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.
Categories: Bad, Movie Reviews Tags: Anita Mui Yim-Fong, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Damian Lau Chung-Yan, Hong Kong, Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Louis Yuen Siu-Cheung, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, martial arts, Michelle Yeoh, Sandy Shaw Lai-King, super heroes, Tony Ching Siu-Tung, Women who kick butt, wuxia, Yen Shi-Kwan
The Bride with White Hair 2
aka 白髮魔女2 aka Bai fa mo nu zhuan II
Written by Raymond To Kwok-Wai, David Wu Dai-Wai, and Ronny Yu Yan-Tai
Directed by David Wu Dai-Wai
When last we left our star-crossed lovers, everyone except them was totally dead! Also Lien Ni Chang hated Cho Yi Hang, her hair having turned white upon his betrayal of her trust, and she went on a total killing spree ending. With The Bride with White Hair Part 2, it’s now ten years later, and Lien Ni Chang has turned the killing spree into an art form. She has been hunting down and killing all members of the Eight United Clans, her vengeance focused on anything that reminds her of her scorned lover. Ni Chang has set up a fortress filled with female warriors, and they often dish out punishment on men, an extension of her hatred.
While Part 1 focused on Cho Yi Hang as the main character, Part 2 features Lien Ni Chang as the member of the couple who gets the major role, though as an antagonist. The focus of the story is on a different pair of lovers, offering a parallel to the love story from the prior film. There is a greater amount of side characters with stories, which hints as the clan and political intrigue from the wuxia serials the tale originates from.
The prior film featured a love that ended in accidental betrayal, here the ending has a reconsiliatory tone, but there is a price to be paid for the actions done. The two films are united by the lovers and completes the story, ending in the somber but touching way tragic romance tales often do.
The Bride with White Hair Part 2 is noticeably less cinematic than it’s predecessor. While Part 1 would have huge energetic scenes with lots of characters and action happening (be it an insane cult orgy or a choreographed battle), Part 2 is smaller scale, with a limited amount of scenes involving a large number of choreographed elements. This adds touches of a more personal tone which reflects on the love stories, but it also reveals the smaller budget and smaller skill set of the director. Instead of Ronny Yu, the assistant director of Part 1, David Wu Dai-Wai, steps into the chair. Yu was still involved in the writing and producing, so it is not clear how much of the change in elements is the fault of Wu vs. Yu, but the result is an inferior product. This doesn’t mean a bad product, far from it, but while Part 1 was exceptional, Part 2 becomes just another good film. For some reason the aspect ratio is also different from Part 1, but with Hong Kong DVDs it is sometimes a mystery as to why films are presented the way they are.
Lien Ni Chang has clearly become the villain. In the ensuing years, she has become more like her insane adoptive conjoined twin parents than comfortable, She often breaks out in insane laughter when doing evil deeds, a mirror of the female half of Chi Wu Shuang. She’s formed a cult of her own, all females who hate men and are prepared to violently destroy any male that crosses their path. There is even an initiation ritual that is packed with religious symbolism. Lien Ni Chang at times channels a cartoonish man-hater. Characters openly declare that all men should die. The women have only male servants – musicians and bathers – who always seem to end up dead before the scene ends. Lien Ni Chang becomes more fleshed out as the story progresses. Beyond her great hatred of men, there is still an underlying pain and longing for Cho, even Chen Yuen Yuen(Ruth Winona Tao) sees it (and hates it!) A hint of a lesbian romance between Lien Ni Chang and her assistant Chen Yuen Yuen is summarily rejected by Ni Chang. Many of her army of killer women have past stories of lovers betraying them and selling them into sex slavery, so it’s hard to not feel sympathy for women who are finally freed from bondage and given tools to strike back against their oppressors.
At the opposite extremes, several of the male rebel characters spend all their time insulting the women, implying all they need is a real man. The weird feminist and antifeminist straw man arguments that pepper some of the scenes give it a strange flavor. The contempt of some of the male characters for the killer women in light of the women’s pasts come off a chauvinistic, even though those women are killing their families. The annoying and goofy Liu (Richard Sun Kwok-Ho, character also called Green in some subtitles) is a huge jerk, but also sympathetic due to his quick wits to save his friends and regret that he never took his kung fu training seriously enough to be an effective enough fighter to help his family. He went from a character I dismissed as simple cannon fodder to something more. Good films will go beyond the typical black and white of right and wrongs, and the multi-layered characters are some of the strongest features of Part 2.
Warning, spoilers below the fold!
Categories: Movie Reviews, Ugly Tags: Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Cheung Kwok-Leung, Christy Chung Lai-Tai, David Wu Dai-Wai, Eddy Ko Hung, Helena Law Lan, Hong Kong, Jacky Yeung Tak-Ngai, Joey Man Yee-Man, Lee Heung-Kam, Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Lily Chung Suk-Wai, martial arts, Raymond To Kwok-Wai, Richard Sun Kwok-Ho, Ronny Yu Yan-Tai, Ruth Winona Tao, Sunny Chan Kam-Hung, wuxia
Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain
aka 新蜀山劍俠 aka Xin shu shan jian ke
Written by Shui Chung-Yuet and Sze-To Cheuk-Hon
Directed by Tsui Hark
My life having gone through the binge period of renting blurry Hong Kong VHS second generation dubs with hard to read subtitles from locally owned video stores in the 90s, Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is one of those films that unleashes giant waves of nostalgia. Despite the bad conditions it was being viewed under, the energy and effects magics caused it to rise above the masses. I’ve since seen it on first generation VHS, vcd, and DVD, each time being a fun experience as an idealistic young fighter is caught in the world of wuxia masters, who turn out to have just as many problems as the normal folk (only their problems are a million times more dangerous!) With Tsui Hark’s direction (and choreography work done by Corey Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao, Fung Hak-On, and Mang Hoi), Zu is visually distinctive. The choreography and effects jumpstarted the look of modern Hong Kong film from the 1980s, while the color and humorous tone helped distinguish it from the Shaw Brothers films that it often shared rental store space with.
The effects look a bit dated now, flying people on obvious wires, old school makeup effects, and cartoon lasers zapping around. But a lot of the practical effects still look nice, and the pulsating monster seems more dangerous as a jiggling puppet than it would as just a bunch of lifeless CGI. The effects were pushed to show that Hong Kong could produce films on par with Star Wars and other early 80s effects-laden films from Hollywood. While I don’t think they quite match the talent, much is accomplished on what is obviously an insanely smaller budget (and Hong Kong effects would develop much further thanks to experience from producing films like this one!)
Despite the effects, much of the film is character driven. Dik Ming Kei’s endless idealism, Ding Yan’s tough exterior hiding a lonesome and good man, Yat Jan being a royal screw up, and the Ice Queen being the total opposite of her name when it comes to Ding Yan. It’s Moon Lee’s first major role, she would go on to be a major player in the Girls with Guns films of the late 80s/early 90s. Brigitte Lin began her domination as a martial arts queen that would ripen with Swordsman II and The Bride with White Hair.
The energy of Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain is infectious, it covers so much that we’re sprinting from concept to concept. Despite that, the basic story is simple to follow. They even stop to remind everyone that it is just good vs. evil!