I recently read an encyclopedia of classic Hong Kong action movies titled Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, which is overloaded with hundreds of capsule reviews of the once-vibrant industry’s greatest hits. Each blurb makes each title sound like the most explosively badass movie you’ve never seen, fixating on the industry’s unmatched talent for absurd plot details, tactile fight choreography, and for-their-own-sake visual gags. It’s a daunting surplus of giddy movie recommendations, with no real guide for what to prioritize besides whatever happens to be available to access. After being pushed to check out the bonkers Indiana Jones mutation The Seventh Curse by the We Love to Watch podcast crew, I had no clear path for where to go next. Thankfully, that decision was taken out of my hands by happenstance. I lucked into a small haul of Hong Kong action DVDs (some bootlegs, some official releases, all pictured below) during a recent trip to Goodwill, which included the 1993 superhero oddity The Heroic Trio. This was the same week that Criterion announced an upcoming Blu-ray release of The Heroic Trio and the same month that one of its stars, Michele Yeoh, was gifted a career-high acting showcase in the Daniels’ own novelty superhero picture Everything Everywhere All at Once, which made it the most obvious must-see. I’m often overwhelmed deciding what movie to watch next when I’m left to my own devices, so it’s always a pleasure when the universe steps in to program that selection for me.
I am sure that the new Criterion restoration of The Heroic Trio will lovingly highlight the film’s technical beauty and pop-art iconography in a way few audiences have seen before. I’ll still admit that I was charmed by the tape-warp warmth of the bootleg DVD that found its way into my collection, since it plays right into the film’s vintage appeal. The Heroic Trio is a retro superhero team-up featuring the masked & powerful heroines Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), and Invisible Woman (Yeoh) – each a total badass. They start disorganized & distrustful of each other as a mysterious case of 19 kidnapped babies derails Hong Kong into chaos. Eventually, they find love & unity amongst their super selves to fight the methane-breathing sewer god responsible for those kidnappings, brutally confronting the gender-ambiguous deity in their underground lair/baby-storage facility. Tonally, the film plays like the kind of R-rated kids’ movie that you’d normally find through American labels like Troma & Full Moon, even featuring the children’s nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” as a soundtrack motif. It is S&M superhero cinema for the permanently immature, indulging in vintage Saturday-morning-TV cheese with far more gore, kink fashion, and shock-value baby deaths than any child should be consuming with their breakfast cereal. It just executes that volatile immaturity with exquisite technical skill you will not find in its low-budget American equivalents, especially in the beauty of its complex, tactile fight choreography.
Michele Yeoh’s inclusion in the titular trio was my prompt to watch the film and, dramatically, she gets the most to do. Invisible Woman is the only complex character of the bunch, starting off as the brainwashed lackey of the baby-snatching Evil Master but eventually coming around to join arms with her master’s enemies. I still found Maggie Cheung to be the MVP of the trio as Thief Catcher, providing most of the film’s comic relief as a Bugs Bunny-style anarchist, a motorcycle-riding vigilante in dressed in bike shorts & lingerie; Tank Girl, eat your heart out. Anita Mui is saddled with the least exciting part as Wonder Woman, who—as her name implies—is the most stereotypical comic book hero of the bunch. Her mask & cape iconography and secret-identity shenanigans are essential in grounding the film in a recognizable superhero genre, since most of its in-the-moment indulgences are more aligned with Hong Kong action antics than with comic book tradition. Director Johnnie To uses the superhero team-up template as a playground for martial arts chaos & Looney Tunes goofballery, playing around with as much Evil Dead POV camera movement, wuxia-style wire work, and bone-crunching brutality as his scrappy budget will allow. He gives each heroine room to establish separate, distinct personalities in the film’s early scenes, then smashes them together like action figures during an especially sugared-up recess. It’s the most gleeful, energizing movie experience I can think of that depicts the death of a dozen innocent babies.
Watching The Heroic Trio left me no better equipped to select my next Hong Kong action title. Yeoh, Cheung, and Mui each have extensive careers in martial arts classics exactly like this. To was equally prolific in his directorial career without them. All four of those collaborators reunited for a direct sequel to The Heroic Trio titled Executioners, also released in 1993, but it is not regarded as any of their respective best. Below, I’ll list the essential continued-viewing titles for Michelle Yeoh alone, as suggested by the authors of Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, just to demonstrate the overwhelming wealth of great, over-the-top Hong Kong action pics there are to choose from. And she’s only one of the industry’s many, many creative geniuses. I’ll likely just wait until another title falls directly into my lap the way The Heroic Trio did, taking the decision out of my hands. Otherwise, I’ll browse these titles & blurbs for hours without ever settling on one, the modern movie streamer’s dilemma.
Michelle Yeoh’s “Selected Filmography,” per Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, printed 1996:
Magnificent Warriors (1986)
Royal Warriors (1986)
Yes, Madam (1986)
Police Story 3: Supercop (1993)
Project S (1993)
The Tai Chi Master (1993)
Butterfly and Sword (1993)
The Heroic Trio (1993)
Wonder 7 (1994)