Recently, news circulated that we are finally getting a full movie about a female superhero. It's going to be a spinoff of the current not-great Spider-Man series, and we don't yet know if the female superhero in question is going to be Spider-Woman or Silver Sable or the Black Cat or what. It's a few years off. But the news was still striking, because it seems weird to think that in the past decade-plus of superhero films dominating the box office, nobody has thought to do this yet. Unless we're counting Halle Berry's 2004 turn as Catwoman, which let's not, no lady has headlined an American comic-book movie, ever. (EDIT: OK, plus Jennifer Garner's Elektra. I'm tempted to justify myself by claiming that Elektra is a ninja, not a superhero, but in truth I just forgot that movie even existed.)
But that's just America. In 1993 in Hong Kong, director Johnnie To made a deeply weird, fascinating, evocative movie about three female superheros, not just one. The Heroic Trio isn't the best superhero movie streaming on Netflix—that's probably still The Avengers—but it's almost certainly the most fun one to watch if it's two in the morning and you can't convince your brain to fall asleep.
The first thing you need to know about The Heroic Trio: It is an incredible stoner movie, one that deserves a place in the pantheon next to Time Bandits or Evil Dead 2. It makes basically no sense, but it makes no sense with such a sweeping sense of atmosphere and style that, if you're in the right frame of mind, you just shrug and go along with it.
The movie has its own physical laws, with objects and people falling from great heights in ecstatic slow motion, thanks to the wire-work effects that the movie overdoses on. One character enters an underground lair by kicking a manhole cover into the air, and that manhole cover hangs and spins and twirls, suspended, for an impossible stretch of time. Someone else straddles an empty oil drum, throws a lit stick of dynamite, and then rides that barrel into a den of criminals. Someone else shoots a shotgun shell at an enemy who has time to look, react, pull out a throwing tiny blade, and throw that blade so accurately that the shell explodes in midair.
You know that early-'90s wave of American movies, the ones that tried to ape the atmosphere of Tim Burton's first Batman by piling on the dry-ice smoke and the swooping camera moves? Movies like Hudson Hawk or Darkman tried to be dark and swashbuckling at the same time, but they mostly just created their own bugged-out realities, worlds that had nothing to do with our own. The Heroic Trio is that times a million. To's camera dives and whirls, and he never gives us a scene without throwing in, say, a couple of little kids blowing bubbles, to justify the fact that bubbles are floating everywhere. And while many of the pre-CGI special effects look cheap and silly, I'll never figure out how he got leaves to swirl the way he did.
The plot concerns an evil ancient eunuch who's kidnapping babies in Hong Kong so that he can turn one of them into the new emperor of China. You know, normal stuff. He's a strange, fantastical villain, his face coated in greasepaint and his hair done up in these weird horns, reclining on an underground throne and sometimes jumping up to throw poison darts at people. His main acolyte is the great Michelle Yeoh, playing a kidnapper with an invisibility cloak and a dormant sense of right and wrong.
The main hero is Anita Mui as Wonder Woman (seriously, they named the character Wonder Woman, no idea how they got away with that), a masked do-gooder who keeps a secret identity as the local police chief's wife. And then there's a wild card: Maggie Cheung as a wisecracking mercenary who comes around to the good side after she kidnaps a baby for ransom and accidentally causes its death.
Of the three, the only one who'd had any real martial arts experience before making The Heroic Trio was Yeoh; she was a former beauty queen and ballet dancer who'd recently played the badass foil to Jackie Chan in Supercop. Cheung was an actress who'd played Chan's girlfriend a few times and who'd anchored a few Wong Kar-Wai movies, but she never had to fight before. Mui was a singer, one of the most dominant stars in Cantopop.
And yet they all come off great in their action scenes, partly through charisma and enthusiasm, and partly because To knew how to make them look badass. There's a scene, for instance, where Mui is fighting an invisibility-cloaked Yeoh, and so Mui is really just punching air, but To stages everything so that you know exactly what's going on. The final fight is against a blood-dripping, Terminator-looking skeleton, and it sort of works, even though the model To used could barely move.
Through sheer presence, these women had to carry a story that operated on no real logic whatsoever, and they did it with absolute panache. The women fight, bicker, come to understandings, and team up, and there are a bunch of unnecessary flashbacks about how they all knew each other as kids. None of it much matters. The movie is so dreamlike, with its hypnotic synth score and its whirling capes and its sudden eruptions of violence, that it sucks you right in anyway. (The version on Netflix is unfortunately artlessly dubbed into English, which hurts the effect but doesn't ruin it.)
This looks and feels like a movie for kids, but then you'll get a scene where the bad-guy henchman eats his own severed finger, or where a fatal flying guillotine chops off somebody's fuckin' head, or where babies die. I don't know who the movie's target audience was in Hong Kong, but over here, it's an absolute godsend for anyone sitting at home, spending quality time with a vaporizer.
A year after making The Heroic Trio, the three actresses reunited with To for a pretty-good sequel called Executioners. The director would go on to master the art of a certain kind of terse, mythic shoot-'em-up; he will appear in this column again. Mui kept singing and died of cervical cancer nine years later, facing the death-sentence diagnosis with the grace and bravery of Warren Zevon. Yeoh became a Bond girl and, after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an international movie star for a little while there. Meanwhile, in movies like In the Mood for Love and 2046, Cheung became an art-house darling. She played herself in the movie Irma Vep, and in one scene, the fictional French director in the movie watches The Heroic Trio, absolutely mesmerized. I know how that guy feels.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies.Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine |Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master