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THE HEROIC TRIO: The Making of a Fant-Asia Classic.
Actress Michelle Yeoh and Director Ching Siu Tung on Making Hong Kong's Predecessor to CHARLIE'S ANGELS.
By Craig D. Reid
November 16, 2000
Gracefully floating through the air like a snowflake, arms miming the rhythmic endurance of an angelic dove, our flying, leather-clad beauty pump-kicks toward her quarry. He is unaware that the approaching babe, who appears to be serendipitous as a gentle breeze, will strike with the clout of a violent tornado. Slow motion, creative camera angles and eye-popping editing combine to launch our heroine into a wild frenzy of spins, flips, rolls, kicks and contorted shapes resulting in the hapless villain's demise as he becomes one with the ground. She lands, and as the camera pulls back, she flails her arms in deliberate circles around her body and freezes in a powerful posture. Familiar? Sounds a lot like something Cameron Diaz in Charlie's Angels
, right? Wrong.
Actually, it's something Michelle Yeoh did in the Ching Siu Tung-directed, Hong Kong Fant-Asia actioner Heroic Trio
, a film made almost ten years prior to Angels
for about a 50th of the cost and in one fourth the time. And you know what's totally awesome about this? Not only is the action in Heroic Trio
better, but it's sequel The Executioners
, was filmed at the same time.
Like Charlie's Angels
, Heroic Trio
features a trifectorate of seductive actresses who play a trio of crime fighters out to save a piece of the world. Former Miss Malaysia Michelle Yeoh portrays Ching San, a high kicking, whip-flailing, sometimes invisible hit woman. Singing star Anita Mui plays Tung Tung, a masked, sword-wielding superheroine to the righteous. The third member of the trio is played by previous Miss Hong Kong winner Maggie Cheung, famed for her love story films, but her cast as a machine-gun totting, knife-throwing, bounty-hunting, Harley rider. Mui and Cheung coyly portray their alter egos with just enough vulnerability that they don't threaten the very fabric of their chauvinistic Chinese society. The film only enhances their seductive beauty and feminine allure.
Yet a major difference between these films is that the producers of Charlie's Angels
boasted that Barrymore, Liu and Diaz underwent intensive martial art and wire stunt training two months prior to the shoot. In Hong Kong film, an actress arrives on set as is, without pre-production and without storyboards. Furthermore, what's so amazing about Yeoh, Mui and Cheung is that, although they don't practice martial arts, Ching Siu Tung convincingly depicts them as experts. Yeoh,
'I studied ballet at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,' Yeoh relates, 'So that's my background in that sort of physical training. Even though I had never practiced martial before, I was willing to learn and basically pick things up as I went along. So when I watch my movies, if I'm not on the edge of my seat saying, 'Oh, how the heck did I do that?' I know my audience won't have the same reaction. I'm supple, agile, and can learn movements and imitate and understand, and I have control of my body.'
And when it comes to being strapped into a harness for a wire gag, regardless of whether it is their first time and they are unprepared for it, these ladies are expected to just go for it and not complain about the pain. Ching shares, 'My fights are never scripted. I just show up on set and do them. However, when it comes to wire stunts, I would not allow any of these actresses to fly higher that 30 feet, and that height of course depends on how confident they feel. My goal with them was to basically make them look good by making their movements pretty, and each film must be different and filled with fantasy elements and choreography that have not only never been done but that no one else can do.'
And Ching's words still ring true. In as much as Charlie's Angels
tried to mimic his style of choreography, it fell short. For those vaguely familiar with Hong Kong Fant-Asia films, you probably first became aware of Ching's unique creative carnage with his Chinese Ghost Story
films. Born in 1953 as Chen Dong Er, he left school upon his mother's death at age 8 and lived on the Shaw Brothers Studio Grounds in Hong Kong, where he started as an extra doing fights at age 10. Some of Ching's must see, fantastical films include Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain, Moon Warriors, The Swordsman
trilogy, Duel to Death
, and of course Heroic Trio
Yeoh fondly recalls, 'Heroic Trio
is my favorite film that I worked on because I did it with two of my best friends in Hong Kong and we had so much fun making the film that at one stage we'd say, 'Are we working here or having fun?' Ching would come onto set and say, 'Hey, you are finished for the day; go home.' We'd just stay there having a BBQ in the back lot. We were having such a great time. I chose to play the invisible woman because she had a dark side.'
The final fight starts below in the underworld where Cheung spins, flips and kicks, all the while shooting a machine gun. Yeoh blocks bullets with her steel whip and distracts the Master, the evil Eunuch trying to conquer the world, while Mui uses her immaculate swordplay, of the sort that Ching fans are accustomed to seeing. The fight migrates to the surface, where each woman wields their body and weapons in vain attempts to maim the Master. Before the fight moves to the rooftops, the Master flies onto a bridge, then falls to the ground exploding into a fireball of pseudo-death. As our heroes watch the falling conflagration of burning flesh, a lone charred skeleton emerges from the burning fire.
Ching reminisces, 'Although I had seen Terminator
back then, we weren't intending to make the burnt skeleton look like when Arnold emerged from the burning truck wreck. For Michelle's fight with the burnt being, we made a foam skeleton. She'd wrestle with it, then using remote control limbs, we had the skeleton wrap around her. We also had her wear parts of the skeleton like clothing. Yet the actual emergence from the fire was done using animation, which is cheaper than robotics. We were quite happy with the results.'
Yeoh adds, 'That's the sequence that really sticks out in my mind. I'm fighting this skeleton. It's like a machine; it has no feelings, reaction or resistance, so I had to add in my own as if I was fighting someonethe energy, effort and having to wait for the right time to hit it. I'm really fighting myself, and it's covered with KY jelly and it wasn't the most exciting thing to hit. When you fight with someone, you can fight off that person and have emotions, but in this case, it was tough to fight this thing that has no emotion.'
The sequel, THE EXECUTIONERS in which Yeoh, Mui and Cheung reprise their roles, is a hybrid of Dune
meets Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
. Yeoh shares, 'What's so amazing about these films was the visual aspect that Ching introduced. The sets were fantastic, and of course the finished project had some smashing special effects. However, the films were depressing; there was really nothing in them that the audience could relate to. We'd shoot one scene for one film, change and rush to the other set and shoot a scene for the other film. It was hectic but quite interesting.'
Ching adds, 'For Executioner
, we moved away from the supernatural to keep the audience surprised. We wanted to make the film different from the first; even the design and action had different flavor. We killed Yeoh to elicit more emotion and feeling from audience.'
Yeoh agrees, 'Yes, the sequel is darker and set in a time of catastrophe, chaos, people rebelling and contaminated water, and the world is controlled by an evil man who has radiation burns and can't face the world. My character evolves into like a social worker, a nurse. She's out looking for water, bringing supplies to the sick and needy. The violence was more apparent because the whole movie got a lot darker and depressing. The one way to let the aggravation
out was to show the brutal violence. It was weird how I was getting horribly mutilated at the film's end. It took me a while to get used to it. I'd say, 'What? My arm is getting ripped off?' But then I thought, 'Wow, that has never happened to me before.' It was interesting.
'There is a fascination by the realism of the action,' she blurts, 'because we do it for real. We don't have the advantage of green screen or special effects. When you see a stunt boy fall down onto concrete, it's real. Western audiences love that stuff. You know, at one stage, physically challenging roles for women were stereotypical where they had to be buffed and more butch to look the part. It's evolving slowly. Women are there because they are smarter, intelligent and on par with men.'