This all-star wack-fest is a parody of Jin Yong’s Eagle
Shooting Heroes and the second major release to be based
on the adventures of Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi (the other
was producer Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time).
In Wong Kar-Wai's film, Ouyang Feng
was played by Leslie Cheung. In this film it's Tony Leung
Chiu-Wai who plays Feng, and his performance is like that
of a bad guy from a 30’s silent film. Huang Yaoshi is played
by Leslie Cheung instead of Tony Leung Ka-Fai, who took the
role in Ashes of Time. Jacky Cheung plays Hong Qi,
the Beggar Prince, in both movies. Everyone else plays other
people and to get into the names and stories would only take
There are far too many subplots of
the Three’s Company variety to even begin to talk about.
Basically, a bunch of stars fight, fume, crossdress, mug,
and overact with nothing but our senses of humor to rely on.
They succeed, but only if we have that particular HK sense
of humor, which means we enjoy repetition, musical numbers,
squeaky voices, and lots of fast motion. The martial arts
choreography by Sammo Hung is pretty good, but the comedy is trying. If you like this sort of thing, this is
right up your alley. I have to admit that it did sort of get
on my nerves. (Kozo 1996)
While Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time might be the most famous (or perhaps infamous) adaptation of Jin Yong’s wuxia classic Legend of the Condor Heroes, there was, in fact, another film released only a year earlier which took even more liberties with the source material. Although its English title comes from the literal translation of Jin Yong’s popular text, Jeff Lau’s The Eagle Shooting Heroes was in no way meant to be a close adaptation of the novel - in truth, it’s an out-and out-parody. Curiously enough, the film’s very existence was reportedly due to cost overruns on Ashes of Time. To remedy matters, Wong Kar-Wai decided to produce a cheap Lunar New Year Comedy, utilizing much of the same cast in the hopes of generating some quick revenue for his then unfinished film.
Since Ashes of Time and The Eagle Shooting Heroes have not only characters but cast members in common, one might assume that the actors portray the same characters in both films. But aside from Jacky Cheung, everyone in The Eagle Shooting Heroes is playing different roles. Ouyang Feng, played so wonderfully by the late Leslie Cheung in Ashes of Time, is instead portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Cheung’s take on the role was more subdued to fit the more serious tone of Wong Kar-Wai’s epic film, but Leung’s interpretation is comically broad and smarmy, with his version of the character boasting a sleazy moustache and an overdubbed hyena laugh.
Leslie Cheung does appear in the film, but this time he’s slotted into the role of Huang Yaoshi, a far more clean-cut and innocuous version of the character played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai in Ashes of Time. Tony Leung Ka-Fai appears here as well, alongside Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, and Carina Lau, all holdovers from the concurrently shooting Ashes of Time. However, they aren’t playing the same roles either. Heck, those characters aren’t even present!
The plot, if it can be called that, goes something like this: the evil, but strangely pathetic Ouyang Feng and his cousin (Veronica Yip) have staged a coup and their next steps are to hunt down a rebel princess (Brigitte Lin) and discover the whereabouts of a secret martial arts manual known as the Book of Yin. During her escape, the princess crosses paths with Huang Yaoshi and Suqiu (Joey Wang). The two of them have a romance going on, but it’s not exactly set in stone. After all, Suqiu is the only woman Yaoshi has ever seen in his life, so when a beautiful princess walks into the picture, of course she’s going to pique his interest.
While hunting down the princess for his own ends, Ouyang Feng meets a suicidal, but all-too-accomplished martial artist named Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung). Ouyeng Feng tries repeatedly to kill his new “friend,” but fails again and again in ways Wile E. Coyote could relate. It seems Hong Qi was betrothed at birth to Suqiu, and through fate (or plot contrivance) THEY end up crossing paths, too. Of course, she’s still hung up on the princess-smitten Yaoshi.
And as if there weren’t enough mixed-up lovers already, the film throws one more into the mix with Prince Duan Wang-Yeh (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who’s looking for the love of his life and the key to immortality – all in one person. And in any cast breakdown of The Eagle Shooting Heroes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Maggie Cheung as a wacky court magician. Unlike everybody else in the movie, she doesn’t have a crush on anybody, but boy, is she cute. Of course, all these characters are put at cross-purposes on a proverbial “collision course with destiny.” Hong Kong-style wackiness ensues.
Let me be clear: The Eagle Shooting Heroes is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. And yet it is certainly entertaining. For one, the cast assembled here is nothing short of phenomenal. Although none of these actors has been totally averse to comedic roles, there’s something really joyous in watching all these respected, award-winning actors yuk it up onscreen for an hour-and-a-half. I mean, how can you resist a film that has Wong Kar-Wai introspective everyman Tony Leung Chiu-Wai mug his way though most of the movie’s running time, complete with big ears and swollen sausage lips? Without a doubt, the humor can be tedious at times, but the film still charms in large part due to the acting talent involved.
One of the most surprising aspects of the film is just how solid the action choreography is. That probably shouldn’t be such a shock considering that Sammo Hung was the action director, but one hardly expects topnotch action scenes in a lowbrow comedy. Yet even when the scenes are ramped up visually and tonally for comic effect, the actual stuntwork and martial arts on display here is just as good as any straight-ahead wuxia made during the same time period.
Probably the most compelling and intriguing aspect of The Eagle Shooting Heroes is the way in which the film deals with gender and sexuality. If the movie is about anything, then it’s about giving audience a burlesque version of Wong Kar-Wai’s typical plots in which characters are all in love with other characters who for one reason or another don’t love them back. Within the confines of the genre, the film suggests that sexual attraction is fluid and fleeting. But with all the cross-dressing, gender confusion, and mismatched romantic pairings, The Eagle Shooting Heroes plays out more like a wacked out Shakespearean comedy since, unlike most characters in the Wong Kar-Wai universe, all’s well that ends well with this motley crew of heroes and heroines.
But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the film’s take on sexuality. What I find most interesting is the treatment of same-sex relationships. Of course, the film veers close to the sort of blatant homophobia exemplified in any number of Hong Kong comedies, but there’s a matter-of-fact way in which the film handles these non-heterosexual pairings that make it surprisingly modern and progressive, even in a nonsensical comedy. As a side note, there’s something oddly compelling about watching a gay actor like Leslie Cheung play a straight man, who in turn is trying to fend off the advances of another man: Duan Wang-Yeh, who was by all accounts also a heterosexual. At least, he was before he learned that a love match with Yaoshi would put him on the road to immortality. But that’s just a way to enjoy the film on a meta-level. The really provocative stuff involves a side character I have yet to mention.
One actress who is a holdover from Ashes of Time is Carina Lau, who cross-dresses in
The Eagle Shooting Heroes as Zhou Botong, a faithful disciple who is on a quest to avenge his beloved master (Kenny Bee). But this isn’t a simple case of cross-dressing - Zhou isn’t meant to be a girl masquerading as a guy; he’s all-man. And he also happens to be gay. There are some jokes to be had at his expense; Botong’s colleagues feel a growing discomfort with Botong's increasingly obvious sexual preferences. However, the humor falls short of being outright homophobic.
The casting of a woman in this role, not to mention the film's comedic tone, perhaps lessens the “shock” of an openly gay character in a mainstream film, but the portrayal itself is no less compelling for it. As the film progresses, we learn that Botong and his master were engaged in a consensual relationship, and the film even ends with their reunion! What’s really fun here is the film’s implicit deconstruction of all the male-bonding that goes on in these wuxia flicks, even if the majority of the characters return to more conventional romantic pairings by story’s end.
Admittedly, the “everything but the kitchen sink” style of humor put forth in The Eagle Shooting Heroes may be a taxing experience for some viewers. However, the film still works as a silly send-up of the wuxia genre and a great opportunity for seeing respected actors make total fools of themselves. For interested parties, it’d make for an excellent, if tonally incongruent double feature with Ashes of Time. (Calvin McMillin 2009)