RESTORED VERSION 2022 - ITALIAN PREMIERE
The Heroic Trio
東方三俠 (Dung fong saam hahp)
Hong Kong, 1993, 87’, Cantonese
Directed by: Johnnie To
Screenplay: Sandy Shaw
Photography (color): Poon Hang-sang, Tom Lau
Editing: Kam Wah Prod. Co.
Art Direction: Bruce Yu
Music: William Hu
Producer: Ching Siu-tung
Cast: Michelle Yeoh (Ching, Invisible Woman), Anita Mui (Tung, Wonder Woman), Maggie Cheung (Chat, Thief Catcher), Damian Lau (Inspector Lau), Anthony Wong (Kau), James Pak (doctor), Yam Sai-koon (Evil Master), Paul Chun (police chief)
Date of First Release in Territory: February 12th, 1993
Hong Kong cinema made a strong push into international consciousness with its wildly entertaining early-1990s films, and sci-fi action-fantasy The Heroic Trio was one of its most ubiquitous standard-bearers. Once a fixture at countless genre festivals and “Midnight Madness” screenings, Johnnie To’s classic is very dated by today’s CGI-polished standards, but its power as boundary-breaking pop entertainment endures.
It starts with the stars. While Hollywood only now prioritizes representation, three decades ago The Heroic Trio cast three star actresses as its undisputed headliners, empowering them to be as tough, tender, strong or sexy as they wished. Michelle Yeoh is Invisible Woman, a misguided villainess who teams up with superheroine Wonder Woman (Anita Mui) and tough-as-nails bounty hunter Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung). Their goal: stop the Evil Master (Yam Sai-koon) from kidnapping babies. Their problems: difficult pasts, differing methods, and frequently each other.
The women eventually find common ground and join forces, with plenty of time devoted to acrobatic action and frenzied fisticuffs. Action director Ching Siu-tung pulls out all the stops, having the heroines flip and whirl through the air as they fire guns, trade kicks or, in the crazy finale, beat up one of their own number while she’s controlled by an immortal skeleton. Other set pieces include a nighttime encounter where the three fight over a falling baby, and a no-holds-barred train station battle against beast-like henchman Kau (Anthony Wong), who wields a flying guillotine straight out of Shaw Brothers lore.
The violence is extreme and ridiculous, but it matches the film’s budget-conscious B-film aesthetic. The Heroic Trio presents a hyper-stylized reality, with ingenious art direction and colorful cinematography used to create an over-the-top, expressionistic world. The hospital that houses the in-peril babies resembles more a cement factory than a care-giving facility, and the train station looks made of cardboard and papier-mâché. Yet with frenetic pacing, frequent cuts, Dutch angles, and dialed-up-to-eleven wind machines, the whole goes down entertainingly.
Emotions are also pushed to their limit. Early-1990s Hong Kong cinema was known for excess, not only in its violence or drama, but also in its willingness to do what other films wouldn’t. So if The Heroic Trio features a baby in peril, that baby may not go unharmed. Innocents die with little pause, and while this might be desensitizing, it also heightens stakes considerably. More subtly, Johnnie To satirizes policemen and power structures, and many elements channel Hong Kong’s increasing anxiety over the upcoming 1997 handover.
The film actually references Hong Kong’s cultural-political zeitgeist quite frequently. The youngest and most rebellious hero, Thief Catcher, frequently whistles “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” and the Evil Master is obviously an imperial remnant – a leftover eunuch whose grand plan is to anoint one of the kidnapped babies China’s new emperor. “China must have a king,” the Evil Master intones, at one point so obsessively that it literally explodes his brain. Wonder Woman’s most potent line is, “What’s important is today, not the past.” In context, she’s referring to one character’s sins, but she’s likely talking about a whole lot more.
These details, while sometimes on the nose, are worked in so seamlessly that they can be glossed over by audiences – and frequently were, as some have come to view that era’s cinema as glorious schlock and little more. But the devil is in the details, and what they reveal are movies so entertaining and creative and concerned that they become time capsules for a place and emotions that echo to this day.
Johnnie To joined broadcaster TVB in 1972 and became a writer-director and producer. To directed his first movie, The Enigmatic Case, in 1980 and his filmography since then has included many critical and box office successes. In 1996, To co-founded production company Milkyway Image, working closely with writer-director Wai Ka-fai. The company drew attention for its thrillers such as A Hero Never Dies (1998) and The Mission (1999) before starting a run of commercially successful films with the release of To and Wai’s 2000 box office champ Needing You... To has since gone on to find wider international recognition for movies including PTU (2003), Election (2005) and Exiled (2007).
1980 – The Enigmatic Case
1998 – A Hero Never Dies
1999 – The Mission
2000 – Needing You... (co-director)
2004 – Throw Down
2005 – Election
2006 – Exiled
2012 – Romancing in Thin Air
2016 – Three
2019 – Chasing Dream