aka 現代豪俠傳 aka Heroic Trio 2 aka Jin doi hou hap cyun aka 蓬萊之戰 1993 Story by Sandy Shaw Lai-King
Screenplay by Susan Chan Suk-Yin
Directed by Tony Ching Siu-Tung and Johnnie To Kei-Fung
While I consider The Heroic Trioone of the essential pieces of Hong Kong cinema, the follow-up, Executioners, is unfortunately a weak entry that you might be better off not knowing it exists. Displacing the optimistic heroism of the original, Executioners takes places in a future dystopia, where nuclear war has irradiated the water supply. The only clean water is controlled by a corporation run by a madman named Mr. Kim, who has aims on controlling the world. The government is little help, having become weak and despotic, factions of which ally with Mr. Kim and his world domineering goals. The worst sin of the sequel is the addition of an annoying whiny kid, who is Wonder Woman’s daughter and spends a large portion of the film crying out for her mother.
Normally I’m all cool with sequels shaking things up a notch. But Executioners bungles the execution, making even its own name ironic. The constant sense of bleak sadness as tragic thing after tragic thing happens to our heroines who overcame evil in the last installment while still having good outlooks on life is jarring. The film creates a credible dystopian world, but the characters don’t really fit into it. It’s telling that it takes so many tragedies to happen to them before they feel like they belong. Only then can they battle the one responsible for all the problems.
The light-hearted tone of the original is tried to be replicated in a few scenes, but it comes off as artificial, especially with all the dark things going on. Strangely enough, Thief Hunter seems like the character who would do the best in this world, and she’s the strongest proponent in ending it. The friendship of the three women is strained via plot devices. Ching/Invisible Woman works for the government, and due to secret orders is unable to help or even talk about certain things. Wonder Woman is sidelined by being a mother who made a promise to her husband to not become a super heroine any more. She spends a good chunk of the film in prison, which keeps her out of most of the action, but also highlights that even with minimal makeup, the late Anita Mui was strikingly beautiful.
The political allegory of the original film is now knocked on its ear, with a terrible future society that’s no longer holding together, a weak government, strong corporate control, religious leaders with influence over the populace, and conspiracies on both sides for control. The government forces wear military uniforms that feature red armbands. Both the villains and the government gun down innocents to protect themselves. Parts are pulled from Mad Max films, more from Total Recall. The quest to find water becomes similar to Quaid’s adventure with the oxygen machine on Mars.
Wonder woman/Tung/Dong Dong (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) – Former hero Wonder Woman is now retired and raising her young daughter Cindy. Despite hanging up her mask, the problems in the city demand a hero, and it’s hard for her to stay out of costume.
Invisible Girl/Sandy Ching (Michelle Yeoh) – Sandy Chine now drive medical supplies and battle bandits who try to steal thos supplies. She has a loyal flute-controlled hunchbacked masked mutant buddy named Kau as a sidekick.
Thief Catcher/Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk ) – The mercenary Thief Catcher spends her days robbing Clear Water Corporation trucks, though mostly for herself even if the water eventually ends up in the hands of the needy.
Chief Ken Lau (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) – The now very busy Chief Lau tries to hold Hong Kong together in the midst of the apocalypse, water shortages, religious cults, government coups, and vast conspiracies. He fails.
Mr. Kim (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) – A masked villain who dresses like a member of 18th century aristocracy. Is head of the Clear Water Corporation and has his sights set on controlling the world, or at least what’s left of it. Or at least Hong Kong. Basically, he’s evil and that’s all we need to know. EVIL!
aka 東方三俠 aka Dong Fang San Xia 1993 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.
In short, The Heroic Trio is a fun action filled adventure that borrows the best elements of decades of Hong Kong and American cinema to create a new classic.
Tung, The Wonder Woman (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) – The glamorous Wonder Woman is also Tung, the unassuming housewife of Inspector Lau. Remarkably capable, Wonder Woman is the gold standard of awesome in the super heroine world of Hong Kong. Armed with dart blades and a ribbon sword.
Ching, The Invisible Woman (Michelle Yeoh) – Ching was childhood friends with Tung when both were being trained by a good master, but Ching left, only to fall in with Evil Master (and was known as San during that time). Despite literally working for evil, Ching isn’t a bad person, and eventually flips sides. Is invisible due to an invisibility cloak designed by her boyfriend, who is slowly dying as he works on the cloak.
Chat, The Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) – A motorcycle-driving, shotgun brandishing heroine who is not afraid to break out her boomerang knife on anyone. Bounty hunter who is trying to break into being a super hero for hire. Thief Catcher’s haphazard methods result in a lot of dangerous situations, with occasional tragic consequences. That Wonder Woman is so perfect at the super-heroine job just drives Thief Catcher batty. Was childhood friends with Ching when both were taught by Evil Master, but Chat fled after a few years.
Inspector Lau (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) – Loving husband of Tung, and top cop who works with Wonder Woman. And, yes, he’s not so stupid he doesn’t figure out who his wife really is.
Kau (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) – Kau uses a flying guillotine when sent to kill wonder woman Anthony Wong was the go to guy for creepy in the 90s, and here he’s a slightly sanitized version of one of his gross characters from his many turns as Category III horror villains.
Evil Master (Yen Shi-Kwan) – When you are named Evil Master, you don’t really have a lot of choices in life on what to do for a living. Is looking for a new emperor for China, who he will control and thus rule China.
2011 Written by Erica Li Man and Checkley Sin Kwok-Lam
Directed by Herman Yau Lai-To
To say that The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake was a disappointment would be a sad understatement. The biopic of famed femme revolutionary Qiu Jin is about a remarkable woman in a dangerous time, but the entire narrative suffers through flashbacks and a lack of establishing just what the heck is going on. I am familiar with the history of Qiu Jin because she’s interesting, but I still had trouble following the historical who’s who of revolutionaries, both real and consolidated/fake. Unfocused and scattered, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake jumps from revolutionary speak to scenes trying to depict how women got it tough to speeches about Chinese patriotism to battle scenes involving people the audience has never met. The zig-zagging prevents a good narrative that we can follow, and the flashbacks serve no purpose and don’t correspond to what is happening in the present. It’s like they read about the narrative technique in a book and decided to do it just because it sounded cool. Herman Yau Lai-To has directed some cult classics in years gone by, but his extreme nature seems to have been neutered for bigger paychecks, and along with that, any attempts to do things creatively.
The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake is a very patriotic film. Most discussions on the ills of society end up running into the narrative that China is lead by weaklings, so that’s why everything sucks. And at this time, China was essentially carved up by foreign powers, humiliated, and reform attempts had just ended in disaster. But instead of showing how the failures justify the repeated revolution attempts (there were literally dozens over the years before they took), we just jump to the next problem of women not being able to travel due to children, or Japan restricting what students can say, or Qiu Jin’s husband being an entitled douche.
Beyond the script not following a story arc that makes it easy to follow, the individual scenes themselves are messes at times. The most notable is near the end of the film where there is an attempted assassination of a local governor. The setup and subsequent fight seems to last forever, and it’s filled with unknown people fighting unknown people. Worst of all, we all know the conclusion, because it was in the beginning of the film! This is like worrying if Obi-Won Kenobi is in any trouble in a Star Wars prequel.
Qiu Jin (Crystal Huang Yi) – Independent female who won’t be caged. Uses her skills at the brush to fight for freedom with essays and poems. Eventually becomes allied with ever more armed revolutionaries and is caught up in the fervor, and captured for execution as a traitor.
Li Zongyue (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) – Qing official who is present during Qiu Jin’s trial and is an old family friend. Has to reluctantly go along with her downfall.
Xu Xilin (Dennis To Yue-Hong) – Historical revolutionary whose attempts to assassinate a local governor end with the government cracking down on his group with deadly force.
2012 Script by Gordon Chan Ka-Seung, Frankie Tam Gong-Yuen, and Maria Wong Si-Man
Directed by Gordon Chan Ka-Seung and Janet Chun Siu-Jan
Emotionless spends 99% of the film looking at people like this
What if X-Men was a confusing mess with too many characters, little character development, and an over-reliance on visual effects vs. telling a good story? Besides X-Men 3, you’d also get The Four! Gordon Chan trades mutant powers for qigong skills in this big budget production that follows the trend of Mainland cinema relying far too much on visual effects to carry weak scripts and bland characters. While The Four does deliver some nice looking sequences, overall it fails to achieve its goal of being entertaining, and even fails to wrap up any plot lines in the film. The Four seems to go out of its way to make sure nothing happens.
Don’t worry, the obligatory scene where all the main characters fight for no reason still happens.
The latest update of prolific (and troubled) Malaysian writer Wen Ruian’s work, The Four has been adapted numerous times for television in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. Featuring four male detectives with special powers who work directly for the Emperor and solve problems, this version is distinct for two reasons: It is the first big budget film adaptation, and one of the male characters has been made female. Even China is changing characters around to try to attract broader demographics! In general, I have no problem with that practice. But this specific case causes some problems, as discussed below.
I’ll show them, I’ll build a real clockwork orange!
Emotionless (Liu Yi-Fei) – Emotionless can read minds/souls, has telekinesis, in a wheelchair…but she’s not a Roman numeral professor or anything! The most powerful and smart member of the Divine Constabulary, but also has handicaps because why else would there need to be three more of them? In the original stories, Emotionless is a man.
Cold Blood (Deng Chao) – Cold Blood has a demon trapped inside him that comes out when he’s angry and a sword that glows green, but he’s totally not a rip off of the Hulk. Don’t think like that! Cold Blood has legendary sword skills, and legendary puppy finding skills. He worked for Department Six Constabulary until he was fired and then got a job with Divine Constabulary, but he still reports to his old Department Six Constabulary boss.
Iron Hand (Ngai Sing) – Despite the fact he’s named Iron Hand, he seems to be a bit closer to stark copy of a Marvel hero, thanks to his great ability to built things in the forge. Electrical powered things. Including wheelshairs. In ancient China.
Life Snatcher (Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei) – A bounty hunter who specializes in tracking down people who have debts for a price. He gets mixed up in the mess in the beginning of the film, but Zhengwo recognizes his skills and offers him a job. He’s reluctant at first to join up due to it interferring with his criminal underworld connections, but ends up becoming one of their best agents (he is one of The Four, after all!)
Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) – Leader of Divine Constabulary working directly under the Emperor. His unorthodox working styles is often criticized for not showing the proper respect, usually by stuffy-shirt nobles who are up to no good. It is sort of funny to see the star of films such as Ebola Syndrome given the wise and respected leader role.
Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yi-Yan) – The leader of a new crew of female constables that were hired by Division Six Constabulary. She starts crap from the moment of her introduction, and is working for the bad guy. A Penglai kung fu master with questionable loyalties… aka she’s evil!
I’ve heard of the Bride with White Hair, but this is ridiculous!