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.

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)

Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle, Teddy Chan, 2014)

kung fu killerKung fu movies –  they don’t make ‘em like they used to, except when they do. Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle) is equal parts homage and farewell as its ageing star, Donnie Yen, prepares to graduate to the role of master rather than rebellious pupil. What it also is, is a battle for the soul of kung fu. Just how “martial” should a martial art be? Is it, as our antagonist tells us, worthless with no death involved or will our hero prove the spiritual and mental benefits which come with its rigorous training and inner centring transcend its original purpose? Of course most of this is just posturing in the background of a lovingly old fashioned fight fest complete with a non-sensical plot structure motivated by increasingly elaborate set pieces.

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a martial arts master and instructor to the HK police who hands himself in one day covered in blood and confesses to having killed someone. Three years later Hahou is a man of peace, paying for the accidental death of an opponent by patiently waiting out his prison time. However, when he sees a news report about a serial killer with martial arts ability targeting fellow martial artists he goes on a violent rampage trying to get the attention of the police. If they’re going to solve this crime, they’re going to need someone who knows the martial arts world intimately and Hahou spies an opportunity to earn his freedom through helping someone not so unlike himself realise the error of their ways.

In keeping with the genre, its not so much of a whodunnit as a whydunnit and so the crazed murderer is unmasked fairly quickly. Fung Yusau (Wang Baoqiang) is determined to be number one in each and every discipline, taking on the accepted masters and besting them every time, even going to far as to leave a sarcastic trophy on every body. Hahou once shared his ambition, his reckless need to prove his skill is the reason his life has gone the way it has after all, but the two men share fundamentally different beliefs about the nature of their art. Fung Yusau believes martial arts exist for the reason of killing people – fights in which both challengers live are, to him, pointless and incomplete.

Even if Hahou once harboured the same desire to prove his skills superior to all others, his was a more internal quest. For him, at least now, kung fu is a sacred art of self improvement which can be used for self defence but is essentially about learning to live a harmonious life. Having learned from his own misfortune, he knows the folly of being no. 1 – in that it’s an essentially lonely and insecure place to be. Martial arts should be used to kick down walls and build bridges, his desire is to move forward in togetherness teaching people how to be happy rather than working against each other in an unnecessary and artificial kind of competition.

The police need Hahou’s help because the martial arts world is so essentially alien to them. Despite a shared culture, this insular universe is something which they know nothing about and is so dependent on interpersonal knowledge that no degree of wikipediaing is likely to help them understand it. Only by learning from those with direct knowledge and able to guide them through the particular thought processes of the killer will they stand any chance of being able to catch him. However, the strangely alternative nature of the martial arts universe also makes trusting Hahou and the veracity of his information a big ask for hardheaded cops.

Yen wisely cedes most of the action to Wang Baoqiang other than in the early prison riot sequence and final showdown. The fight scenes are innovatively choreographed and always exciting, except perhaps for going overboard with CGI especially during the motorway set finale during which the additional speeding cars become an unwelcome reminder of just how much less is at stake than during the heady Hong Kong heyday of death defying stunts. Still, the relative quality of the action goes a long way to covering for the otherwise under developed story elements.

A nice fusion of the classic and the modern, Kung Fu Killer wears its love on its sleeve with a final credits sequence celebrating the various Hong Kong greats who’ve all contributed to the film in some way even if in more of a spiritual capacity. Necessarily an exercise in genre, Kung Fu Killer makes no claims to breaking new ground or doing anything particularly interesting, but does provide ample scope for a celebration of Hong Kong action cinema as well as the handing of the baton from Yen to Wang as each showcases their respective martial arts prowess.


Original trailer (English Subtitles)