Action / Adventure, Exploitation, Films, Hong Kong, Recommended posts, Reviews, War

Heroes Shed No Tears

Woo’s style reached a pivotal point in its evolution — for this anything-but-evolved mess of a mercenary movie…

1986 would be the year John Woo took not only Hong Kong but most of Asia by storm with A Better Tomorrow. But technically, his historic first foray into modern action cinema — and first significant use of his unique blend of action/crime stylings with classical martial arts and brotherhood ones — would be a movie done in 1984 originally known as Sunset Warriors.

It’s quite obvious why Golden Harvest decided to shelve this movie after it was completed, and even more painfully obvious why two years later they suddenly decided to rush it out of the vaults right after Woo became a superstar director. But it’s less obvious to Western viewers why they changed the title to Heroes Shed No Tears: because that name (the same in Chinese) gives it close connection to A Better Tomorrow’s original Chinese title, 英雄本色 (roughly “A Hero’s True Colours”). That alerted viewers of who made it and not entirely accurately of the kind of entertainment to expect (even though there was already a 1980 Chor Yuen movie with the same title).

A crew of disparate, desperate Chinese immigrant civilians are hired and brought together by the Thai government and sent to the Golden Triangle to capture drug lord General Samton near the Vietnam border, for which they’ll be rewarded exactly what’s desired.

For Chan Chung (Eddy Ko), that means US green cards for his sister-in-law Julie (Lee Hye-sook) and child. For his brothers-in-arms Chau Sang (Ka Lee), compulsive gambler Chin (Chin Yuet-Sang), and Big Dog (unspecified one-off Korean actor), that means money to get out of or escape debt. Then there’s a reporter they rescue on the way (Cécile Le Bailly), and Chan’s old “American” ‘Nam cohort Louis (one-off Phillip Loffredo, as French as a croquembouche), who’s usually found meditating in a local village hut with a bomb strapped to his chest, hashish and a harem of harlots at hand (don’t ask; it won’t make sense anyway). They’ll need all the help they can get when faced with Samton’s gang, local tribesmen brought into the fight and worst of all, the ruthless Vietnamese Colonel (Lam Ching-Ying) who gets involved.

Hong Kong is the only film industry for which I can say without hesitation that the 1980s was the single best decade for (the 90s would be best if not for being offset by the dismal second half). Otherwise, I’m far more often brought to the conclusion the 80s was the overall worst postwar decade for several others (the US, Japan tied with the 2010s, Korea….) Unfortunate then, that this movie instead of tapping what were already Hong Kong’s fine burgeoning unique genre trends, would primarily just copy one of the worst from Hollywood at the time: the gung-ho “commando” movie, which had just gotten into full swing with 1983’s Uncommon Valor before peaking with Rambo II.

The first problem here is the clear absence of what kept often unintentionally silly movies like those going: a commanding action hero presence like those of genre stalwarts Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger etc. Instead, most of these guys (except Ko to an extant) look unconvincing at best or silly at worst. That’s no surprise when noting they’re largely a real-life crew of actors just as motley and inexperienced as the characters brought together for combat in the movie, comprising Chinese, Korean, Thai and French actors who couldn’t really even communicate with each other or Woo. But they were cheap. And the story and characters seem as rushed and underdeveloped as the production and casting.

Woo mainly regarded this movie as a quota number — something he just wanted to get out of the way so he could end his contract with Golden Harvest with the hope of making films with sufficient creative freedom afterwards. While having to do this one the studio’s way, he made improvements as best he could and tested many of the techniques and themes (and weapons) he was getting into here. So he highly valued his experiences making the movie in Thailand and learning a lot about stunt work and action choreography but not the movie itself, which he criticized for botching his overall creative vision, its haphazard nature and the more excessive violence. And when John Woo is criticizing a movie for being tonally uneven and having gratuitous violence, you know you have a problem.

Even though some of the most graphic scenes were actually cut from the final version as Woo cited in his interviews, as it is, Heroes still has things that cross the lines of good taste even for the wilder days of Hong Kong cinema in terms of violence, sexual content, inappropriately mixing tone, and caricatures.

The latter is a big one that drives much of the excess here. Hong Kong had a longtime peculiar xenophobic interest in Vietnamese villains, whether with fanatical soldiers like here, gangsters usually with a distinction of being even more violent/less honourable than local ones, or just plain psychos. Catch Vietvillains running amok for more than two decades (from at least the early 80s until at least the late 00s) including running huge and violent smuggling rings to destabilize the city (see 1987’s Eastern Heroes or 2007’s Flash Point), raping women then forcing them to kill their own kin (1995’s Fox Hunter), and even wantonly murdering children then telling “cute” jokes about it (1993’s Run and Kill).

Yet even as an early entry and even with that “illustrious” competition, Heroes’ Vietvillains stand above them all. Though they don’t quite succeed in everything they try this time, this partially detailed rap sheet speaks for itself: gangrape; torture by sewing flesh; beheading; using a woman as target practice; dousing an entire field in gasoline just to surround and slowly burn a child to death with soldiers grinning, hopping and chanting, “Burn! Burn!” (while their commander says “Well done, let’s go!” as if it’s an impressive feat); and publicly executing civilians by firing squad while they’re being hung (because one execution per person just isn’t good enough).

Then again, the filmmakers aren’t even too much better than their villains with some of that, as after a rape scene, the camera revels in showing the victim running away topless for the audience’s entertainment just as much as the Vietnamese soldiers all laughing behind her (Woo made it a point to clarify he had nothing to do with that scene).

Heroes has a crudely sadistic streak about it altogether, finding “comedy” in cannibalism and having a soldier shot through the head after he turns out to still be alive when his valuables are being taken. Even the longest comedy scene featuring a “hero” in a friendly gambling game with a tribal chief and his men ends in a rather senseless, implausible outburst of violence.

The instance of the first major character death just ends up laughable in too many ways (hammy acting, terrible writing, terrible editing and how ludicrously sudden and graphic it is to jump right out from a comedy scene). A scene that probably should’ve taken 3 minutes is rendered as some of the more embarrassingly executed 30 seconds of cinema I can recall. And unfortunately, it isn’t even the only time an intended “emotional” scene comes off as bloody ridiculous (also see Louis’ romantic embrace of his girlfriends).

And if there’s anything even more forced than some of the violence, it’s the sex scenes (even the consensual ones), showing among other things that the best way to get a Thai-Chinese village girl to immediately fulfill one’s every desire is by telling a stupid “massage” joke. Soon there at least comes a point when you can guess when something particularly cringe-inducing (whether verbally, violently or both) is about to occur.

The one comedy/leisure scene that’s decently (and intentionally) amusing is a brief drug sequence where the “heroes” share tokes, due to the captive drug lord’s comically ironic reaction. But the sad thing about this movie is how so many traces of Woo’s legendary skill and ingenuity with filming and choreographing action can clearly be seen (and kind of squandered) in its development stages here. That Woo managed pretty impressive combat scenes with a hurried schedule and not even 1/10th of the budget some of its Hollywood equivalents had at the time is testament to how far his natural talent had already gotten.

A progenitor of what would be known as his trademark “Heroic Bloodshed” is also noticeable: see the ensemble battle scene where the “heroes” are fighting tribesmen in probably the first showcase of the director’s trademark cocktail of gunplay, martial arts and using whatever’s at hand as weapons or defence. But even that scene doesn’t quite give the same feeling as Woo’s finer films when noting both the fact of the unconvincing story built around it and how the tribesmen on that scene aren’t really doing anything wrong. So most of the time there’s really nothing heroic at all about this Heroic Bloodshed — leaving it of course as just plain bloodshed (then again, that’s more or less the point for this glum movie).

All said, Heroes Shed No Tears is a fascinating document for tracing the evolution of one of modern cinema’s best and most influential action movie directors. For that, it’s far more of sociological and historical interest so to speak for Woo and Hong Kong action cinema aficionados than anyone wanting to see a good movie. Because for every scene showing interesting forms and hints of Woo’s style and themes to come, there are at least two that you might wish you could un-see for any number of reasons from disgust to confusion to ridicule. So if Heroes had been released earlier as intended, it would have left viewers waiting for “a better tomorrow” indeed.

Heroes Shed No Tears is available on UK Blu-ray from 88 Films.

Side notes

Much of this movie’s same scenario and themes would be recycled (actually, re-recycled adding the Valor/Rambo/Dirty Dozen influences) all over again just a year later in Sammo Hung’s more kung-fu minded Eastern Condors. While that movie had its own problems with rushed, messy plotting, gratuitous violence, crude humour and Vietnamese stereotyping, for every one of those things Heroes makes Condors look like a masterpiece. Woo himself would also further refine some of those themes (but still feature vicious Vietnamese in less blatant fashion) in 1990’s Bullet in the Head.

Ironically, when all’s said and done I’ve found HK movies of the era to be even more consistently and intensely negative in portrayals of Vietnamese than Hollywood. But there was one big exception in Ann Hui, whose films’ portrayals stayed balanced and sympathetic.

“What’s going on?”

“No big deal, decapitation. Happens all the time.”

Home media details

Distributor: 88 Films (UK)

Edition: Blu-ray (2020)

88 Films’ restoration makes the most of the shooting locale’s vast and lush Thai landscapes, from the mountains to the jungle to the swamps. The lighting looks quite good as well, staying vivid during the many shaded and nighttime shots. It’s also made to sound better and fuller than expected of HK movies from its era of quick overdubbing.

As luck would have it, the original 1984 Sunset Warriors was discovered to have been released in South Korea (dubbed in Korean) on VHS albeit in considerably poorer film quality. Thus the most eye-opening extra would have to be a cut comparison between what was mostly Woo’s original released there and the heavily edited 1986 version seen everywhere else. While it doesn’t look like the original cut fixes all of its problems, it certainly does look like it makes it into a considerably better, more cohesive movie (and shows that the newer cut adds/renders nearly all of the worst and most pointless scenes).

About the author

Wally AdamsWally Adams Wally Adams
Technically a product of the Carolinas; branching more widely in roots; a citizen of the world at heart. Asian cinema is but one of many avatars of my longtime fascination with cinema, general culture, music and languages all over. But by now I recognize it may be the strongest of them all and sum it up like this: Whether Mifune in a duel or Madhuri in a dance, Song Kang-ho being a dunce or Gordon Liu in his stance, the finest Asian cinema always leaves me in a trance. Find me on Facebook.
Read all posts by Wally Adams

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