Heroes Shed No Tears Review
In the years up to 1986 before he made his breakthrough film A Better Tomorrow in the crime/action “heroic bloodshed” genre with the unique personal touch that he would become famous for, John Woo’s cut his filmmaking teeth on films in a wide variety of different styles – kung-fu films and swordplay epics, action adventures and slapstick comedies - all of them under the influence of the Golden Harvest and Cinema City studios. They were essentially stock, action b-movie fare, but the director’s talent and style was becoming increasingly evident, even in throwaway cute-kid comedies like Run Tiger Run (1985). Also made in 1985, but shelved until the success of his stunning and highly influential masterpiece A Better Tomorrow, Heroes Shed No Tears falls somewhere in-between – showing a great deal of the techniques and style that Woo would become better known for, but also not quite having bridged the credibility gap of b-movie plots involving cardboard cut-out heroes and villains and the somewhat cloying sentimentality of the studio system imposed schematic.
Again showing the versatility that had been characteristic of his work up to then, Heroes Shed No Tears is set in the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. An elite command squad of Chinese mercenaries have been hired by the Thai government to carry out a mission to clean-up the drug trafficking activities in an area notoriously producing 75% of the world’s illegal drugs. This group of Chinese immigrants all have different aims and loyalties for what they do, but there is no denying they get the work done. Well-equipped with flame-throwers, mini rocket launchers, landmines and every type of handgun and machine gun imaginable, they aim straight for the heart of the drug cartel’s activities, mowing down scores of anonymous baddies dressed in black and capture the kingpin General Samton. However, they run afoul of a Corporal of the Vietnamese army (Lam Ching-yang), who allies his soldiers with the drug gangs and employs a tribe of great hunters to track them down.
The idea of a plot is purely nominal – it’s outlined in the opening titles of the film, merely setting the scene for the story to nominate its good guys and bad guys and string their encounters together in a bunch of explosive action sequences, drawing on many stock characters and plots. The relationship between the command leader Chan Chung (Eddie Ko) and his son Little Keong owes quite a bit to Itto Ogami and Diagoro in Lone Wolf & Cub, notably in Chung’s stoic endurance, warrior ability and impassive demeanour. The Lone Wolf series is explicitly referenced in one particular scene where Little Keong is trapped in a blazing ring of fire by those pursuing them and makes an imaginative escape (I can’t recall if this is in any of the Lone Wolf movies, but it is certainly in Koike and Kojima’s manga series), but it’s there throughout in the Yagyu-like ninja assassins on the tail, and in the spurting blood and gory violence of the battle sequences.
Character definition is similarly basic. At least there is some effort made to imbue the roles with some characteristics, but you can’t help feeling that the traits displayed are just there to move the action along. Hence you have Chan’s family there to lend his actions nobility and heroism in his attempts to save them, particularly with Little Keong frequently getting lost, getting caught and needing to pee at inopportune times. You also have others in the group gambling and looting from dead bodies - all to create situations to allow the next explosive action sequence to take place. The most blatant piece of manipulation and stock characterisation is the America soldier, who we see in a flashback owing his life to Chan during the Vietnam War. The film makes use of this character, apparently at the insistence of the studio, to include some gratuitous sex scenes, a soapy Thai massage scene and the smoking of a joint – scenes that have been cut from various international editions of the film, but are all included in this full version of the film.
For Chan, the motivation for what he does is to earn himself and his family a US Green Card, but the American soldier dispels him of any illusions he might have – it’s a dog eat dog world wherever you may be. That in essence is the theme of the film and the justification for the action that takes up the bulk of the film and gives it precedence over characterisation or plausibility. And it really needs no more justification than that, giving John Woo all the space he needs to show off his style. All the bullet ballet trademarks are here – two handed gun action, high body counts, slow motion acrobatic action sequences, chain reaction explosions and action heroics – the violent nature of the location allowing for even more violent bloodletting and cruel torture sequences than usual. All that is missing here is any ambiguity in the characters, in their taking and switching of sides, and any sense of real ties of friendship, family and loyalty. This would come later in Woo’s subsequent series of crime action films – and indeed make a similar Vietnam setting for Bullet In The Head much more powerful and meaningful – but here in Heroes Shed No Tears we have all the style without any of the substance.
Heroes Shed No Tears is released in the UK by Hong Kong Legends. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, the DVD is Region 2 encoded and it is in PAL format.
The film is presented correctly at the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The quality of the transfer here is very impressive, much better than we are used to seeing from other UK Asian DVD imprints, and even much better than we are accustomed to seeing Hong Kong films from this period look. Colours are deep and rich and there is for the most part, good clarity and tone. The contrast is a little heavy in places and the odd touch of grain becomes more visible, but it hold up well throughout even in dark and night-time sequences. There is scarcely a mark or dustspot visible anywhere on the print, which is certainly not common on HK releases, and the transfer is stable throughout, with no trouble from any compression or macro-blocking artefacts, though some minor edge-enhancement haloing can be seen.
The film comes with a choice of soundtrack mixes that should suit everyone. The original Cantonese soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s quite thin and tinny but it’s adequate and doesn’t have any problems with hiss or background noise. It’s fairly limp though in comparison to the Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, which is fairly respectful of the original, but has clearly re-recorded the gunshot and explosive effects, which are far more prominent and dynamic than could originally be heard. I personally found this the best choice and well suited to the film. A Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub is also included and, well frankly it’s a waste of time for all concerned and I didn’t waste much time listening to it. It seemed every bit as bad as you would expect and obviously takes liberties with the translation trying to be more accurate to mouth movements than what is actually being said.
English subtitles are optional, in a white font, well-sized and well-placed on the screen, seeming to keep a tone appropriate to the film.
The extras are not extensive, but effort has been made to include extra value for the DVD. The UK Promotional Trailer (1:01) made by HKL to promote the DVD certainly achieves the desired effect of making the film look every inch the explosive John Woo actioner. Selling the film on the back of the success of A Better Tomorrow, the Original Theatrical Trailer (3:57) is also quite impressive, extremely violent and filled with spoilers. Once you get past the unimaginative alliterative obsessed introduction describing the “kinetic chaos” of the “master of mayhem”, the From Hong Kong to Hollywood: An Interview with John Woo (22:50) is actually quite useful and focussed, Woo in an interview discussing his filmmaking approach, while the documentary compares and makes tenuous links between his Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. The clips from the early Hong Kong swordplay films are interesting and of fine quality. A Tribute to Lam Ching-ying (7:02) is a text feature covering many of the key films in the actor’s career, from his appearance in the key Bruce Lee films through to his Vampire movie roles.
You can see all the elements of the trademark John Woo style starting to fall into place in Heroes Shed No Tears, particularly in the choreography of the action scenes and the heroic bloodshed theme, but it’s just not quite there yet. It would take actors like Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung and a little more finesse and ambiguity in the storylines for the evident talent in Woo’s visual stylisations to come together much more effectively in Woo’s subsequent films. Hong Kong Legends certainly make a good case for Heroes Shed No Tears, giving the film a very fine transfer and pumping up the explosive nature of the soundtrack in a way that makes it feel like you are watching classic John Woo.
Last updated: 23/06/2018 16:21:46