Most folks cite the slick gangster film A Better Tomorrow as the breakout film for both director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat. And that is, in part, true. It was the film that made them both household names (Chow far more than Woo, at least at the time, when the name of a star was much more important than the name of a director), and it spawned hundreds of imitations. Where Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made mainland Chinese kids want to quit school and go join the Shaolin Temple, A Better Tomorrow made Hong Kong kids wear Ray Bans and overcoats and quit school to join triad gangs. Woo the Christian pacifist must be really proud of that.
A Better Tomorrow didn’t come from nowhere though, and a good film fan should be curious about how that film evolved from the muck that was John Woo’s largely unsuccessful early career, which he spent making asinine slapstick comedies and other films worth forgetting or never experiencing in the first place. Woo’s career as the high priest of “heroic bloodshed” began early on in his career with films like Countdown in Kungfu starring a young Jackie Chan and Delon Tam Tao-liang (and Sammo Hung wearing goofy Jerry Lewis novelty teeth in an otherwise very serious role). Things really started to develop in the fine film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which again showed Woo’s penchant for male bonding and gore. But this was nothing out of the ordinary for a kungfu film, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a disciple of legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Woo was able to add guns into the mix that he really began his journey.
The oft-ignored, intensely violent Heroes Shed No Tears is the first film to really mark his break from the inane and stomach churning slapstick “comedies” of his early years and his move toward gun-oriented action films. Heroes Shed No Tears is his Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s early drama about feuding families is soaked in gratuitous gore and violence. Tongues are ripped out. Heads are hacked from their bodies then catapulted back to their loved ones during dinner. It is a nonstop parade of brutality, gore, and tastelessness that most Shakespeare scholars like to pretend never happened. Obviously, it’s my favorite play by the guy, and it’s important historically not just because it’s his first published play (as far as I remember from my time among the Elizabethans), but because it also contains all the elements and themes that would become the crux of Shakespeare’s work. They are rough, raw, and not all that well written, but they are most definitely there, taking form like amoebas in a great primordial soup of dramatics.
Heroes Shed No Tears is exactly the same thing for Woo. It’s horrifically gory and violent — this is not the stylish, over-the-top ballet of violence Woo would become known for. All the basic ingredients that gel in A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head, and The Killer are present in Heroes Shed No Tears. They’re raw and underdeveloped, but there they are. And just like Shakespeare fans ignore Titus Andronicus, most Woo fans have skipped over this mean-spirited little number in favor of his higher profile, more stylish films. And you know, just like I love Titus Andronicus, I love this film.
This is, in many ways, a modern-day adaptation of the Lone Wolf and Cub story. The underrated Eddie Ko Hung stars as a soldier-of-fortune type leader of a ragtag band of mercenaries fighting the drug cartels in the Golden Triangle. For some reason, he also keeps his family nearby, which you wouldn’t think he would do. I mean, if you are out with the boys killing drug smugglers, you have to expect at some point they’re going to look for a way to get back at you. It’s sort of the nature of the business, you know? And if, after a long day of shooting a bazooka at a warehouse full of heroin or opium, you hop in the jeep and drive down the street to the house where your family lives, well, you gotta sorta expect that the drug smugglers might go there as well.
But never mind that. Ko and the boys capture a bigtime general who is trafficking drugs, and no sooner do they have the cuffs on the guy than they are being pursued by vengeful lackeys. Fearing for their lives, Ko, his men, his son, and a couple other people who serve no real purpose other than to get in the way, all pile into the family jeep, which is really sort of comical. It’s like a little clown car or Oddball’s tank in Kelly’s Heroes or possibly the antlers of the title character in Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, where the moose had like two dozens assorted animals hitching a ride on his antlers.
The nastiest thorn in Ko’s side is a maniacal military man played by the one-eyebrowed priest himself, Lam Ching-ying. A lot of people site Lam Ching-ying as being the soldier-of-fortune in this film. Obviously, those people are insane or just don’t know who Lam Ching-ying is. He is the crazy general, not the noble hero. Sort of like me. He engages in a series of very bloody gunfights with Ko’s men, and even bullies some spooky but cool local trackers to badger, kill, and set booby traps for Ko. One of the most notably Lone Wolf and Cub inspired moments comes when Ko’s son is trapped in a burning field and buries himself to escape the flames. If you are up on your Lone Wolf stories (an incredibly violent series of Japanese comic books and films about a lone samurai assassin who roams the bloody countryside with his little son in tow), one of the films features a scene where wee son Daigoro is trapped in the middle of a burning field and does exactly the same thing. Or maybe that’s just something they teach in Asia, the “stop, drop, and bury” method of fire prevention.
As Ko and his boys fight their way across the rural landscape of … Thailand? Burma? Laos? I can’t remember, but as they do it they meet a variety of other-worldly characters, including a pot-smoking American soldier and his wife. The entire journey is somewhat surreal, and it actually reminds me a lot of Apocalypse Now in that as the journey progresses, things get increasingly primitive, alien, and weird.
Woo takes the violence way over the top in a grueling scene in which Lam Ching-ying, who has one of his eyeballs shredded when Ko shoots it out through the scope of the sniper rifle Lam was aiming through (a scene that has been ripped off dozens of times since then, including Sniper and Saving Private Ryan), extracts horrifying revenge on a captured Ko by attempting to sew his eyelids open. This is shown from Ko’s point of view as Lam giggles and we see the dangling, bloody thread drooping in and out of our vantage point. This is actually even more disturbing and gross than I’m expressing. When Ko is rescued, his son has to chew the threads out of his dad’s eyelids. I don’t know why he had to chew them out, but hey — who am I to argue? That kid beat an entire field of fire.
Despite the obviously low budget, Heroes Shed No Tears (especially when you sew their eyes open) has a lot going for it. It’s pretty much non-stop action from the opening scene, and it’s easily Woo’s most relentlessly downbeat, gory film. That’s saying a lot when you remember the films Woo would go on to make. The film is fast-paced and exciting, and best of all, all bets are off on who is going to die. None of the characters are all that well developed, but Woo has never been a master at realistic characters. His people are always caricatures, symbols, and archetypes. This actually aids the film, because you never really know who is going to buy it. In a Hollywood film, you know exactly who will die in a war movie. The noble leader will die. The jack-ass of the bunch will have a heroic change of heart at some crucial moment, and he will sacrifice himself. The guy with the girl back home who writes him to tell him she’s in love with someone else will probably die. The nerdy pacifist guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a notebook full of writing will probably end up having to kill a lot of people in the end, but he’ll probably live and be the film’s narrator. He’ll also be named “Scoop” or “Squirt” or “Specs” or something suitably nerdy.
But in Heroes Shed No Tears pretty much anyone is fodder for the cannon. You half expect even the main guy to buy it halfway through, or even the little kid. You won’t find too many films these days that beat the shit out of a little kid with as much glee as this film does. And he’s not even that annoying, so you actually feel bad for the boy. Despite shallow characters, Woo successfully makes you feel for their plight and root for them on their utterly unreal odyssey through a mad landscape. And of course, there is lots of friendship, bonding, exploding, and slow motion gun fights. Woo would become a much better technician in later films, but there is so much passion and energy in this film that you can’t help but be taken in by it. It’s uneven in places, but it’s liking watching a surreal wartime flashback. Apocalypse Now meets Lone Wolf and Cub meets Southern Comfort (the movie, not the drink). It’s not Woo’s most talked about film, but it’s deserving of more attention, and like I said, it’s a boiling primordial soup in which all his signature themes and stylistic innovations can be seen in their embryonic, rudimentary stages.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Eddie Ko Hung, Lam Ching-ying, Doo Hee Jang, Ho Kon Kim, Chau Sang Lau, Cecile Le Bailly, Philippe Loffredo, Chen Yue Sang | Screenplay: John Woo | Director: John Woo | Cinematography: Kenichi Nakagawa | Music: Siu Fung Chung, Siu-Lam Tang | Original Title: Ying xiong wu lei