Home Video Hovel: Heroes Shed No Tears, by Dayne Linford
John Woo belongs to that worldwide pantheon of legendarily cool directors achieving international notoriety at the end of the 90s, reworking classic Hollywood tropes and genres to create something that, despite those antecedents, feels almost entirely original. But, before bullet ballet and the mastery of the kind of exquisitely controlled mayhem he would exhibit in films like Hard Boiled, Woo worked on B-level Hong Kong movies, to somewhat middling success. Heroes Shed No Tears, the very last of this period, made explicitly to finish out a contract, occupies a kind of bridge between the old career and the enormous success that would soon follow.
Those older films were largely romantic comedies, more or less by the numbers, making Heroes one of his first action films, just prior to a renaissance entirely characterized by them. He debuted this side of his career with a bang, as in an uncontrolled, extremely messy explosion that wipes out everything in sight. An extremely violent and brutal film, it is ultimately more like a smorgasbord of bad Hollywood 80s movies than any of Woo’s later work, entirely lacking in his finesse. In some ways, in fact, it’s more interesting as an exception in Woo’s filmography, than as a rule.
Beginning not in medias res but more post medias res, Woo makes it fairly clear early on in the film that the principle task of our cosmopolitan commandos, being to kidnap the lord of all drugs in the famous Golden Triangle, the uncontrolled territory at the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, is a pretty easy task–the hard part, as usual, is getting out. This is complicated by the fact that the group leader, Chan Chung’s (Eddy Ko) family, all of whom are Chinese, inexplicably lives nearby. Even were you to think maybe they just travelled north real quick to China, they actually end up going through Vietnam, which is way southeast. Anyway, let’s just say the geography makes even less sense than your typical action romp, and that this perpetual state of confusion as to who the hell is doing what the hell is pretty consistent throughout, regardless of geographical considerations. Woo was never particularly plot heavy, but even for him, this is thin. So, back to Vietnam, our ragtag mercenary group has the kingpin and are running from his goons. But they come across a sadistic Vietnamese colonel (Lam Ching Ying) and decide to intervene in his sadism because our lead, Chung, is guilted into it by his son after the colonel slaughters a French guy. The colonel loses an eye and decides to give chase also, becoming the central villain in the film. The result is a lot of explosions and a lot of dead people, laid out one upon another in increasingly lackadaisical fashion as our heroes make their way through the jungle.
There’s a kind of film legacy directly from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the “civilized” confront the jungle in a fashion, going up to Apocalypse Now, Aguirre the Wrath of God and Embrace of the Serpent, the point being to flip the dangerous jungle dialectic on its head–at the very heart of that darkness is a white man, the colonizer, who callously destroys everyone and everything around him in pursuit of his own presumed godliness. And then there’s another film legacy that branches off from this, which is the genre that Heroes Shed No Tears engages, itself a kind of time-honored retread of a thousand American rescue movies, featuring the band of “civilized” mercenaries who go to dark places to rescue something or otherwise reaffirm justice and civilization, like Predator around the same time (before the, you know, alien and all that)–in other words, art that looks at the complex legacy of post-colonial film and says, “Ah, to hell with all that.” Here, a group of Chinese soldiers literally face off against “strange” native warriors and sadistic colonels, competing in shows of violence and masculinity masquerading as a kind of authentic supremacy, which supremacy is here reaffirmed and dignified, largely through showy tests of endurance. Our hero, Chung is the most supreme, surviving a torture technique equally brutal and fantastic for so long that he elicits an exclamation from the colonel as to the impossibility of the feat, before being rescued and then immediately able to fight off another horde. Like the action films it copies, Heroes turns back Conrad’s dialectic, reaffirming that it is not the presumption or arrogance of the civilized that’s the problem, but that actually the jungle is the problem, and the gangsters, folkloric native people, and bloodthirsty colonels who inhabit it. If only they’d stop giving us drugs to buy!
This narrative is somewhat complicated by the presence of an American ex-soldier, Louis (Philippe Loffredo), living peacefully in Vietnam with three women (which is a little bizarre and seems to be in the film primarily to show nipples–six female nipples, in fact). But he and Chung share a history, indicated by severe head nods and meaningful glances, and he provides one of the few moments of respite in the film, prior to his house getting blown up by the colonel. Though it amounts to little, the mere fact of his presence complicates our colonial narrative, reminding us of a disastrous war and creating sympathy for an American who deserted it. Louis is no Kurtz–entirely lacking his complexity, charisma, savagery or power–but he is a kind of heart in this film, a suggestion that peace has a nobility, too. Indeed, Woo’s interest in a cosmopolitan kind of jungle movie is further enhanced by the reason Chung is even on this venture–to finance emigration to the U.S. for himself and his family, to the very place where all these drugs are going. The repercussions of colonialism and world power dynamics and the narratives by which dissidents and foreigners “earn” a place in colonial powers are everywhere. But just being present in a film is not in itself enough – the work needs to have something to say about these dynamics, not just smash them together like particles in the LHC. What little speaking is going on here is quickly lost amidst yet another explosion.
Heroes Shed No Tears is pretty throwaway, a fact that was acknowledged by Woo at the time, who said he merely did the project to finish out a contract and move on to a different studio. It was actually shelved after production and the only reason we have it is because Woo immediately followed it up with his breakthrough, A Better Tomorrow. While the new studio reaped the rewards of that huge success, the old studio pulled out this one, dressed it up some and shoved it into the limelight to pump a couple more bucks out of the Hong Kong filmgoer. Now it’s little more than an historical curiosity, barely brushing against the talent that would later explode into modern day John Woo. Perhaps because he was left out of the editing, it’s really hard to feel his presence in this film, except in a couple long scenes contrasting tenderness between Chung and his son (the only relationship with any weight in the film) and the physical mortification Chung has endured to accomplish the mission and keep his son safe. These slight moments are few and far between, sticking out strangely amidst the rest of the film. Later, Woo would rehash standard narratives of violent cops and informant gangsters, but elevate them to an almost mythical hue, creating archetypes that explored and complicated our concepts of life in Hong Kong, the most modern city in the world. But not here; as a curiosity, even, Heroes is best left to the die-hards.