It’s hard to watch The Heroic Trio (1993) and not feel like you’re seeing one of the most entertaining movies ever made. Its collection of gonzo delights (some of which are best left unspoiled) and imaginative sense of worldbuilding make it a treat for fans of cinema that is a little off the beaten path. But at the same time, its three outstanding performances by some of Hong Kong’s greatest female actors and surprisingly heartfelt moments demonstrate that it has something to offer for everyone.
The Heroic Trio takes place in an unnamed Chinese city that is besieged by kidnappings of babies. Tung (Anita Mui), who’s married to a policeman, tries to stop the kidnappings through her vigilante work as a masked avenger known as Wonder Woman. To stop the Evil Master (Shi-Kwan Yen) from raising one of the babies to become the next king of China, she’ll have to team up with lively bounty hunter Chat (Maggie Cheung) and cross paths with reluctant henchwoman Ching (Michelle Yeoh), with whom she shares a past. Eventually, the three women all find common ground as they try to defeat their foe.
One of my favorite things about The Heroic Trio is its sense of fun. Though it deals with dark themes related to childhood trauma and the exploitation of children, this film constantly entertains you with incredible setpieces. They all involve some combination of expertly choreographed martial arts sequences, idiosyncratic weaponry (check out that flying guillotine that a henchman repeatedly uses to gory effect), and enough bizarre images to keep you awake for a week. It is the type of film that thinks nothing of introducing a prominent character for the first time by having her unexpectedly show up to a crime scene driving a motorcycle, clad in fishnets and a leather motorcycle jacket, before flying around and defeating some bad guys to collect a bounty. You have the sense that anything can happen within this wild world, and at any moment too.
Part of that feeling comes from the film’s excellent setting. Production designers Pui-Wah Chan and Catherine Hun work well with director Johnnie To in order to create a visual world that feels both grounded and fantastical. Their work, which owes to both art deco architecture as well as Chinese culture, feels reminiscent of Anton Furst’s portrait of Gotham City in Batman (1989), but with its own twist. Everything about it — the skyscrapers, the subterranean lairs, and general sense of artificiality — feels like it is ripped from the pages of the best comic book you’ve never read.
The main reason to see this film, however, is not because of the wild things that happen in it or the beautiful imagery. Instead, it’s the trio of lead performances. Mui (who was also a very successful pop singer in China) has a great calm air and presence as Tung, which help make her a fantastic lead. Cheung is wildly charismatic as Chat, and I find fascinating new details of her performance every time I watch this movie. Yeoh, who recently won an Academy Award for Everything Everywhere All at Once (screening at IU Cinema on June 7!), excels at portraying Ching’s inner pain as well as demonstrating her incredible prowess as a martial artist. In addition, the three leads (who were all some of the most talented and successful women in Hong Kong at the time) have great chemistry with each other. Watching them play off one another is a delight, and they all have moments that are beautifully affecting. The film’s chaotic plot may not be for everyone, but moments where Mui comes into her own as a superhero and Ching starts to feel that she is worthy of redemption have an emotional power that is universal.
The Heroic Trio celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Its mixture of dazzling action sequences and imagery with three excellent performances continues to be a potent one. All that helps make it a memorable movie that you won’t want to miss.
IU Cinema will be showing The Heroic Trio in a new 4K restoration tomorrow, May 18, as part of our I Love the ’90s series.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.