Executioners (現代豪俠傳, Johnnie To & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1993)

At the end of The Heroic Trio, the shadowy rise of authoritarianism seemed to have been beaten back. The three superwomen at the film’s centre had discovered joy and liberation in female solidarity and were committed to fighting injustice in a flawed but improving world. If Heroic Trio had been a defiant reaction to Handover anxiety, then sequel Executioners (現代豪俠傳) is its flip side shifting from the retro 40s Hong Kong as Gotham aesthetic to a post-apocalyptic nightmare world where nuclear disaster has normalised corporate fascist rule. 

As Ching (Michelle Yeoh) explains in her opening voiceover, a nuclear attack has ruined the city contaminating its water and leaving ordinary citizens dependent on the Clear Water Corporation for safe drinking supplies and basic sanitation. The trio have been scattered, pushed back into the roles from which they escaped at the first film’s conclusion save perhaps for Ching who continues to serve a duplicitous authority but does so with clearer eyes and a humanitarian spirit driving a medicine truck to ensure those in need have access to healthcare. Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) meanwhile has reverted to her cynical bandit lifestyle, hijacking water trucks mostly for her own gain but also ensuring the water gets to the needy. Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) has abandoned her Wonder Woman persona on the insistence of her husband who is now a high ranking policeman with the military authority devoting herself to the role of the traditional housewife and mother to her daughter Cindy. 

Though the women seem to have maintained their bond, Ching and Chat turning up for a Christmas celebration with Cindy, the political realities soon disrupt their friendship as they find themselves at odds with each other given their shifting allegiances. As in the first film, Chat has continued to accept work from dubious authority in the form of the Colonel including tracking down a man who embarrassed the police by firing a gun at a rally for a cult-like protest leader, Chung Hon (Takeshi Kaneshiro), only the gunman later turns out to be a patsy and Chat has unwittingly helped them bump off the voice of the people as an overture for a military coup. Ching is secretly working for responsible government trying to safeguard the President to prevent his assassination by the Colonel, but obviously cannot say very much about her mission arousing Tung’s suspicions that she may have been part of a plot to have her husband killed. 

In any case, the true villain turns out to be a kind of Wonder Woman mirror image in that the mysterious Mr. Kim (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), CEO of Clear Water Corporation, is a man who wears a mask to hide his scarred face and dresses like an 18th century aristocrat as if engaged in some kind of Man in the Iron Mask cosplay. Kim and the Colonel have been collaborating to engineer a military coup by deliberately restricting water supplies. The oblivious Chung Hon had unwittingly been Kim’s stooge, stoking up public resentment about the water situation to give the government an excuse for a crackdown and the Colonel to move. Chat’s path to redemption amounts to vindicating the faint hope that the water contamination was a hoax, which she eventually does by taking Cindy with her to smash the corporate dam and return the water to its rightful flow and the people of the city. But like the Evil Master, Kim does not die so easily turning up for a surprisingly hands on fight squaring off against the barely unified trio who are only just beginning to repair their friendships on coming to a fuller understanding of the reality of their circumstances. 

They are all in a sense liberated, though less joyfully than in the first film and largely through violent loss. The good guys don’t always win and a fair few die while all the women can do is keep moving, fighting off one threat after another with few guarantees of success and not even each other to rely on. Where the first film had embraced a hopeful sense of comic camp, Executioners skews towards the nihilistic in its dystopian world of corporate overreach and increasing militarism in which the trio no longer trust each other and are each re-imprisoned inside their original cages from patriarchal social norms to capitalistic inhumanity and questionable loyalties with the only hopeful resolution resting on “the sincerity of our friendship” in a world which may be healing but is far from happy. 


Executioners screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Dragon in Jail (獄中龍, Kent Cheng Jak-Si, 1990)

“For the poor life is a punishment” according to Henry (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), the embattled hero of Kent Cheng Jak-si’s Dragon in Jail (獄中龍), a subdued heroic bloodshed offshoot in which a poor boy and rich kid meet in juvie and become best friends for life even though fate seems to have very different paths in store for them. Less a critical expose of the cruelties of an increasingly stratified society than an ode to intense male friendship, Dragon in Jail puts its hero in a different kind of cell as he tries to escape the triad net but finds himself ensnared by past crime and present rage. 

Rich kid Wayne (Kenny Ho Ka-King) ends up in a reformatory for pulling petty stunts supposedly because he doesn’t like it that his widowed mother has remarried. Different from the other boys, he’s immediately hazed and asked for his gang affiliation, only he doesn’t have one. Tough boy Henry stands up for him, roping in his other friend Skinny (John Ching Tung) to take on the cell’s Mr. Big after which the boys become firm friends as they study together to sit their A Levels while inside. Wayne wasn’t planning to take his exams as a way of getting back to his mother, but Henry convinces him that education is the one way to show the world who’s boss. The boys come top in their class, Wayne gets out and decides to go the UK to study law, while Henry serves out the remainder of his sentence in an adult prison, sentenced to four years for manslaughter after accidentally killing a triad member during a fight over protection money at his family’s kiosk. 

Despite the differences in the scope of their possibilities, Henry and Wayne remain good friends, but once Henry gets out of prison he’s nothing much to look forward to. His hopes of attending a university are dashed by his defeatist father who thinks education is pointless and blames him for the failure of their business, while he struggles to find steady employment as a man with a criminal record. Eventually he decides to work as a mechanic by day and a cram school teacher by night with the aim of saving enough to apply for uni at later date so he can marry his longstanding girlfriend, Winnie (Gigi Lai Chi). Skinny, meanwhile, gets out of jail and heads straight back to the triads, trying to convince Henry he should join too. Henry doesn’t want to, but faces constant harassment from Brother Charlie (William Ho Ka-Kui), the boss of the man he killed in the fight. When his little brother is badly burned in a triad attack, he decides his only option is to become one himself to earn the protection of Boss Sean (Leung Gam-San) who mediates an uneasy truce with the psychopathic Charlie. 

When Wayne returns from the UK after graduating law school, Henry is married and a father-to-be living in a swanky apartment having risen in the triad ranks, but he’s also a hotheaded opium addict still sparring with the very present Charlie. “I’m a bad egg! I deserve it!” Henry wails on being confronted by Wayne who points out that it was he who was always encouraging him to study so that no one would ever look down on him. Henry thinks he’s not good enough to be Wayne’s friend and fully expects to be abandoned, but after some strong words of defence from Winnie, Wayne comes around, resolving to help get his friend off the stuff. The problem is the sense of futility which has already set in. Henry has become what everyone expected him to be, a thuggish triad, because they convinced him he could become nothing else.

Winnie berates Henry for keeping his sorrows to himself, remaining sullen and resentful at his inability to escape the triad world for an honest life of safety with his new family, though he once told Wayne that he should “speak up if you feel unhappy”. Despite everything the intense friendship between the two men endures. Cheng adds to the faintly homoerotic tone by shooting his early prison scenes with a lingering romantic gaze, while Wayne seems to pine for his broody friend, affirming that “no matter what you are, you are my buddy”. A caged dragon, Henry’s vengeance is swift and brutal but he retains his nobility even in the depths of his despair, eventually taking refuge in an unconditional friendship which transcends the forces which imprison him.


Doubles Cause Troubles (神勇雙妹嘜, Wong Jing, 1989)

Doubles cause troubleWould you be willing to live with someone you hate for a whole year just to get a share in an apartment? According to the sheer prevalence of this plot device in comedies throughout the ages, the chances are most people would, especially in a city like Hong Kong where competition is fierce. In any case the duelling cousins at the centre of Wong Jing’s disappointingly normal farce Doubles Cause Troubles (神勇雙妹嘜) find themselves doing just that, only the situation turns out to be much more complicated than one might imagine.

When self-centred nurse Liang Shanbo (Carol “Do Do” Cheng Yu-Ling) receives a visit from a lawyer informing her that her grandmother has passed away she’s a little put out because the old lady owed her money. She’s comforted with the news that she’s been left an apartment, but less so when she learns there’s a catch. Shanbo’s grandma really wanted her to patch things up with her cousin, actress Zhu Yingtai (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk), and has left the apartment to both of them with the caveat that they have to live there together for a period of one year after which they can sell it and inherit 50% of the proceeds each or else it’ll all go to charity. Neither Yingtai or Shanbo is very happy about the idea but it’s too good an opportunity to pass up and after all, it’s only for a year. When they arrive, however, they discover there’s another tenant – Ben (Poon Chun-Wai), a suave businessman who leaves them both smitten. Ben, it turns out, is not quite what he seems and staggers home on the first night to die in Yingtai’s arms after muttering something about a code.

Unlike most Hong Kong comedies of the era, Wong plays things disappointingly straight while remaining as broad as it’s possible to be. Odd couple Shanbo and Yingtai bicker and trade childish insults while throwing themselves first at the handsome Ben and then at his equally good-looking “brother” Sam (Wilson Lam Jun-Yin) without really giving too much thought to anything else that’s going on until they find themselves well and truly embroiled in a conspiracy. It turns out that Ben had been involved in a smuggling operation in which he betrayed his team and made off with a priceless Taiwanese “national treasure” that the rest of the gang would like to recover which is why Shanbo and Yingtai are being followed around by a “flamboyant” rollerskating henchman and a butch female foot-soldier.

The political realities of 1989 were perhaps very different, but there is an unavoidable subtext in the fact that the dodgy gangsters are all from the Mainland and are desperate to get their hands on a precious Taiwanese national treasure (which they intend to sell for a significant amount of money). The girls find themselves with ever shifting loyalties as they reassess Ben, come to doubt Sam, and fall under the influence of mysterious “inspector” Xu (Kwan Ming-Yuk) whose warrant card is “in the wash”. Completely clueless, they are helped/hindered by useless petty gangster Handsome (Nat Chan Pak-Cheung) and his henchman Fly (Charlie Cho Cha-Lee) who’ve been chasing Shanbo all along while Yingtai falls victim to Wong himself in one of his characteristically sleazy cameos as a lecherous businessman who has toilets instead of furniture in his living room and a boxes full of date rape drugs behind the bar (poor taste even for a Wong Jing movie).

Of course the real message is that blood ties and immediate proximity to danger can do wonders for a “difficult” friendship and so granny gets her wish after all even if not quite in the way she might have planned. Then again, why was Ben staying in her luxury apartment in the first place? Who can say. Setting a low bar it may be, but Doubles Cause Troubles is not even among Wong Jing’s funniest comedies though it does have its moments mostly born of sheer absurdity and enlivened by the presence of a young Maggie Cheung alongside a defiantly committed cast desperately trying to make the best of the often “risible” material.


Currently streaming via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories too.

Celestial pictures trailer (English/traditional Chinese subtitles)