The Heroic Trio (Dung fong sam hap) (4K UHD)

Director: Johnnie To
Screenplay: Sandy Shaw Lai-king
Stars: Michelle Yeoh (Invisible Girl / Chan San / Ching), Anita Mui (Wonder Woman / Tung), Maggie Cheung (Thief Catcher / Chan Chat), Damian Lau (Inspector Lau), Anthony Wong (Chan Gau), Yen Shi-kwan (Evil Master), James Pak (Professor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1993
Country: Hong Kong
The Heroic Trio / Executioners Criterion Collection 4K UHD
The Heroic Trio

The Heroic Trio (Dung fong sam hap), the first half of an early ’90s Cantonese action-fantasy-sci-fi double feature, offers a heady dose of Hong Kong inanity, where rules don’t apply to anything—character, story, setting, gender norms, or the laws of physics. Set in a slightly futuristic city that resembles the set of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the story centers on three female action heroes who straddle different moral lines. Tung, also known as Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), is the most overtly honorable of the three, balancing her everyday life as the doting wife of a police inspector (Damian Lau) with her nocturnal sojourns as a masked vigilante. Chan Chat, also known as Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), is an amoral bounty hunter who is only in it (whatever “it” is) for the money. And Chan San, also known as Invisible Girl; (Michelle Yeoh), is the most conflicted, as she operates at the behest of the film’s villain, the ever-so originally named Evil Master (Yen Shi-kwan), only because she is in love with a professor (James Pak) Evil Master is using to perfect the art of invisibility.

The plot is thrown into motion with the kidnapping of 18 babies by Evil Master, who plans to use them to help restore the great monarchal dynasty to China (or something like that). Wonder Woman, Invisible Girl, and Thief Catcher all get involved in various ways for various reasons, initially operating in open conflict with each other (early on Wonder Woman tries to stop Invisible Girl from kidnapping the newborn baby of the police commissioner, but ends up causing the gruesome death of another infant in the process); however, by the third act they are working together, proving that there is strength in numbers and that their unique girl powers are best utilized in concert.

Although it is uneven and at times awkward, The Heroic Trio has its merits, most of which emanate from its three stars, each of whom brings a unique and memorable quality to the screen. Michelle Yeoh, who was on the verge of international stardom with her turns in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Ang Lee’s crossover action-art film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), combines nobility and beauty, as well as martial arts prowess. Anita Mui, who was also a successful pop singer, embodies an intense desire to right all wrongs. And Maggie Cheung, who was graduating from “pretty girlfriend” roles in male-dominated action films, has an endearing sense of throwaway charm and comical grit, which leavens her otherwise amoral sensibilities. As the title suggests, their heroism is fundamentally connected to their working together, which supplies much of the film’s gender-flipping pleasure.

It is too bad, then, that it isn’t a better film. Director Johnnie To, who started in Hong Kong television in the 1970s before moving on to feature films, had only recently co-directed his first action film, The Big Heat (Seng fat dak ging, 1988). For The Heroic Trio, he focused most of his attention on the dramatic scenes, leaving the action sequences to stunt coordinator and co-producer Chung Siu-Tung, who was elevated to co-director on the sequel, Executioners (Yin doi hou hap zyun, 1993), which is a demonstrably better film. The Heroic Trio feels all over the place, which is part of its whacked-out postmodern design. It is meant to be comical and gross and sentimental and exciting all at the same time, and at various points it works like gangbusters. But, at other times it feels strained and kind of cheap, as if To was just throwing anything he could find at the screen and hoping that something stuck. The unevenness of the film’s look and design contributes to its awkwardness, which is also reflected in the screenplay by Sandy Shaw Lai-king, which offers a lot of ideas, but not much cohesion. Evil Master is not a particularly interesting villain, even though he is a decadent visual delight, and his wordless henchman (Anthony Wong), who at one point munches on his own severed fingers for no particular reason, doesn’t offer much charisma, either.

The Heroic Trio / Executioners Criterion Collection 4K UHD / Blu-ray Three-Disc Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 (both films)
  • Cantonese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (both films)
  • Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (both films)
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (both films)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video interview with actor Anthony Wong
  • Video interview with film critic Samm Deighan
  • Trailers
  • Essay by critic Beatrice Loayza
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 20, 2024

    Criterion’s three-disc set includes The Heroic Trio and Executioners on a single 4K UHD disc and then a separate Blu-ray for each film. Both films have been given new 4K transfers from the original 35mm camera negative in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (Criterion did not do the transfer themselves, and there is a notable elision in the liner notes in which the aspect ratio is not described as “original theatrical aspect ratio” since it clearly is not.) The image, especially on the 4K UHD, looks very good, with bright, bold colors, strong detail, and a solid contrast that shows little in the way of artificial boosting. Those expecting super-crisp sharpness that looks more modern will be disappointed, as the film-like image has a definite softness to it and is notably grainy in some instances, but that is very much in keeping with the original celluloid look of an early-1990s mid-budget Hong Kong film. Each film offers the choice of three soundtracks: a Linear PCM 1.0 monaural track in Cantonese, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track in Cantonese, and an English-dubbed monaural track (2.0 Dolby Digital for The Heroic Trio and 1.0 Dolby Digital for Executioners). All three options sound good (I would steer clear of the English dub, although I appreciate its inclusion for comparative purposes). The soundtracks have the kind of post-production artificiality we have come to expect from this genre of film (even in the Cantonese language versions), but they work with the material. The six-channel mix opens things up nicely and creates some decent surround effects. As for supplements, there isn’t much here. Each film has a trailer, and we also get an 18-minute video interview with cult film critic Samm Deighan, who helps to contextualize the films (he makes one wish he had recorded audio commentaries), and a too-short 7-minute interview with actor Anthony Wong, who discusses his work on The Heroic Trio, as well as working in the Hong Kong film industry in general.

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    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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