The Heroic Trio
aka 東方三俠 aka Dong Fang San Xia
Written by Sandy Shaw Lai-King
Directed by Johnnie To Kei-Fung
Next up in Tars reviews classic examples of global cinema that he should have damn well reviewed years ago is The Heroic Trio. Instead of again explaining how this was one of the first couple of Hong Kong films I saw and how it cemented me into a lifelong fan of Hong Kong Action Cinema, I’ll just remind you with this sentence that dismisses the topic while reaffirming it.
Make no mistake, The Heroic Trio is an awesome and classic piece of Hong Kong cinema from the last golden age. Johnnie To directing before he became a film festival darling. The ever-amazing Anita Mui being the most glamorous and moral super hero imaginable. Maggie Cheung as the rebel outsider hero who never looks before she leaps, and whose antics cause worse problems than the ones she tries to solve. Michelle Yeoh as the conflicted hero forced to serve evil. Anthony Wong in a surprisingly restrained performance as an unhinged psychopath.
The Heroic Trio both riffs on and celebrates the glamor of cinema. Characters can often be found posed while events are going down, an off screen fan conveniently nearby to make their hair flow in the wind. They go so far as to have Thief Catcher bring along fashion clothes for the women to wear after the job is done so they’ll look extra spectacular, and shots of the women all doing their model walk as Cantopop sings us out. The obvious Western influences are the Batman films from Burton, but there is a heavy Terminator vibe going on as well. For a more inward look, the vast amount of girls with guns films helped position female-driven action films as a good idea, and some of the set design look straight out of Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain. At one point a character uses a flying guillotine! The mixmash of films and ideas is one of the factors that makes Hong Kong film so great for the fans. Director Johnnie To lets the mood build not just with the actresses and their poses and expressions, but with a heavy use of Cantopop on the soundtrack, with Anita Mui showing why she was a legendary singing star at every note.
Johnnie To isn’t one to shy away from political metaphors, and The Heroic Trio is no exception. As 1997 and the turnover to China loomed in the minds of every Hong Kong citizen, it naturally became reflected in film. One reason why “Evil Master” seeks out male children is that one will be destined to become the new Emperor of China, under Evil Master’s control. Thus a return to Chinese rule would be a return to the olden days of Emperors, throwing out democratic rule. Mainland China is hardly a beacon of democracy, but the parallel is there. The fear is torn down by empowered women with fashion sense, who preserve the free way of life.
One of the problems with great looking HD releases of films is it makes the wires way more apparent than the second generation VHS tapes I first saw the films on. The Heroic Trio had some shots that you could see the wires on even then, but now things are far more obvious in giving away the magic. Still, someone going through and CGing out all the wires would lose some of the charm, so it’s time to learn to live with such things.
One of the weird (and often annoying) features of super hero comics/films is how everyone knows everyone from childhood. Ching and Tung both had the same master as children, but Ching left. Later, Ching’s new evil master also was the master of Chat for three years before Chat ran off.
Wonder Woman is a hero in the city, and respected by the police. In civilian life, Tung is married to a high ranking Inspector named Lau, who often works with Wonder Woman on difficult cases. Wonder Woman’s place is threatened by Thief Catcher, who is more of a mercenary/bounty hunter and in the heroic business for the money. Wonder Woman doesn’t like that Thief Catcher is reckless and puts people in danger while she works, and Thief Catcher resents Wonder Woman getting all the glory (and hence all the work) while she barely scrapes by.
Newborn babies are being stolen, and the police don’t have a clue. It’s almost as if the infants are being carried off by a ghost. Wonder Woman is on the case, and thanks to her dart blade weapons she determines the culprit isn’t a ghost, but someone who can creep around while invisible to the naked eye.
Wonder Woman is not the only one working on the missing babies case, Thief Catcher is eager to prove her worth by taking down the villain responsible. Wonder Woman is delayed not just by Invisible Woman figuring out who she is, but also by a crazed man who wants to kill all the babies. In the middle of this mess, Thief Catcher sneaks in, but her plan is to kidnap a baby herself and use it as bait. As the battle is joined, despite Wonder Woman’s efforts, the baby is injured and later dies.
Invisible Woman has her power of invisibility from her scientist boyfriend, who developed the invisibility cloak, but fumes from the construction are slowly killing him. He’s desperate to perfect it before he dies (it’s useless in the daylight), and Invisible Woman is desperate to protect him, Evil Master has demanded his death.
We know Invisible Woman has a good heart because we see her injuring herself to unlock the door to save children even while kidnapping children for an evil mastermind. Invisible Girl’s conflict isn’t just about the babies, it’s about love. She’s torn because Evil Master orders the death of her boyfriend, but she keeps putting off murdering him. Her love for her dying boyfriend is the kick she needs to push away decades of evil training and join the other heroines in taking down Evil Master. Thief Catcher recognized the Invisible Woman from their childhood, which unlocks more memories for her, including those of when she knew the virtuous Wonder Woman as a kid. Sisterly love for Thief Catcher and the fact Evil Master’s plan is just plan evil are secondary concerns. It is nice to see an evil woman turned by love, but not by the love of the hero of the film, but just some random guy who is a good guy. The scenes with Yeoh and her boyfriend are seeped in an extra layer of off screen fans, that blow around hundreds of pieces of paper for added dramatic effect. One wonders how any scientific work could be done at all with all the papers blowing around and the noise of all the fans. Her boyfriend is just that good of a scientist!
Evil Master’s lair lies below the sewers and is accessed by manhole. The air is filled with poisonous methane, and the lair guarded by Kau, who is eager to kill. Evil Master’s plan is to use one of the infants to become a new Chinese Emperor, which Evil Master would control. Which infant that is possibly destined to be an Emperor is the best one can’t be decided until the proper amount of male babies that qualify are stolen and various diabolical acts are completed. Obviously!
The final battle not only features the three heroines as they team up to take down evil, but is a spectacular action sequence that keeps changing the stakes as it jumps from flying wuxia martial arts to body control Terminator finale. Without spoiling too much, the ending is awesome, the film is awesome, and it is essential Hong Kong cinema text.
1990s martial arts wire work just looks so natural when combined with 1990s super hero stylings. This is pre-The Matrix, so action cinema hadn’t started on a decade-long journey of failing to imitate. This is pre-Batman Begins, so not everything has to be dark and gritty. It’s a fun movie from a fun period that takes pieces from all over and presents the perfect stew. So eat up!
Rated 10/10 (cameo, invisible crush, dirty wires, bird time, threatening reflection, special flowers, flying no more, don’t tell me what to do!, loyal boyfriend, all kids get matching tattoos)
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