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.