In the first of my series of articles looking at John Woo's cycle of "heroic bloodshed" films, I discuss the director's first contemporary action film, Heroes Shed No Tears.
Although it is one of the least well-known of John Woo's action films, Heroes Shed No Tears is quite unique and significant within the director's filmography. Best viewed as a kind of proto-heroic bloodshed film, the project marked the first time Woo had made a contemporary, gunplay-oriented action movie. In this sense, and in some of its stylistic choices, the film is a direct antecedent to A Better Tomorrow (1986) - Woo's commercial breakthrough and the first true heroic bloodshed film. With its foreign setting and war aesthetic, it's also a precursor to Bullet in the Head (1990).
Having learned his craft at Shaw Brothers studios during the 1970s, during which time he worked as an assistant director to Chang Cheh, John Woo eventually became a director in his own right. By 1985, aged 39, he had already made 14 films and was experiencing severe professional burnout. Most of his work had been for the Golden Harvest studio, for which he was contracted to make numerous comedies. These were often successful, to the extent that Woo was labelled Hong Kong's next "king of comedy", but the genre did not chime with his creative ambitions.
Keen to pursue the themes which had fired the imagination of his mentor Chang - heroic action, honour, and brotherhood - Woo was eager to complete his contract with Golden Harvest and move on. However, his final project for the studio would also be an action film, Woo's first since the unsuccessful Last Hurrah for Chivalry in 1979. Originally titled The Sunset Warrior and written by the director, the film would become known as Heroes Shed No Tears.
The film was shot in Thailand with an unusually international crew, including two French actors in minor roles and a Japanese cinematographer. Numerous Hong Kong action productions have been made in Thailand over the decades, and Woo was appreciative of the local stunt crews, who took on tasks that he believed even Hong Kong's famed stuntmen would not attempt.
Unsatisfied with what Woo had produced, Golden Harvest ultimately rejected Heroes Shed No Tears and it was shelved until 1986, when they rushed it into Hong Kong cinemas in an attempt to capitalise on the runaway success of Woo's next film, A Better Tomorrow. Enjoying only a very brief theatrical run, Heroes Shed No Tears made less than HK$3 million, against the massive HK$34 million made by Woo's newest work.
The extreme violence of Heroes Shed No Tears may well have contributed to the studio's decision to reject it. The film reads like a howl of frustration from Woo, an extreme reaction to the comedies he had been making for the previous several years. The film has a bodycount of 294, very nearly as high as Hard Boiled (1992) - Woo's last heroic bloodshed film and one of the most extreme action films ever made. Indeed, Woo's commitment to carnage is so absolute that it comes at the expense of a coherent story and deep characters. At the same time, Heroes Shed No Tears carries significant baggage from Woo's time as a director of comedy - numerous comic scenes break up the narrative, and while these are all amusing they clash severely with the often extremely bleak tone of the larger part of the film. Golden Harvest also inserted a pair of sex scenes as part of their careless efforts to make the film ready for release.
A blunt expository scene - which also may have been added after the fact by Golden Harvest, to replace cut material - introduces the basic plot. General Samton is a powerful drug lord operating in the Golden Triangle region. A team of soldiers led by locally-based Chinese mercenary Chan Chung (Eddy Ko) is hired to capture Samton, who is using refugee boats to smuggle his product into Hong Kong. While they accomplish the mission easily, Chan's team are pursued first by Samton's private army, then by a Vietnamese army unit led by a sadistic colonel (Lam Ching-ying).
The film indebted to some of the more bleak American "men on a mission" films, particularly The Professionals (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Chan's men are all desperate down-and-outs of one kind or another, but have a powerful bond drawn from the martial arts tradition. This is the most interesting part of the somewhat confused narrative, which is given an implausible feel by the fact that Chan and his family live so close to Samton's compound. He is even expected back at the house by lunchtime!
Accordingly, the story takes a back seat to the action scenes. These are numerous, complex and very bloody but they lack much of the flair for which Woo would become known - there are a few reasons for this. One is the rudimentary staging, due to which scenes do not feel fully planned and enemy gunmen stand around in rows, Another is the merely functional editing by Peter Cheung, which is nowhere near as dynamic or imaginitive as that of later heroic bloodshed films.
With that being said, Heroes Shed No Tears is packed with spectacle. The stunt work and pyrotechnics are both excellent, and memorable sights include a member of Chan's team demolishing an enemy camp using not one, but two grenade launchers at the same time. The film may lack the narrative coherence and stylistic flair for which Woo is known, but it remains an extremely important transitional part of the director's filmography and is the direct precusor to the first true heroic bloodshed film: A Better Tomorrow.
Notes on UK Availability
Heroes Shed No Tears was first released on UK DVD by Hong Kong Legends in 2006. It was re-released by CineAsia in 2011 - this second version is much easier to obtain. Both region 2 discs include a tribute to Lam Ching-ying and a short interview with Woo. The film has not been released on Blu-Ray in the UK.
Sometime film reviewer, Letterboxd user, novice Blu-Ray collector. Top 3 directors: Woo, Hill, Leone.
Henry V (UK, 1989) ★★★★½
The Fast and the Furious (USA, 2001) ★★★★
Goodfellas (USA, 1990) ★★★★★
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