The Heroines’ Journey



The Heroines’ Journey

By R. Emmet Sweeney

On the cult canonization of To’s triple-threat ’90s martial arts fantasias.

The Heroic Trio and Executioners screen at Metrograph from July 29–31,  as part of Hong Kong Heroes.

The Heroic Trio (1993) was a failure until it wasn’t. A shapeshifting martial arts-horror-fantasy starring a dream team of Hong Kong actresses—Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Michelle Yeoh—the film was unable to break through amidst the Jet Li wuxia and Stephen Chow comedies then-topping the local box office. But its comic-book sensibility, dizzying wirework, and sheer star power made it stand out in the West, where it slowly built an audience until it received cult canonization via Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). An early scene includes a lengthy fight from The Heroic Trio that Jean-Pierre Léaud (as director René Vidal) watches on a television, gushing to Cheung (playing herself): “You are like a dancer, and also like an acrobat.” Cheung tries to explain that the stunt-people are the ones who made her look so good, but he brushes it off.

Let’s pick up where Vidal shuts her down—with Ching Siu-tung, who directed all of the action sequences in The Heroic Trio and in the lower-budgeted post-apocalyptic sequel Executioners (made back-to-back in ’93). His career began in the 1970s, when he worked as a stunt choreographer at Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, before teaming up with the restlessly creative Tsui Hark as he was forming his Film Workshop production company in 1984. It is there that Ching developed his signature style (his stunt coordinator and action design credits include 1987’s A Better Tomorrow II, 1989’s The Killer, and 2002’s Hero), in which elegantly flowing wirework gets carved jagged by paroxysms of violence. The critic Howard Hampton described his films as erupting “out of a skewed inner world of Tinkertoy delight and vertiginous desire… the place where Hitchcock and Batman intersect.”

The Heroic Trio doesn’t have Batman, but it has a Wonder Woman, played by mega Cantopop star and actress Mui (dubbed “The Madonna of Asia,” she sings the film’s theme song, “A Woman’s Heart”) as a masked avenger investigating the horrific abduction of 18 babies. Bedecked in flowing capes and a Phantom of the Opera mask, she tiptoes over electrical wires with balletic grace while firing children back to their proper owners with the howitzer arm strength of Josh Allen. The police force is bumblingly incompetent, so mercenary Thief Catcher (Cheung) sees a quick way to make a buck and gets herself hired on the same case by a spooked sergeant who has a young infant. While Wonder Woman studiously tries to avoid collateral damage, Thief Catcher is a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ type who debuts by throwing dynamite into a barrel and riding the resulting explosion into a thieves’ den, whereupon she somersaults off and guns the thugs down with breezy machismo. It is the most impressive star-making introduction since Orson Welles poked his head around the corner in The Third Man (1949).

Bedecked in flowing capes and a Phantom of the Opera mask, mui's wonder woman tiptoes over electrical wires with balletic grace while firing children back to their proper owners with the howitzer arm strength of Josh Allen.

The Invisible Woman (Yeoh) heads up the baby snatching operation with the help of a requisite magical cloak. She is in thrall to the Evil Master (Yen Shi-kwan) who lives in an expressionist sewer hellscape of burping methane clouds and birdcages stuffed with babies. The Master’s plan is to harvest these bundles of joy, hoping one will become an Emperor who will restore China to glory (the remaining children, of course, will become mindless drooling cannibals). It is four short years to the 1997 Handover and the directness and intensity of the fear here is bracing. Yeoh is given the most dramatically intense role in this otherwise cartoonish superhero romp, trying to escape her Master while desperately in love with the consumptive scientist (James Pak) whose work on the cloak just might be killing him.

The non-action scenes were directed by Johnnie To, an old collaborator of Ching’s from their days at the broadcaster TVB. Both directors wanted to break free of Tsui’s Film Workshop, as they were worn out by his frequent meddling. So they went in together as independent co-producers looking to make their own wuxia after the success of the Swordsman series (which Ching had worked on). When they discovered that all the top martial arts actors were either under contract somewhere else or out of their price range, they decided it would be smarter (and cheaper) to make a wuxia with all women. Originally, they hoped to remake one of the many movies about pulp hero Oriole, the Flying Heroine, but Wong Jing had already put one into production (Deadly Dream Woman, 1992), so according to To, the new idea was “to make it different, postmodern, very comic book.”

The clashing styles of the three superheroes lends an internal logic to Ching’s action design in The Heroic Trio, opposing Thief Catcher’s spraying ammunition approach and Wonder Woman’s nimble pinprick attacks against the Invisible Woman’s desperate, slightly out of control kung fu. The big throwdown before the inevitable team-up takes place in a collapsing shed with huge gaps between the wooden slats so the blue moonlight shines through in piercing strips. It is a characteristic Ching battle in how it lunges precipitously upward, becoming a game of balance and self-preservation as all three women fight while avoiding the roof collapsing in on top of them.

That shed is just one instance of the remarkable production design by Chan Pui-wah and Catherine Hun, who turn an underground sewer into an undulating pustule, and adapt their few city sets into a smoky, windswept pseudo-Gotham that becomes a fiery abattoir in the aria of destruction conducted by Ching in the film’s final minutes. If for most of its running time Ching and To were channeling DC, this final sequence is EC Comics as directed by Ray Harryhausen, a ghoulishly infernal showdown that incorporates wirework, giant explosions, stop-motion skeleton animation, and a skein of pulsating veins prepped to burst.


With Executioners, Ching and To pivot from postmodern comic book to survivalist Mad Max paranoia. They turn the fears and anxieties over 1997 up to 11, detonate a nuclear bomb, and let the trio live in a post-apocalyptic state where most of the drinking water has been poisoned by radiation and survivors are at war for what remains. To claims the sequel was only made to cover the cost overruns of the first movie: “The reason why we produced the second one was because the budget for the first one was very high and we needed to make two films to cover the whole production cost.” Executioners is perhaps more of an accounting trick than a movie, but though it is heavy on exposition it also features moments of crazed creativity—such as Anthony Wong’s unhinged performance as an operatically depressed monster who conspires with the police to hoard water and who keeps the severed head of his unrequited lover (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in a sumptuously appointed leather box.

For Hong Kong audiences, these films were nothing new, but for those deprived souls in the West who were clued in by Irma Vep or stumbled across The Heroic Trio in a video store, it struck with the force of revelation, an introduction to a cinema that seemingly had no boundaries, and could bounce from genre to genre with the head-snapping speed of a 1930s pre-Code, and the added bonus of exploding skeleton fights. The tagline on the back of the US VHS tells the tale: “Are you ready for an adrenaline injected, supernatural, superheroine, fantasy adventure times three?” Yes, yes I am.

R. Emmet Sweeney is the director of media production at Kino Lorber, Inc. He is also a longtime part-time film critic whose writings are collected at