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.

The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍, Tsui Hark & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1991)

Comic book heroes often rise in resistance to a label others have placed on them, but Uncle Choy (Dean Shek Tin) may be the first to offer fierce opposition to societal ageism. Inspired by a series of comic books which ran from 1958 to the mid-1970s, Tsui Hark and Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍) is at great pains to make plain that you shouldn’t write people off because of a few numbers on an ID card as its admittedly geriatric hero proves that he’s the force for good the Resistance has been waiting for. 

That would be the Resistance towards the Japanese and the new puppet state of Manchuria in the confusing world of 1932. Tsui and Ching open with Pu Yi himself getting out of a limo in a sparkling white uniform adorned with meaningless medals glinting in the sun before he takes to the stage and bizarrely likens himself to Hitler while insisting that he’s here to unify China because his ancestors told him to in a dream. Meanwhile, the Resistance has already infiltrated his forces and installed dynamite in his microphone only for his right-hand man, Matsu (Tony Leung Ka-fai), to catch on right before it explodes. Pu Yi is saved, for now, while Matsu declares himself unfazed by the Resistance fighter’s dying words that he will be coming back to haunt him. 

In another part of the jungle, a team of mute locals is trying to bring a doctor to some soldiers hiding out in a remote shack. After narrowly escaping a plane attack by blowing a hole in a dam and drowning it with water, Uncle Choy arrives to discover that the men are victims of a new kind of poison gas. It’s too late to save the commander, but Choy manages to restore the others to health and even offers to join them in their new mission of destroying the poison gas factory, but Lieutenant Mong (Paul Chu) tells him to go home. He’s too old to be of help and would only get in the way. As expected, Choy finds that very upsetting. Unwrapping the giant sword he fought with in his youth, he leaves a note for his adopted daughter Nancy and heads off on his own towards the revolution, but she follows him with her giant spear and is then followed by a cheeky young guy armed with slingshot. 

There is something a little bit suggestive about this rag tag bag of patriots trying to stop the poisonous fumes of a new China wafting over towards the land they love. Pu Yi, the “last emperor” is something of a tragic figure, a bumbling fool with some weird ideas but also a noticeably progressive streak which sees him tell Matsu, in the middle of an otherwise silly and slightly homophobic joke, that he firmly believes love is love and he plans to make a law that says so. He is, however, just a puppet himself, caught between the villainous Matsu and beautiful actress/super spy Kim Pak-fai/Kawashima Yoshiko (Joyce Godenzi).

Matsu is fond of telling the heroes that they cannot win against a force with superior technology, that old Uncle Choy’s sword and fists are useless in a modern world of guns and chemical warfare. To perfect their poison gas, they’ve been working with a local gangster who cares only for money and has been willingly sending them test subjects. Big Nose (Corey Yuen Kwai) is currently engaged in a turf war with the equally greedy Bobo Bear (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau), testifying to the tendency of oppressed people to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the true evil. Bobo Bear is also in love with the famous actress Kim Pak-fai and deeply regrets getting mixed up with the Resistance, but later falls for nerdy undercover spy Tina (Fennie Yuen), who is the real brains of the operation, and comes over to the side of right. As does Big Nose after getting a dressing down from Uncle Choy and being confronted with the consequences of his actions by an overconfident Matsu. 

According to Matsu whoever has the best weapon controls the world, but as in any good kung fu movie the best weapon is righteous solidarity. Uncle Choy’s sword turns out not to be so useless after all, while he also makes himself useful as a doctor to the revolutionaries, proving that old people still have a lot to offer and don’t deserve to be put out to pasture by patronising youngsters. Making plenty of space for cartoonish slapstick fun and a series of farcical episodes including the classic misdirected love letter and spy hiding under the bed, The Raid is pure pulp but never pretends to be anything more than it is even while leaving its earnest revolutionaries in media res as if to remind us that a battle still rages even in 1991.


Short clip (no subtitles)

The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Kuei Chih-Hung, 1974)

TheTeaHouse+1974-248-bWhere oh where are the put upon citizens of martial arts movies supposed to grab a quiet cup of tea and some dim sum? Definitely not at Boss Cheng’s teahouse as all hell is about to break loose in there when it becomes the centre of a turf war in gloomy director Kuei Chih-Hung’s social minded modern day kung-fu movie The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Cheng Ji Cha Lou).

Wang Cheng runs a small teahouse which prides itself on being the kind of progressive environment where everyone looks after each other as long as they play by the rules. Unfortunately, one of his young guys – Blackie, fresh off the boat from the mainland, has got himself into bad company and into trouble with the law. However, as he’s a minor, he gets off with barely any punishment at all. Cheng tells him he can stay at the teahouse only if he pays properly for his crime leading him to try and get himself arrested all over again so he can go to jail (which actually proves very difficult).

Another unfortunate side effect of Blackie’s adventure is that it brings some unwanted gangster attention and when two young thugs come looking for one of the waitresses, Boss Cheng is not going to stand for any nonsense. However, after his attempts to help the girl have failed, he finds himself in trouble with two different sets of gangsters and also a meddling police inspector who seems intent on using the teahouse to trap the triads.

Boss Cheng is a good and decent man but also someone with his own opinions on justice who is not afraid to take matters into his own hands. His rules for workers at the teahouse emphasise obeying the law and behaving like responsible citizens, but he’s not above carrying out a little corrective action of his own if the need arises.

The biggest theme of the film is the rising inequality and place of migrants from the mainland in contemporary Hong Kong society but the first target Kuei has his sights set on is out of control youth. Because of the lenient laws regarding child criminality, the young men of Hong Kong run rampant, safe in the knowledge that nothing is going to happen to them while they remain under the age of responsibility. The two gangsters accused of raping and attempting to force the teenage waitress at the teahouse into prostitution give their ages as 14 and 15 respectively to the trial judge and are released without charge to go back to their life of crime with impunity and no respect for the law or conventional morality. Sadly, this system just creates another child criminal but one who will receive a jail sentence even if a lighter one to be served in a reform school rather than a prison.

Blackie was seduced into crime by a lack of funds – having managed to make it over from the mainland he has nothing other than his job at the teahouse and the support of Boss Cheng. One day a ragged looking little boy leading his sister by the hand wanders into the teahouse to beg for food. It turns out his small family escaped from the mainland too but his father never made it to Hong Kong and his mother is ill, leaving the children to try and fend for themselves. Boss Cheng takes pity on them and gives the boy a job plus paying for his school fees but he still finds himself beaten up by thugs not much older than himself in the street.

All the while, corrupt fat cats are messing with the system to keep the poor in their place while the rich get richer. Cheng takes great pleasure in playing off a corrupt industrialist who tried to use him as a sacrificial pawn in his own war against the triads (well, the triads he doesn’t like, anyway). Amusingly, one of the triad bosses seems to think Cheng is also a brother forcing him to pretend to know all about triad rituals to attempt to make a truce with them. The teahouse is situated right between the territories of two rival gangs making it a prime spot for conflict. However, the real problem comes when the police start muscling in, giving off the impression that Cheng has turned traitor on the triads. Soon, Cheng becomes the single biggest threat to his own teahouse and the progressive environment he hoped it would foster.

The Teahouse is actually a little ahead of its time concentrating not on kung fu or street fighting but mixing in a little gun play and some bloody knife crime. The shooting style is impressive throughout with a realistic, gritty atmosphere which aims to put the real streets on screen. The film does, however, have a tendency to fall into an episodic rhythm and suffers from its abrupt and slightly odd, downbeat ending which finishes things on an unsatisfying note. That said, The Teahouse is a stylishly shot and socially engaged action extravaganza that makes up for its minor shortcomings with a degree of chutzpah which looks forward to the classic heroic bloodshed movies of the ‘80s.


Seen as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.

Unsubtitled trailer (Mandarin):