The Heroic Trio: Hong Kong’s Estrogen Charged Answer To The Expendables
By Alex Cranz
I was at the reception for a wedding and digesting a dinner of fajitas while chatting with an old friend. She looked at me over the spout of her bottled water. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “You should really write about how there should be a woman version of The Expendables.”
She didn’t need to say more. It was such a visceral pitch! A bevy of hardass badass women exploding people with bullets and fist bumping and probably taking down forty guys at once with a well placed leg scissor throw thing. Only, “Yeah but who on earth would be in it? There aren’t any 80s bad ass action heroines! Cynthia Rothrock? No one wants to watch that.”
She shrugged, not quite as rapturously effected by her words as I was. Because really where were the female action heroes? On television certainly. But not in film. The men of The Expendables are all artifacts from a time when Hollywood was visually rejecting women’s movement into the workplace. Like dogs on a walk they asserted their prowess with overblown epic films starring Schwarzenegger and Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme. There was no female equivalent. And certainly no modern film that could fully display the badassery of our cinematic heroines.
Then I remembered Heroic Trio and smiled. Not only because I got to then explain the film to her and watch confusion and delight wage war on her face, but because I immediately had the subject for the next entry in this series.
Women weren’t necessarily kicking up a storm in American cinema, but over in Hong Kong, with the aid of superproducers like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-ting women were achieving remarkable success in action films. Bridgitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh and yes, Cynthia Rothrock, were proving that women could go toe to toe with men and in massively profitable films.
Heroic Trio was one of those films. Produced by Ching Siu-ting and directed by a young Johnnie To (who has recently become a critical darling with Cannes favorites like Election) it gathered three of the biggest female stars of Hong Kong cinema and then had them punch each other, some ghosts and also an army of police men.
Anita Mui leads the cast and came to the film already super famous as the “Madonna” of Hong Kong and as Jackie Chan’s favorite leading lady (as well as a Golden Horse award winner for her dramatic work in Rouge). She was the selling point of the film and her character gets the bulk of story. She’s Wonder Woman–but not that Wonder Woman because the film would have incinerated from all the brilliance unfolding. No she’s a major metropolis’ goto über acrobatic masked vigilante with a noble heart like her namesake and a major secret–her husband is a police inspector and has no idea he regularly faces off with his wife in dark alleys.
Michelle Yeoh had gained a reputation in the mid-80s as a dancer turned action star but retired from film making to pursue a marriage. While her divorce was being finalized she came out of five years of retirement to shoot Heroic Trio (and a whole slew of other films). So it makes sense that she plays an invisible warrior woman with a dark past and a potentially dark future. I mean she kidnaps babies and accidentally murders them and falls in love with scientists and wears a lot of red. It gets dark.
And Maggie Cheung. Maggie Cheung is now something of a critical darling thanks to her work with Wong Kar-Wai and her general absolute perfection. In 1992 she was just beginning the transition from eye candy roles in populist fare to powerhouse actress in intense dramas. Heroic Trio straddles that line. She is…look I don’t know how to tell you this…she’s Han Solo. On a motorcycle. And she has some fabulous goggles, a smart mouth and the potential links to both Wonder Woman and Invisible Girl (yes that’s Yeoh’s character’s name, no copyright doesn’t work in China like it does here).
The film has that fuzzy look of early 90s Hong Kong action films with everything being shot by a lens that looks as though it was covered in Vaseline. It helps to hide the wires for the film’s exemplary wire work and covers up some seriously hinky/hilarious special effects involving both decapitations and a possession by a skeleton.
It also makes everything look a little grubby. The streets of Wonder Woman’s city are not clean. Nor are the cliff sides she trained on as a child with her dear sister. Even the ethereal plane on which the film’s villain resides feels a bit dirty.
But that’s okay. Whatever technical deficiencies you might see are more than made up for by the film’s massive plot that seems to employ every single trope featured in superhero films. Childhood friends reunited? Check. Siblings reunited? Check. Major fights between protagonists because of misunderstandings? Check. Chase scenes involving horses and motorcycles? Check. A skeleton coming out of flames in a visual aped from Terminator? Check. Tears being shed over masks? Check. Catchy Cantopop theme song sung by Anita Mui during all the major emotional moments? Check. Needless deaths of loud love interests? Check. All three ladies in 90s fabulous tight dresses and big hair? Oh hell to the yes check.
The film manages to be both an ode to Hong Kong and American cinema excess and one of the better comic book films of the 90s. Everyone dresses like they fell out of a Jim Lee comic or a hard boiled Dick Tracy story and the action is over the top and rife with explosions and stunt men getting whapped with swords.
But really, like Expendables the movie is based around the idea of watching big stars tear up the screen for an hour and a half in increasingly bizarre and violent showdowns until they reach that aforementioned fight with a skeleton that is so out there and so deadly serious that you’re a monster if you don’t smile. And like Expendables it spawned a sequel. Though I’m fairly certain Expendables 2 won’t have anything like this.
Heroic Trio is currently available on Netflix Instant and it’s sequel, Executioners, will be studied in-depth here on a later date because I maybe might prefer it.