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The Untold Story of Herman Yau

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Herman Yau is easily one of the most interesting, talented, and strangely overlooked directors working in Hong Kong Cinema. Although he has over 80 films to his credit and is acknowledged as one of the best cinematographers in the business, for many people he is still only known for his infamous exploitation screamers The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome. Unforgettable as these films undeniably are, they are by no means wholly indicative of the wide range of Yau's talents. Having worked in t, he has also made a name for himself in cultural journalism and writing, having founded several publications and been recognized academically. A winner of multiple awards, he has proved himself time and time again to be a director not only of skill and verve, but of uncompromising vision.


Early Years and First Films

Herman Yau Lai To was born in 1961 in Guangdong Province, China, and spent most of his early years listening to rock and roll music and playing in a heavy metal band. Cinema was always a passion for the rebellious young man, and from 1981 to 1984 he studied film at the Department of Communications at Hong Kong Baptist College. Being particularly inspired by arthouse productions, he made a number of independent shorts, and after leaving school he devoted himself to getting into the film industry proper, initially by writing articles for magazines and newspapers. This led to work on television commercials, including a promotional piece for the Hong Kong Film Awards, and on music videos for the likes of Jacky Cheung, Andy Hui, and the American jazz musician Eric Marienthal. Interestingly, during these early years Yau actually made a music video for none other than Anthony Wong Chau Sang, with whom he would later work on many memorable occasions.


Yau's first film as director came in 1987 with No Regret, a romantic drama starring actress Ling Yeung, who earned a Best New Performer nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for her efforts. The film was written by Gordon Chan, who would later go on to be one of the biggest names in the industry, recently having topped the box office with Painted Skin. Yau worked on a number of productions as cinematographer, collaborating with director Taylor Wong on the Chow Yun Fat-starring gang drama Triads: The Inside Story and Sentenced to Hang, a remake of the 1974 Shaw Brothers true crime film Kidnap that featured a young Tony Leung Ka Fai. In a sign of Yau's career to come, the film was actually the first ever Hong Kong production to be rated Category III (the ratings system was established in 1988), in this case not so much due to any visceral content as to its critical view of the police force. Even in these early stages Yau became recognized not only for his hard working ethic, but for his raw and evocative visual style.


His second film at the helm was the 1991 comedy Don't Fool Me, which marked an early pairing for future Infernal Affairs co-stars Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Anthony Wong. Unambitious though enjoyable enough, the film was a fairly typical manic farce revolving around a triad member and a harassed businessman who change places, leading to all kinds of wackiness. This was followed the next year by Best of the Best, an action film about a cop who takes on triads while inconveniently falling for the mob boss's daughter, which saw him working with Jacky Cheung and Sammi Cheng in her debut screen role. Keeping himself busy, Yau also managed to squeeze in providing cinematography for a good number of other films in the same year, including the likes of Fantasy Romance, Deadly Dream Woman, Michael Hui's The Magic Touch, and With or Without You, again for Taylor Wong.


The Untold Story

After directing the With or Without You prequel No More Love, No More Death, which starred Jacky Cheung and Carina Lau, Yau teamed again with Anthony Wong for the action thriller Taxi Hunter. The two worked well together, and 1993 also saw them collaborate on the film which would give them both their first big hit, and which would become one of the most notorious exploitation shockers of all time - The Untold Story. Based on a grisly true story about a psychopath who butchered people and made them into pork buns, the film saw Wong win Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his remarkable performance in the lead role. The film was noted not only for its horrific content, which unsurprisingly led to battles with the usually lenient Hong Kong censors, but also for its satirical portrayal of the police force, who are depicted as laughably incompetent buffoons. Yau claims to have been taken by surprise by the film's impact and its ensuing cult status, and later said that it gave him his first real experience of being a director. As well as launching a long line of rip-offs, the film was followed in 1998 by a sequel, this time starring Wong in a cop role and directed by Ng Yiu Kuen to far less effect. Yau returned to helm The Untold Story 3 in 1999, though the film disappointed many by being a restrained detective story that lacked the intensity of the original.


Now established as a commercially viable director, Yau spent the next few years paying his dues and churning out a series of genre pieces. Unsurprisingly, he worked again with Anthony Wong, this time on the police comedy Cop Image, which he followed in the same year with the oddly titled Don't Shoot Me, I'm Just a Violinist! and another police film Fearless Match. The mid 1990s were a prime time for action films in Hong Kong, and Yau certainly made his fair share, with City Cop, Highway Man, and the Benny Chan-produced No Justice for All in 1995. These were followed by a change of pace in the form of the family comedy Adventurous Treasure Island and All of a Sudden, an erotic thriller starring Simon Yam and the gorgeous Irene Wan, that probably would have fared better had it been a full-on Category III-style production. Next up, Yau worked with the one and only Wong Jing on War of the Underworld, a Young and Dangerous-inspired gang thriller that starred Jordan Chan and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.


In the same year, Yau decided to return to the Untold Story formula, with Ebola Syndrome, which was if anything even more tasteless and grotesque that its predecessor. Again headlined by Anthony Wong, the film follows a particularly loathsome criminal as he flees Hong Kong for South Africa after a killing, where he contracts the titular virus through circumstances best left unmentioned. On his return, he infects everyone he comes across during a rampage of rape and murder, spitting at people when all else fails. The film's humor was pronounced, albeit of a particularly dark brand, with several notably wacky scenes, including one of Wong being chased around by a leopard with his pants around his ankles, which really has to be seen to be believed.


Troublesome Nights

Western horror fans who complain about genre franchises reaching double digits should spare a thought for the Troublesome Night series, which boasts an amazing 19 entries to date. Yau directed the first installment back in 1997, collaborating with producer Nam Yin on the anthology piece which starred Simon Lui, Louis Koo, Ada Choi, and Christy Chung, mixing horror and comedy to good effect. Making use of Chinese ghostlore and modern genre conventions, the film did not feature many scares, but benefited from an effectively creepy atmosphere. After it proved surprisingly popular, sequels inevitably followed, with Yau himself directing the next five episodes, of which Troublesome Night 3 is probably the best, being noted as a Film of Merit by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society in 1998. Troublesome Night 6 was Yau's series swansong and also marked the end of the anthology format, being a single narrative effort influenced by Ring and the other modern Asian ghost films which were now driving the genre. 1997 was certainly a year of horror for Yau, as he also directed the oddball Walk In, which was voted as "The Best Alternative Movie" on the internet Movie Direct Poll. "Alternative" is actually a fairly accurate description for the film, a scattershot tale of body swapping, which combined scares and comedy to bewildering, though entertaining effect.


After working for actor-director Francis Ng on the mystery drama 9413, Yau returned to comedy with Fascination Amour, a yacht-set romantic farce starring Andy Lau, Anthony Wong, and Japanese actress Ishida Hikari. The next year saw him trying something a little different with The Masked Prosecutor, a quirky crime drama with twisted superhero undertones starring Jordan Chan. Like all of Yau's films, the thriller offered an unusual spin on the conventions of the genre, and though sadly overlooked at the time is well deserving of rediscovery. Yau ended the century by providing cinematography services to Tsui Hark on his ponderous big-budget production Time and Tide. His talents gave the film a real boost, and the two worked again on several occasions in the future.


From Social Commentary to Genre Hits

In 2001, Yau directed From the Queen to the Chief Executive, a film which saw him taking on a political subject for the first time. A documentary-style effort following a true-life tale of young prisoners, the film gave him a stab at real social commentary, something he had only tackled before through dark and often misunderstood satire. His efforts were met with critical acclaim, as the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and Hong Kong Film Critics Association awarded the film a mention of merit and included it in their list of the year's best. Although Yau would return to this brand of socially aware cinema a few years later, for now he concentrated on genre productions with Killing End, a great example of the kind of gritty and compelling crime thrillers he was becoming known for. In the same year he also helmed Nightmares in Precinct 7, reuniting many of the cast and production members for an eccentric tale of cops and ghosts.


In 2001 Yau wrote and directed his most ambitious film to date in the form of Master Q 2001, a blend of live action and animation that took more than 14 months to complete. The comic adaptation was produced by Tsui Hark, and set a new record for use of special effects in a Chinese film. Along with Nicholas Tse and Cecilia Cheung, the film also featured an appearance from the comic's creator Alphonso Wong, and represented Yau having his first real commercial blockbuster. More collaborations with Tsui Hark followed, as he worked as cinematographer on The Legend of Zu, Vampire Hunters, and Xanda.


Despite all of this, Yau still found time to direct a few films of his own, including the comedy Happy Family, the cop thriller Shark Busters, and the dance drama Give Them a Chance, with the latter winning him a Best Director nomination at the Hong Kong Golden Bauhinia Awards. The popularity of these films, and Yau's obvious talent for being equally at home in different genres led him to focus on more commercial productions with the comedies Herbal Tea and Papa Loves You, both of which proved successful at the box office.


Unfortunately, Yau was not quite so lucky with his return to the horror genre, as he directed three films in a row which were of a much lower standard than his earlier efforts. While Astonishing, Dating Death, and The Ghost Inside were not entirely worthless, they were distinctly average productions that showed little of Yau's trademark eccentricity or grit. Things did not get much better with his 2006 outing Lethal Ninja, which seemed to find the director simply going through the motions, though the urban drama Cocktail was somewhat of an improvement. Thankfully, in the same year he also directed the more interesting On the Edge, which starred Nick Cheung, Francis Ng, and Anthony Wong in a different take on the now overly familiar undercover cop premise made popular by Infernal Affairs.


Guts and Politics

A Mob Story, in which Julian Cheung played a lonely assassin on the run from the triads, Yau took another shot at social commentary with Whispers and Moans, a very different kind of Category III-rated film from the exploitation howlers he was known for. A documentary-style drama that attempted to provide a realistic portrayal of the lives of prostitutes, the film was based upon a book of interviews with real-life sex industry workers, and featured a strong ensemble cast including Athena Chu, Candice Yu, and Monie Tung. With Yau giving a very personal take on the subject, the results were thoughtful, intelligent, and painfully human, and the film was hailed as Yau's best for years, being listed as a Film of Merit by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society.


More excitingly for fans of his wilder early efforts, in 2007 Yau also served up Gong Tau, a distinctly old fashioned slice of gruesome fun that harked back to his own gory roots, and evoked memories of the old Shaw Brothers sinister sorcery films like Black Magic and Bewitched. Filled with maggots, dead babies, and flying heads, the film was somewhat hampered by a few instances of fake looking computer effects, but still managed to satiate shock starved audiences and offered a welcome breath of fetid air. After producing and providing cinematography for Dennis Law's martial arts action film Fatal Move, which starred Sammo Hung, Simon Yam, and Wu Jing, Yau directed yet another Category III rated thriller with Chaos. Basically a Hong Kong version of John Carpenter's classic Escape from New York, the film saw Gordon Lam and Andrew Lin pitted against each other against a near future backdrop of violence and viruses. Although entertaining, the film was disappointingly tame given its certificate, especially considering the director's previous efforts in the same arena.


Most recently, in 2008 Yau directed True Women for Sale, a companion piece to Whispers and Moans, again following the stories of real life prostitutes. This time around, he focused not only on sex workers, but also on the marginalized poor of Hong Kong. The film featured an intriguing cast, including the ever-reliable Anthony Wong, ex-idol singer Prudence Liew, who stars as a drug addicted prostitute in a role which won her Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards, and another pop star in the shape of Race Wong. Winning widespread acclaim, the film confirmed Yau as one of the best directors of socially aware cinema working in Hong Kong, and one of the few truly dedicated to telling the stories of people generally looked down upon by society.


Perhaps to ward off any claims that he might be maturing, Yau's next film is Rebellion, another violent thriller which sees actors Shawn Yue and Chapman To making their Category III-rated debuts. From there, where the hard working director goes next will be entirely up to him, though having regained his uncompromising, rock and roll spirit, it's a safe bet that he will be thrilling, shocking, and making viewers think for years to come.


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Published February 18, 2009


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