The Heroic Trio (東方三俠, Johnnie To, 1993)

Female solidarity becomes an unexpected weapon against stealthy authoritarian take over in Johnnie To’s gloriously camp superhero action fest, The Heroic Trio (東方三俠). Uniting three of the top stars of the age in Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh the film flirts with Handover anxiety in the “Evil Religion” that threatens to steal the children of Hong Kong, but eventually locates the source of salvation in the heroine’s shared humanity brokered by a tripartite solidarity of justice and equality that defies both the patriarchal world around them and the cruel authoritarianism in which they have been raised. 

In an almost biblical allegory, large numbers of male infants have been going missing over the last 18 months and the police are, predictably, mystified relying on the reappearance of the mysterious superhero Wonder Woman to solve the mystery herself. Truth be told, top Inspector Lau (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) hasn’t yet realised that Wonder Woman is his own wife, Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), so perhaps his investigative skills aren’t all that despite the dynamism of the opening scenes which see him demonstrate his masculinity by leaping out of a window stop a thief from driving off in his classic car which is parked outside a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. Nothing really gets done until the chief of police gets a note that his own infant son is next on the list, though he briefly considers simply swapping his kid for another couple’s child while hiring “Thief Catcher” Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) to get him back when he’s kidnapped by an “Invisible Woman”, Ching (Michelle Yeoh), whom Tung manages to wound while saving the decoy baby. 

As it turns out, Ching has been taking the babies on behalf of “Evil Master” (Yen Shi-Kwan) who lives in an underground lair in the sewers and is the head of a mysterious cult hellbent on finding a new king for China. There may be a degree of Handover anxiety in Evil Master’s mission, seeking to possess and control Hong Kong by brainwashing its children eventually possessing Ching by removing her bodily autonomy while her sisters must quite literally free her from his icy grasp. Each of the kidnapped boys is said to have a divine destiny, though Evil Master doesn’t know which one is the new king and has a habit of simply killing the ones who disappoint him while the others are raised as mindless automatons consuming those like them and destined to become thoughtless killing machines like the bloodthirsty Kau (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). 

Chat, who was raised as one of Evil Master’s minions but managed to escape thanks to the largess of Ching and his since become an ultra-capitalist bounty hunter if one less cynical than she originally seems, thinks it’s better to simply end the cannibal kids’ misery before they end up like Kau while Tung prioritises saving the infants so they can be returned to their parents before being subject to one of Evil Master’s weird rituals. Ching, meanwhile, is only participating in Evil Master’s plan to protect the man she loves, a mad scientist slowly succumbing to poisoning caused by his invention in true genre fashion. It is then in a sense love that causes Ching to reject her programming, but it’s the solidarity of Tung and Chat, along with a desire for vengeance, that finally gives her the courage to rebel. 

In a brief flashback, Tung had failed to save Ching during a tough training session with their mentor who had cruelly told her that she’d have to fight for justice alone while Ching, cast out, sought support by turning to the dark side. The scene repeats itself twice in the film’s closing scenes in which Tung is this time able to save Ching but only because of the support from their friend and equal Chat making up the third point of the triangle and anchoring them both firmly to ensure they will not fall. “Life is meaningful if you can face yourself” Tung tells Ching, shedding her mask having presumably dealt with her own dark past and pulling her sister up with her as an equal leaving the past behind to fight for a future of justice and freedom. 

To and action director Ching Siu-tung recast Hong Kong as Gotham with a production design quite clearly inspired by Western comic books in which the three heroines end by getting fancy capes that flicker in the wind. Chat, a motorcycle-riding delinquent force of nature, even at one point launches herself into battle on an oil drum propelled by dynamite which she later uses to take out the cannibal kids not to mention Evil Master himself. But it turns out the spectre of creepy, ritualistic authoritarianism doesn’t die so easily, Evil Master’s charred skeleton gets back up for one last hurrah until his brain finally explodes when confronted by Ching’s rejection having returned to the fold and now ready to sacrifice herself for a freer future for all. Essentially a comic book wuxia, To’s ironic action drama allows its heroic trio to find salvation in female solidarity anchoring each other in a world beset by fear and villainy.


The Heroic Trio screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Moon Warriors (戰神傳說, Sammo Hung, 1992)

“In fact, some stories are true. Especially the heartbreaking ones” according to a melancholy fisherman in Sammo Hung’s tragic wuxia romance, Moon Warriors (戰神傳說). Arriving in the middle of a fantasy martial arts boom, Moon Warriors boasts some of the biggest stars of the day in a beautifully composed tale of intrigue and derring-do as well as featuring an A-list creative team with such high profile talent as Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Ching Siu-Tung, and Corey Yuen also involved in the production. 

Somewhere in feudal China, 13th Prince Shih-san (Kenny Bee) is on the run after being usurped by his evil brother, the predictably named 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong Siu) who burnt down his castle and has been following him throughout the land razing villages wherever he goes. Accompanied by trusty bodyguard Merlin (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) who is silently in love with him, Shih-san is desperate to get in touch with the Lord of Langling (Chang Yu), also the father of his betrothed princess Moony (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), in the hope of uniting their forces to retake the country together. Meanwhile, goodhearted yet eccentric fisherman Philip (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is doing a spot of hunting in a bamboo grove during which he notices Shih-san and the others wading into a trap and leaps to the rescue, helping to despatch the black-clad assassins. As Shih-san is badly injured, he takes them back to his cheerfully idyllic village, serves them the local delicacy of spicy shark fin soup, and generally befriends them before 14th Prince’s goons track them all down again at which point he takes them to his secret hideout which turns out to be an ancient temple dedicated to Shih-san’s emperor ancestors. 

We find out just how evil 14th Prince is when he gets his minions to kill all of Moony’s ladies-in-waiting and dress up in their clothes to mount a sneak attack on the Langling estate while holding on to the pretty kites Moony was flying before the gang arrived. Though petulantly flying kites seems like quite a childish activity for a princess about to be married off, Moony more than holds her own in the fight even if finding it difficult to deal with having killed someone for the first time. Sent to protect her, Philip is less than sympathetic, but after a few arguments, a near death experience, and some magic glitter, the pair begin to fall in love, which is a problem because Moony is betrothed to Shih-san. 

What develops is a complicated love square in which Merlin pines for Shih-san who seems more interested in Philip, while Philip repeatedly tries to leave the group because of his conflicted loyalties and a feeling of inferiority as a peasant suddenly mixed up in imperial intrigue and forbidden romance. Moony tries to give him her half of a precious jade talisman which plays beautiful music, but her melancholy suggestion that it will sound better with his flute than with the other half which is held by Shih-san flies right over his head. Shih-san, meanwhile, who was spying on them talking, suddenly decides to give him his half too, leaving Philip holding the whole thing. Merlin, as it turns out, has a series of interior conflicts of her own that leave her resentful of just about everyone except Shih-san. 

Eventually, however, nowhere is safe from the destructive effects of political instability and Philip’s fishing village is soon a target for the vicious 14th Prince, ensuring he enters the fight with the help of his improbable best friend, a killer whale named “Sea-Wayne”. Before the romantic dilemmas can be resolved, the courtly intrigue collapses in on itself, fostering an accidental revolution in the literal implosion of an old order, suddenly becoming dust as in some long forgotten prophecy. In a strange moment of flirtatious smalltalk, Philip had remarked that legend has it the flowers in these fields are only so beautiful because they grow on top of bodies buried far below, something he later discovers to be more than just a fanciful story. 

There might be something in the tragic tale of two branches of elites destroying each other in order to take control of a disputed territory while the ordinary man is left behind alone to reflect on the fall of empires, but perhaps that’s a reading too far in a melancholy wuxia of 1992 and its unexpectedly gloomy ending in which true feelings are spoken only when all hope is lost. Nevertheless, with all of its high octane fight scenes, painful stories of romance frustrated by the oppressions of feudalism, and surreal killer whale action, Moon Warriors is a strangely poetic affair as doomed love meets its end in political strife.


Trailer (no subtitles)