Running Out of Karma: Two by Woo

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Here are reviews of a couple of lesser, but worthwhile nonetheless, John Woo movies.

Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Sharing a title and nothing else with Chor Yuen’s 1980 wuxia epic, this was John Woo’s project immediately preceding his breakthrough A Better Tomorrow and only released after that film’s success. It’s easy to see why Woo had initially decided to leave this unreleased. It’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen from him, the kind of movie people who don’t like Hong Kong movies think all Hong Kong movies are like. That said, it’s still a ton of goofy fun.

Eddy Ko leads a small commando squad of Chinese mercenaries into the Golden Triangle (the nebulous border region between Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that is the source of much of the world’s heroin, or at least was in movies from the 1980s) to arrest a drug kingpin and bring him to justice. They get the guy and escape, chased by his heavily-armed men. At the Vietnamese border, they arouse the ire of the local army outpost (led by the great Lam Ching-ying, probably most well-known as the star of the Mr. Vampire series), who join the chase. The Army then forcibly enlists the assistance of the local hunter-gatherer/ninja tribe. Of course, for some reason Ko has brought on this mission into the most dangerous place on Earth his young son, generally useless sister(?) and elderly father, who must of course be protected (the father doesn’t last long, spoiler!), along with a whiny French woman they rescue from the Army along the way.

So what we have is the makings of a pure chase-through-harsh-terrain movie, along the lines of Cornell Wilde’s The Naked Prey, Powell & Pressburger’s Ill Met By Moonlight or Rambo: First Blood Part II. For better and worse, this is more in the class of that last one than either of the first two. There’s a lot of guys standing around with really heavy machine guns mowing down bad guys who can’t shoot straight and a lot of poorly motivated plot turns. Only the most obvious is the unanswered question of why this guy brought his family along. Did that bit of exposition get cut out and no one noticed or cared? Is it somewhere in the 11 minutes that were in the Hong Kong version that aren’t in the 82 minute international cut, or did Golden Harvest cut it out even before releasing it locally? IMDB says those 11 minutes have an expository scene between Ko’s character and his “sister-in-law”, so I guess that’s how she’s related and maybe that explains it? Who knows.

Beyond that is a truly bizarre idyll near the end of the chase. Ko has led his motley crew to a hut  located on stilts in a clearing in the jungle, occupied by a spacey American. The American is an old friend of Ko’s (they saved each others’ lives in the War), and lives in this hut, surrounded by explosives, trip wires and bombs of all kinds, with three women in flowery dresses that never seem to speak. Now, I don’t know what’s stranger: that with three armed bands of killers bearing down on them, our heroes decide that a straw hut packed to the rafters with high explosives is an ideal defensive position, or that on the eve of said attack, rather than preparing for their defense, the American and his lady friends partake in some R-Rated drugs and group sex debauchery. I mean, sure, you don’t have to shed tears, but how about a little common sense?

Once a Thief (1991)

If Cherie Chung hadn’t retired after making this movie, and maybe had gone on to star in some Wong Kar-wai movies, would she be better known today? She was one of the key Hong Kong actresses of the 1980s, beginning with Johnnie To and her debut The Enigmatic Case and including classics like Winners and Sinners, The Story of Woo Viet, The Dead and the Deadly, An Autumn’s Tale, The Eighth Happiness and Peking Opera Blues. Patrick Tam even built a whole movie around her and named it after her (Cherie of course, a bizarre romantic comedy in which lust for the star inspires the men around her (the other Tony Leung and longtime Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen) to increasingly dangerous and ill-advised behavior). She retired because she got married (something of a trend at the time, this kind of thing also cost us some prime Michelle Yeoh years), but she’s still only 54 years old. Someone should bring her out of retirement (her husband, sadly, died several years ago).

Anyway, she has almost nothing to do in this screwball heist movie, wherein she’s the love object for both Chow Yun-fat (in full-mug comedy mode) and Leslie Cheung. The three of them, orphans, grew up under the tutelage of an evil thief, Fagin-style, and now they’re using their powers against him, sort of. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Basically they steal European paintings from elaborately designed defense systems (like the one that hangs in the wine cellar of a castle, behind a secret door in a fog-enshrouded room, because that’s where you want to display your favorite and most valuable oil paintings: in a damp basement behind a rock wall) and the father guy is a jerk. Cheung and Chow do all the thieving, leaving Chung at home (where she belongs!) to worry and do the cooking or something. And pass from one lead to the other (there’s an apparent death, followed by an apparent paralysis), Cherie generally lands with the healthiest hero.

The heists are fun, the action is great (a neat car chase, someone inexplicably featuring a variety of evil security guards driving French station wagons), the comedy occasionally funny and the 1991 fashions exceptional, and did I mention that one of the final villains is a magician who shoots fire out of his hands and throws playing cards to deadly effect?, but this premise is one Woo would revisit a few more times, I think because he never really got it right (he directed a Canadian TV movie remake that was later spun into a series that lasted one season in that country after the Fox network didn’t pick it up in the US.) Compare it to Johnnie To’s caper heist/romantic comedy Yesterday Once More, which is faster, funnier, and cleverer with more emotional depth and visual panache.

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