most complex of the bunch). Family man Qiang -- or
Fatty, as he is often referred to -- works as the make-up man for the kind
of show whose female performers are supposed to titillate as much as entertain
their audience (Kent Cheng’s character consequently is one who doesn’t
get much respect, even from at least one of his many children). Swinging
bachelor, Ah Jing, is a driving instructor who often ropes in his two pals
to deceive women into thinking that he’s wealthier and more influential
than he actually is (Elvis Tsui’s character also turns out to be less of
a Lothario than might have been imagined).
For all their obvious faults though, at this early
point in the offering, they -- who also had earlier vowed that “we are
willing to die on the same day” -- hardly seem like prime candidates who
would be SENTENCED TO HANG. Before too long though, a series of events
-- including one sacking, some humiliations too far and a collective drunken
night -- occur that will have grave, deadly and -- especially in light
of “The Strange Case of the Three Wolves” (so-called because the felons
donned wolf masks to disguise their faces when committing some of their
crimes) being a real-life plus locally famous one as well as this nearly
two hour long movie’s Chinese title -- predictable consequences for the
movie’s protagonists; men whose fate I’d wager that many of this well-acted
work’s viewers will find themselves caring more for than they could have
thought they would.
One of the best things about producer Stephen
Shiu and Johnny Mak’s SENTENCED TO HANG script stems from it being able
to make a convincing argument for Ah Huai, Qiang and Ah Jing being the
sort of persons who hadn’t been “born bad” yet definitely (differently)
possessed something within them to enact the sort of deeds that would result
in their having a set date with a hangman. Relatedly, some of the
most interesting and illuminating-feeling scenes in this at times quite
old-fashioned feeling work are those that attempt to give some depth to
the film’s main characters by having them interact with: A feisty
girlfriend in the case of Ah Huai (Lily comes in the always welcome form
of a red lipsticked Carrie Ng); a loving wife in the case of Qiang; and
a noble mother in the case of Ah Jing (veteran character actress Wang Lai
gives an immensely affecting performance in this tearjerking tragedy).
Tien Feng and Stuart Ong portray the father and son employers of Ah Huai.
Somewhat unfortunately as well as surprisingly
though, director Taylor Wong seemed much less capable when it came to handling
the scenes of SENTENCED TO HANG that showed a series of criminal acts being
perpetrated. More specifically, this (re)viewer found herself being
quite unimpressed and also downright skeptical re the surely fictionalized
depiction of the three men -- along with a weasel-like lesser character
known as Snake -- as such major bumbling bunglers whenever they did anything
criminal; this not least since these apparently often farcical acting fools
did successfully get what they wanted at some point plus managed to elude
the police for long enough to enjoy some of their ill-gotten gains.
On a more positive note: The problems that
I had with (some of) the earlier portions of SENTENCED TO HANG were pretty
much offset by the film’s emotion-charged extended climactic plus concluding
segments. More than by the way, anyone who wants proof of Kent Cheng
or Elvis Tsui’s -- never mind Tony Leung Kar Fai or Carrie Ng’s -- possessing
real acting prowess ought to put this movie on their “must see” short-list.
My rating for the film: 7.