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Body count
A region 2 DVD review of HEROES SHED NO TEARS / YING XIONG WEI LEI by Slarek
 

There are some minor spoilers in this review, so proceed with caution

 

The mark of a solid action movie, obviously, is that its action sequences deliver the goods. The mark of a GREAT action movie, I would argue, is that it delivers something more, in character, in story, and perhaps even in subtext. Look at the greatest action film of them all, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai – so beautifully developed are its plot and characters that Action is only one of many genres in which it frequently finds itself a list topper. The same is true for later genre luminaries. I mean, the explosions and gunfire were all very impressive in Die Hard, but what what we really remember is Jim McClane, Hans Gruber, Sergeant Al Powell, John McTiernan's sense of pace and narrative, some lovely plot twists and a ream of quotable dialogue.

But there is another category of action movie, the sort Hollywood is a bit too fond of making, the one where the characters are so dislikeable, the plot so formulaic and the political undercurrents so dubious that the best action in the world is not going to put things right. Just about every discerning film fan can draw up a list of titles that would fit this description. I certainly can. My list is quite long, as it happens, and growing by the month. I'm still haven't made up my mind if Heroes Shed No Tears belongs on it or not.

Just knowing that it was directed by John Woo will find the film champions even amongst those who have yet to see it. To some Woo is the king of modern action cinema, but for a fair few, myself included, his crown slipped and eventually fell off once he made the move to Hollywood. It's hard to put into words just how dismayed I was by Hard Target, following on as it did from the staggering set-pieces and character interplay of The Killer and Hard Boiled. Thus the arrival on my doorstep of Heroes Shed No Tears filled me with a sort of childlike optimism, despite the stupid title. This is early classic era John Woo, made immediately before A Better Tomorrow began making waves well beyond his home soil.

The scene in set in under a minute. Over maps and a series of black-and-white stills, a voiceover tells us about the notorious Golden Triangle on the border of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, the source for 75% of the world's illegal drugs. We are informed that the operation is run by a General Sampton and that the Thai government has vowed to grab him and smash up the drug trade. To this end an elite commando squad has been formed, one made up of Chinese immigrants who have joined up for a variety of reasons – some are idealists, other are in it for the money, while a fair few are doing it to get American green cards for their families. But, we are assured, they all put their lives on the line and came together to serve this mission. Thus our initial connection with the squad is not through identification with the individuals in it, but via the favourite movie logic that if drugs are bad, then those producing them are evil and anyone who opposes them by whatever means is automatically good. OK, it's an action film, we'll roll with that for now.

Woo dispenses with character establishment and plot preamble to kick off the film with a bang. There's no Dirty Dozen style recruitment and training-up here – the first time we lay eyes on the squad they're already at General Sampton's camp and ready to attack, and the moment the opening credits finish they're off. In many respects what follows is familiar action movie stuff – the commandos have big weapons, shoot from the hip and kill twenty black-dressed bad guys in a single sweep, while the heavily armed would-be protectors of the multi-million dollar drug business flail about, shoot wildly in the air and couldn't hit the side of a barn with a cannon. There is a sense that Tony Montana and his "little friend" could take this lot single handed. The action itself is briskly shot and staged and the battles peppered with slow motion and Woo's signature two-handed gunfights, first with pistols, then later with assault rifles and grenade launchers. Weapon recoil never seems to be an issue.

It's here that the first problems pop up for the audience members who failed to leave their consciences at the door. Movie convention may have hardened us to the results of gun battles, but the slow motion shots of Black Gang members being burned alive by a flame thrower are a different thing entirely – this is VERY early in the film to start sympathising with the bad guys. Fortunately, Hong Kong action directors know how to quickly re-establish their evil status. Cue the introduction of commando leader Chan's devoted wife Julie, his sweetly innocent young son Kyeong and his wise old father, whose simple farmhouse is suddenly raided by the men in black. Dad gets shot, the others are threatened, but Chan arrives and sorts them out and soon the commandos and their prisoner have been joined by Chan's wife and son, the inevitable weak links on their perilous journey to bring Sampton to justice.

As a set-up for subsequent action this is familiar but solidly handled stuff, a story of a band of warriors fighting their way back to home base against the odds that harks all the way back to the legends of Ancient Greece. But that's where the comparisons end, the prime function of the plot here being to provide a wobbly path from one action set piece to the next. If that's what you came for then you'll get it – the bullet and explosion count is very high and the fire fights sometimes spectacularly staged. The John Woo that was soon to make A Better Tomorrow can clearly be seen here fine-tuning his craft.

The problem, perhaps unsurprisingly, is character development, of which there is precious little. The one-dimensional and ruthlessly evil villains will come as no surprise to those with a grounding in Hong Kong action cinema – what is unexpected is that Chan's platoon come across as being almost as bad. Take the dice-addicted Chin, for example, who is happy to gamble with a local tribal chief and relinquish him of valuable religious relics, but when the chief reacts by threatening Chin's life, he escapes by blowing the man and his companions to smithereens and cracking a joke. Then there's his grinny friend Chau, who's clearly only joined up for the money. At one point he goes on a looting spree by stripping bodies of their valuables, but when a man he mistakes for dead refuses to give up his gold teeth and bites Chin's fingers, Chin responds by blowing his brains out. When he gets fatally speared to bits a few minutes later I couldn't help thinking he'd asked for it – any suspicion that Woo shared my moral complication is quickly dispelled by the weepily sentimental funeral service that follows.

Collectively the platoon tend to shoot first and not ask any questions later and are prepared to kill anything that makes moves against them. To up the stakes a little, a second bunch of bad guys is introduced led by a particular nasty military officer who wears dark glasses, makes a ritual of dressing, and shoots people without a flicker of emotion. When he gets an eye shot out by Chan while the commandos are rescuing a very girlie French reporter whose driver and companion have been killed, he goes after Chan and his boys (and girls) with snarling zeal. To prove how ruthless he is, he has a couple of members of a local tribe strung up and shot to pieces, threatening dire consequences for the rest of them if they do not attack Chan's commandos. For the first time I felt real sympathy with characters in the film – these people live a simple existence and have no interest in this conflict, but are forced to participate to protect the lives of their families. The commandos know nothing of this and don't waste time investigating – when the tribesmen attack they just slaughter them.

It was at this point that I began seriously wondering if I wanted Chan and his boys to succeed, in part because they never present a recognisably human side to their cartoonish action man personas. Clunky attempts at character comedy involving Chin and Chau probably play better on home soil, and having Chan look lovingly at his wife of son every now and again does not make him a closet humanitarian. Even the most potentially interesting character, an American deserter who once saved Chan's life and has chosen not to return home, flips over into cliché before his story ends, getting to scream an impassioned "NOOOOOOOO!!!" when one of his girlfriends is killed by enemy fire. As the action intensifies, the implausibility factor increases, culminating in a grisly scene in which a character is shot, has his eyes sewn open and is hung in the air with a pole wedged in his behind for three hours, an ordeal from which he emerges with his vision intact and his body in fighting fit shape.

But amoral hard men and violence often go hand-in-hand in action cinema and especially what has become known as the 'heroic bloodshed' sub-genre. For many it's all about what happens when the guns and grenades go off, and there is plenty to keep your eyes and ears (if not your brain) occupied here. If the action tends to get a bit repetitive by the end – just how many people can you see shot up before you become indifferent to it? – there are still moments throughout where the brutal and the balletic meld with an almost Peckinpah-like perfection. It's a fair way short of the cinematically dazzling gunplay of The Killer and Hard Boiled, but it's a recognisable and assured step in that direction, and is still better than the messy excesses of Woo's later Mission Impossible II.

It should be noted that the drugged-up sex scenes were added at the insistence of the studio, who then heavily recut the film before its release and that is the version featured here. As yet, no director's cut has made an appearance.

sound and vision

Hong Kong Legends have delivered again, creating a solid transfer from a new, high definition master which itself has been created from a first class print. The contrast is occasionally a tad harsh, but on the whole the picture, especially for a mid-1980s Hong Kong film, is very impressive. The odd dust spots are visible, but are rare. The only distraction comes in the form of what looks like edge enhancement, resulting in some visible halos on objects when seen against single colour backgrounds (skies, etc.). Mind you, the speed of the editing doesn't give you much change to see it. The framing is 1.85:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

Three soundtracks are on offer. The original Dolby 2.0 Cantonese mono, a 5.1 remix of the same, and a 5.1 English dub. The mono is a little tinny and really lacks punch, leaving the way clear for the 5.1 mix to show its stuff. The clarity, dynamic range and bass are all far superior to the mono mix, and separation is well done, at least at the front – there's not a huge amount going on behind. The English dub is identical to the Cantonese 5.1 in sound quality, and it all comes down to personal preference. As usual lines are changed to suit mouth movements or the whims of the voice artists, sometimes altering the thrust of the dialogue. Thus "No big deal, decapitation – it happens all the time" becomes "Executions – barbarians!"

extra features

The UK Promotional Trailer (1:00) is the standard HKL DVD release promo, while the Original Theatrical Trailer (3:56) is actually a part of dual promo for this and A Better Tomorrow – we only get the Heroes Shed No Tears bit here.

From Hong Kong to Hollywood: An Interview with John Woo (22:49) is both more and less than that title suggests. The interview itself is certainly shorter than I'd expected, and a couple of extracts from the main feature run for minutes at a time, but Woo's early film career is covered in some detail, and includes stills and extracts from key early works. There is also a very brief interview with Peter Pau, DoP on The Killer, and a longer, though not that substantial one with one of Woo's favourite actors, Chow Yun Fat.

A Tribute to Lam Ching-Ying (7:01) is a very detailed, set-to-music textual biography of the actor who plays the evil military officer in this film and died in 1997 of cancer at the ludicrously young age of 45.

summary

If you're a hradcore John Woo fan you'll probably have bought the disc the moment it hit the shelves. If you're already a fan of the film and have been holding off until you check out the picture and sound quality, then go ahead and buy, as there are no problems there. For everyone else, well it will depend on whether the action alone is enough to sell it to you. If you want your brain to get as much of a workout as your adrenal gland, you may not find what you're looking for here.

Heroes Shed No Tears
Ying xiong wei lei

Hong Kong 1986
93 mins
director
John Woo
starring
Yuet Sang Chin
Doo Hee Jang
Ho Kon Kim
Eddy Ko
Ching-Ying Lam

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles
English
extras .
Trailers
John Woo featurette
Tribute to Lam Ching Yin
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
3 July 2006
review posted
3 July 2006