Well I just… I mean… you know. Huh. How about that? I guess to have any hope of communicating effectively about a movie like Hero Dream we have to first summarize the concept of the Hong Kong Cat III film and, more importantly, the batshit insane, anything-goes attitude that drove Hong Kong cinema off the cliff and into pure pandemonium. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, so I’ll keep it brief. Or as brief as I ever keep anything. And after that, we can talk about how I racistly can’t tell the difference between Chin Siu-Ho and Chin Kar-Lok unless they are standing right next to each other, and even then I have problems unless one of them happens to have a bowl cut and a salmon colored blazer.
So turn back the clock a bit. For most of its prolific lifespan, the Hong Kong film industry had to official rating system for judging the suitability of a film’s content for assorted age groups. It was assumed, I assume, that you knew better than some shady room full of old men what was appropriate for yourself or your children. But just as, in the early 1980s, the United States was rocked by a series of violent PG movies that resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating, Hong Kong had a similar uprising in 1986 when John Woo’s hyper-violent gangster film A Better Tomorrow pushed bloodshed to a level allegedly hitherto unheard of — which is total nonsense, as anyone who ever watched one of those old movies where Jimmy Wang Yu slashes his way through a hundred bleeding chumps can tell you. Well, whatever the case, by 1988 Hong Kong had instigated its own official rating system. Category I films were suitable for all ages — your kiddie fare and such. II was more or less the equivalent of a PG or PG-13 rating. And the now infamous Category III — Cat III if you’re nasty (and you probably are) — well, the stuff that went into that one was an interesting and often insane mix of ultra violence, horror, sexploitation, and volatile political or controversial speech (sometimes all in the same movie).
The ratings system was revised slightly to create IIA and IIB ratings, allowing some movies that might have otherwise been classified Cat III to get the less harsh IIB rating (usually for violence and some incidental nudity). IIB is somewhere between a PG-13 and an R, depending ont he mood of the ratings board at any given moment. But Cat III, that’s why we’re here today. And this is where things get really crazy. Because at the end of the 1980s, and especially throughout the 1990s, there were a lot of Hong Kong film makers who absolutely lost their fucking minds. The industry was more or less controlled entirely by organized crime by this point, so it’s not as if they were starting things off with a solid moral compass. The entire country was also staring the barrel of a particularly scary gun. In 1997, after decades of being part of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong was scheduled to leave the British Empire and become part of China proper again — Communist China proper.
For many Hong Kong residents, the thought of suddenly finding themselves under the temperamental yoke of Chinese Communism after being a democracy for so long was worrisome, to say the least. Those who could started formulating their exit strategies. Apprehension about the hand-over permeated almost everything that went on in that final decade of British rule, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the “fuck it all” attitude displayed in so much of the city-state’s cinema. Assuming a substantially more repressive atmosphere would be put in place once Beijing was calling the shots, Hong Kong film makers went ape shit, ramming every single piece of insanity they could dream up into their films while the censors through their hands up and pretty much just said, “Whatever, dude.” And int he blink of an eye, the Hong Kong film industry started looking like Weimar era Germany. Every sleazy twist, every decadence, every tasteless extreme was being thrown up onto screens under the ubiquitous icon of a triangle containing the telltale “III.” One of the weirder sub-categories are the Cat III action films, which usually boast the same sort of cops and kungfu stories of low or medium budget Hong Kong action films (think Moon Lee or Yukari Oshima level productions) but with the addition of a ton of sex and nudity.
But the thing that makes Cat III films really interesting isn’t how extreme so many of them were. What’s interesting is that even the worst of them were not considered pariah films the way they would have been in the United States. Even the biggest and most respectable of Hong Kong film stars were amenable to appearing in even the seediest and least respectable of Hong Kong’s Cat III films. Simon Yam and Anthony Wong, in particular, seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time wallowing in the filth of the Cat III gutters. That’s like George Clooney and Denzel Washington appearing in the starring role of an Andy Sidaris film, or one of those Indigo production house movies with a title like Sex Confessions of a Sexy Voyeur Sex Addict and Probably Also Something About Velvet. Still, even though Hong Kong’s biggest stars were not above slumming it in a sordid sex film or four, the Cat III rating also generated its own set of stars, similar in many ways to the familiar faces who pop up over and over in the cheap direct-to-video American action films of the 80s and 90s. If Cat III has a crown prince, it’s bald-headed Elvis Tsui. And if it has an undisputed god-king, it’s Charlie Cho.
Hero Dream is one of the sleazier Cat III action films. In fact, it’s so sleazy and so packed with full frontal nudity and cameras lingering on female pubic hair that it seems almost illegal for it not to have at least co-starred Charlie Cho. Cho must have been busy making twenty other sex films the week Hero Dream was made — provided they bothered to take an entire week to film Hero Dream. If they did, it certainly doesn’t show. There seems to have been absolutely no effort at all to come up with a script, giving the movie a very prevalent “we’re just making up scenes as we go until we hit the 85 minute mark.” What effort did go into the movie was spent almost entirely on making it as dense with nudity as possible, with a small bit of effort reserved for finding the absolutely most atrocious shirts and ties for Chin Kar-lok. Which brings me to how many years I thought Chin Kar-lok was his brother, Chin Siu-ho. Man, for year I was talking about how the mantle of king of Hong Kong action occupied by Donnie Yen rightfully belongs to Chin Kar-lok — all the while meaning Chin Siu-ho.
Anyway, the plot, if you can tease it out of all the half-assed writing meant to prole us from one sexy scene to the next, has to do with Chin Siu-Ho’s cop character buying giant Garfields for his girlfriend (Carrie Ng, in a totally pointless role) and in his spare time leading some of the most disorganized and idiotic police raids in cinema history. Him and his people pretty much just wait outside for a few minutes then scream and run headlong toward the bad guys, with everyone shouting and firing in random directions with those guns where one shot seems to make like nine guys jump and flail around. When he and Carrie decide to take a vacation in Thailand, a case of swapped cases at the airport (oh, that old chestnut) gets the couple involved with murderous gun smugglers, which in turn unceremoniously ushers Carrie Ng’s throw-away character out of the movie. Which means it’s now up to Chin Siu-ho to track down the killers and get some revenge – a quest that will eventually force him into an uneasy alliance with criminals Chin Kar-lok and the awesome Michiko Nishiwaki (My Lucky Stars, Princess Madam). Oh, and there’s also a gang of transvestites, for the same reason that anything in this movie exists: why the hell not?
Hong Kong Cat III films have given the world some might peculiar stuff, but the most outre examples of the rating’s films — your Boxer’s Omens and such — are so totally weird that you can pretty much deal with them on their own terms. For me, the weirdest examples of Cat III films are the ones where it looks like a completely normal and mundane action film has been stuffed with instances of Cat III craziness. We know what a Hong Kong action movie looks like. So a movie like Hero Dream chugs along like a pretty typical example of the lower end of the HK action quality spectrum, and then all of a sudden there’s full frontel transvestite nudity and sweaty naked women stacked on top of each other while the camera zooms up their crotches. It’s like how people often find it easy to dela with skydiving (a movie like Boxer’s Omen) because the brain has no context for dealing with something that extreme and so can’t fully process the terror, but those same people are petrified of something like bungee jumping because you are close enough to the ground for your brain to recognize how crazy it is to do what you’re about to tell it to do.
As far as action films go, Hero Dream came out at pretty much the height of the Hong Kong stunt movie craze, and it really doesn’t measure up to its peers. And I’m not talking about just your big budget Jackie Chan or Tsui Hark or John Woo films. Hero Dream doesn’t have that star power or amount of cash, so I don’t expect it to be of quite the same caliber. But it’s certainly fair to measure it against lower budget films like Yes, Madam! or the Iron Angel movies, and even against them this is a pretty shoddy looking product. When the Chin brothers face off with each other, we get some spark of good action, but their fights are extremely brief, and none of the movies they pull are enough to distract the viewer from how horrible Chin Kar-lok’s haircut and shirts are. It doesn’t help that both Chins are really wooden in their roles. I also don’t understand the point of casting an always game stuntwoman like Sophia Crawford (most famous for her all nude fight scene with Billy Chow in Escape from Brothel) then have her be in the film for the amount of time it takes her to throw a single kick then get shot. Similarly, the statuesque former bodybuilder Michiko Nishiwaki gets to show off her body a wee bit but is sadly underused as a fighter.
With the kungfu getting short shrift, the film tries to serve up a fair amount of gunplay, but it’s as sloppy and unengaging as the fighting. It’s mostly people just shouting and running en masse at each other while firing randomly, with lots of guys doing the “riddled with bullets” dance. There’s no attempt at all to make the shoot-outs logical or possessed of any sort of logic or impact. It’s just stuntmen flopping about with no apparent direction. They are basically symptomatic of the entire movie’s structure — which is to say, there is no structure. It feels like they just went out and shot a bunch of scenes over a couple days, with no script or attempt at direction, then tried to stitch the entire thing into a feature film during post-production. I’ve seen Godfrey Ho ninja movies that had more coherent narrative flow.
Which is probably why the film leans so heavily on gratuitous sex scenes. I mean, the film basically starts off with the camera leering in close-up at a naked woman’s crotch, so I suppose we should have known from frame one where director Lau Siu-Gwan’s heart was really at (and by heart, I mean his dick). Every few minutes, he realizes his action film is a flop as an action film and so uses the most tenuous of links to segue into a sex scene. These, at least, he shoots with considerably more gusto and attention to detail than he does the action scenes, and the women he casts in them (the only one I recognize is Taiwanese pin-up Ga Ling) are better at deliver sex scenes than the action cast is at delivering fights and shoot-outs. Carrie Ng, despite being a vet of many Cat III films who had already proven her willingness to doff her top does not take part in any of the Cat III sleaze — unless you are turned on by scenes of a woman going, “Oh, I have to cook dinner!” while wearing a granny dress and hugging a big Garfield. Michiko Nishiwaki worked hard for the body she has, and she does show off more skin than Carrie, but it’s always coyly obscured by the ubiquitous plant leaf or lamp posts that have served film makers so well for so long.
What’s more surprising than all the female flesh on display is that this is also one of the few Cat III films to feature male nudity as well. It seems to be a global constant that even in films packed with full frontal female nudity, film makers still shy away from or outright ban the same from men. Cat III films of the era featured more full frontal female nudity in ten years than most industries did in their entire history — yet the number of full frontal male shots can almost be counted on one hand. Escape from Brothel has some fleeting Billy Chow nudity. Hero Dream lingers on its bare penises for a longer time — but that’s probably because said penises were actually attached to pretty good looking transvestites. But even dangling ladyboy parts aren’t as shocking as the fact that this is one of the very very few Hong Kong action films that treats a homosexual with anything approaching respect (relatively speaking, mind you). In a genre where gays and transgendered people are almost always the butt of some joke or are cast as villains, it’s actually refreshing (and very little about Hero Dream is “refreshing”) to see a gang of transvestites who are basically good guys (or girls) — even if most of them meet an unpleasant end.
Director Lau Siu-gwan wasn’t actually much of a director, as Hero Dream attests to. He cranked out a few other Cat III films (including the requisite film with Charlie Cho) but was mostly known as an actor, albeit one who wasn’t that successful. He has no discernable skill as a director other than the ability to point the camera at something and keep it in focus. Which, actually, I guess that’s a pretty important skill. I can’t find any screenplay credits for Hero Dream, which only furthers my suspicion that there was no screenplay, and Lau was just making it up as he went. If that’s the case, he’s an even worse writer than he is director. His commitment to having no explanation or transition from scene to scene is so intense that it almost becomes an accidental work of art. In one scene, vacationing Chin Siu-ho is swearing to rescue his wife. Cut immediately to him armed with machine guns and a bazooka. Where did all that weaponry come from? Who cares? Certainly this movie doesn’t. Hell, it can’t even be bothered to tell us what happens to some fo the main characters during the finale or to remember that Chin Siu-ho’s wife was brutally murdered (mostly because of him) just a couple days before he decides to bang some Thai girl with whom he walks away into the sunset.
Hell, they couldn’t even bother to come up with a title that makes any sense. Hero Dream? What does that even mean? Well, there’s a hero, so I guess we’ll through that in there, and I don’t know. He doesn’t dream, and nothing that happens to him is dreamy — at least until he forgets his murdered wife a day after he’s responsible for her death and hooks up with random Thai girl — which by the way, also ruins the life of one other character, so way to go Chin Siu-ho, you prick. But I guess sometimes sexy movies reference dreams, so there ya go. Hero Dream. It’s almost as bad as Thunderball. What the hell is a thunderball?
So, that’s a lot of negative things to say about this movie, somewhat balanced by “but lots o’ nudity.” However, in my old age, lots o’ nudity isn’t enough to get me to like a movie, since I know of many, many movies that have lots o’ nudity but are also good in other ways. That said, you might think I’m down on poor ol’ Hero Dream, but that’s not the case. It’s so poorly made, so unrepentantly scummy, so absolutely sleazy, and so full of gaudy silk shirts that I can’t help but love the foul little thing. It’s a classic example of the anything goes, fuck it all attitude of Hong Kong Cat III cinema in the final decade before Handover to China. It is thoroughly irredeemable (though in it’s defense, it also relies on “sexy rape” a lot less than most Cat III movies, usually choosing to find more wholesome and consensual avenues for its nakedness). If you’re not looking for good film technique, then it’s pretty easy to find a lot of idiotic entertainment in Hero Dream, crass “make a quick buck” movie though it may be.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Chin Siu-Ho, Chin Kar-Lok, Nishiwaki Michiko, Carrie Ng Ka-Lai, Lau Siu-Gwan, Hung Fung, Hon Yee-Sang, Ga Ling, Yau Yuk-Yue, Sophia Crawford, Ma On | Director: Lau Siu-Gwan | Music: Jan Hammer, though I doubt he knows it | Producer: Lau Siu-Gwan | Original Title: Yin yao hao qing