Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui in "Heroic Trio"

“The Heroic Trio” occurs in a dystopian world that exists in both the recent past (cars are from the 1940s, some clothing from the 1930s and 1950s) and the near future. There are the usual problems of nightmarish quasi-reality: criminal gangs roam the streets; incompetent police are unable to stop them; frightening events happen without explanation. Citizens are fearful and apathetic; authorities are powerless to stop even the most blatant crime.

Infants have been kidnapped from the city hospital but the kidnappers haven’t demanded a ransom or made any communication at all. No one can figure out why it is happening but every new parent is afraid her child will be next. A strange message, written by an invisible hand during a meeting of police to deal with the kidnappings tells a senior commander that his son will be taken.

Despite the best efforts of law enforcement—dozens of officers deployed at the hospital to stand around and do nothing—two infants are taken. They seem to just float away from their cribs and out the window. This is where our heroines show up.

First on the scene—but unseen—is Michelle Yeoh as Ching, the Invisible Woman. She uses the cloak of invisibility invented by her husband, a brilliant scientist who is dying of a mysterious disease. Arriving to thwart her is Anita Mui as Tung, the Wonder Woman. She leaps or flies to the top of a utility pole, whips out some very deadly looking throwing darts and flings two of them at the babies who seem to be floating in the air but who are actually being held by Ching. The darts draw blood, one of the babies is dropped as a diversion while the unseen criminal escapes with the other, leaving bloody footprints on the wall. Another child has been taken.

Shortly after this a gang takes control of a chemical plant, holding employees hostage and keeping the police at bay. The criminals are amateurish, running around with hostages, firing their guns and generally not doing a good job at an armed takeover. The police don’t do anything—no snipers, no negotiators, none of the accoutrements movie goers have come to expect at a mass hostage situation. This is where Maggie Cheung, Chat, the Thief Catcher, makes her entrance. She rides in on her motorcycle, tells the cops that even though she generally charges big money for dealing with barricaded gunmen, this one will be free. She jumps her cycle over some barriers, shoots most of the criminals with her pump shotgun and frees the captives. Before leaving the scene she makes a deal to rescue the stolen child of the police official.

So our three characters are introduced and drawn together by a particular baby. Each of the heroines has characteristics that play to the strengths of the actress portraying her. Anita Mui, had huge, depthless eyes and lush full lips, always highlighted by the reddest of red lipstick. Johnny To shot a lot of screen filling close-ups of her, both with and without her mask, making the most of her natural, sensual beauty. Tung seems the most “normal”. She has supernatural powers and a great costume but also has a very straight alternate identity, married to a police officer with whom she is rehabbing an old mansion. Her work-a-day world is commonplace and dull but as Wonder Woman she is an implacable, determined enemy of the evil behind the kidnappings, fighting a lonely battle against great odds but never shirking her duty.

Even though she plays the tough girl Chat, the soldier of fortune willing do anything for a price, Maggie Cheung still has the insouciant goofiness and slightly confused exasperation that endeared her to millions. No matter what Chat is doing—sliding down a slippery rope into a hospital nursery, negotiating with the police or throwing a stick of dynamite –she does it with a bit of a smirk and a twinkle in her eye. Shot in close-up with a furrowed brow or an uncertain tilt to her head, Chat/Maggie is always ready to rush in to trouble instead of thinking things through.

Ching, Invisible Woman, is still in thrall to Kau and the Evil Master who are behind the kidnappings and who pit the children against each other to determine who will become the new emperor of China. It is sufficient to say that Anthony Wong at his scenery chewing, scene stealing best is only the second most evil person in the movie to establish just how over the top “The Heroic Trio” is and how impossible to summarize the plot. Ching is a battler. She goes after Kau, slicing off a few of his fingers with a special chain fitted with razor blades, tries to throw Wonder Woman off a cliff and carries out the baby stealing with cold efficiency, not concerned with their fate.

Ching was kidnapped and raised to carry out the bidding of the Evil Master, as was Chat, who escaped. Tung may have been as well—she has a tattoo that matches on of Ching’s perfectly. Michelle Yeoh does what she does best: underplaying the drama, content to go along with whatever is happening around her until it is time to act. Then her amazing strength, flexibility and fitness come into play, going from demure to destructive in a flash.

It might be useful to see “The Heroic Trio” as three interrelated star turns by three actresses each at the height of her powers. The narrative here doesn’t make much sense nor is it meant to; other characters are there as complements to the talents of the three stars—Michelle Yeoh’s husband dies in her arms while Anita Mui’s husband winds up sitting on the couch watching TV with her; the mise–en–scène is no better than it has to be and the production design does a lot but not quite enough with a little.

“The Heroic Trio is best seen as interrelated star turns by three terrific actresses each at the height of her powers.


  1. Hi ewaffle --

    It's been years since I viewed "The Heroic Trio". Remember that the first time, I was a bit thrown and put off by its particular look and style. But upon subsequent viewings, I learnt to enjoy the movie more.

    Looking again at the names of the characters, I wonder if Anita Mui's Tung = East in Cantonese and Michelle Yeoh's Ching = Green? Am fairly sure that Maggie Cheung's Chat = Thief (and in some versions, gets translated in the English subtitles as Thief Catcher) and Anthony's Wong Kau = Dog! :b

  2. Dog fits Anthony Wong's character in a couple of ways--first, if you think of "dog" as term of contempt (you dirty dog) and as chasing Chat (works in French as well) although there are probably two or three more layers of puns and hidden meanings in the original Cantonese.

    Regarding the look of the movie, at least as far as the general murkiness plus all the steam/smoke/fog that always seemed to be around, even inside, I initially thought it might be a fault in the VHS tape I was watching the first time I saw "The Heroic Trio". Watching it on DVD made me realize that all that mist belonged inside the hospital!

  3. Wonderful post. I haven't seen this in a while but, for me, is one of the earlier HK films I have seen.

    ewaffle, in regards to the French word 'Chat', doesn't it mean 'Cat?' That also works well with Wong's character being named 'dog." Or is that what you meant/ =P

  4. Kingwho?--praise from the author of that amazing post in the NYAFF weekend is high praise indeed. I have a feeling there are level of meaning withing levels of meaning including a few that Johnny To wasn't completely aware of in "The Heroic Trio".

    The cat/chat thing was kind of whimsical although when one starts dealing with translation/transliteration to western languages from Chinese there are a lot of unintended consequences, not all of them in the silly subtitles category.