Plot: backpacking tourists encounter mercenaries in the jungles of Thailand.
There’s something to be said about the tenets and profound effects of globalization when a contemporary Mainland Chinese jungle action-adventure in the 2010s plays out by the exact same beats and character ur-archetypes as the Thai jungle actioners of Chalong Pakdeevijit in the 90s, the late 80s Italian jungle adventures of the 80s, and Filipino exploitation of the 70s. Angel Warriors (or 鐵血嬌娃 back at home) is conclusive proof that regardless of the decade and/or the geographic location it was made in certain cinematic tropes and conventions remain universal and unchanging. While it never plunges to the depths of Extra Service (2017) its dour reputation is entirely and richly deserved and not without reason. No amount of hardbodied Sino babes will be able to save a feature with this much of a trainwreck of a script. Mainland China usually is better at military action than this. Angel Warriors will make you wish it was directed by Lu Yun-Fei. Sadly, he was not in the director’s chair for this one.
It truly makes no difference whether this was produced in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Manila. The project was originally conceived in 2011 as Five-Star General - an alleged mix of Tomb Raider (2001) and the military jingoism of Avatar (2009) that pitted a group of female mercenaries or Amazon warriors against an enemy faction in the Thai jungles - and later the more Charlie’s Angels (2000) informed The Five.As a Thai co-production the Royal Thai Air Force was kind enough to supply helicopters. At some point the military aspect was toned down and the title was changed to Angel Warriors. Whether the screenplay by Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu was altered to accomodate these changes remains unclear. While Angel Warriors pushes an admirable environmental – and animal welfare agenda the screenplay is unbelievably slavish to convention, needlessly convoluted through non-functional flashbacks and rife with bad one-liners and even worse phonetic English. That it was directed by Fu Hua-Yang from the comedy hit Kung Fu Hip Hop (2008) probably didn’t help either.
Five backpacking tourist girls from Mainland China - Bai Xue (Yu Nan), CEO of a big company, passionate motorcyclist and leader of the pack; Yanyan (Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan), a professional dancer and practitioner of martial arts; Ah Ta (Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, as Mavis Pan), an wildlife protectionist; Dingdang (Wang Qiu-Zi), cousin of Bai Xue and internet entrepreneur in outdoor and extreme sports clothing and Tongtong (Wu Jing-Yi), archeologist, polyglot and the resident geek – embark on a trek through the Kana jungle in Thailand in search of the famed Tiger Tribe that has lived undisturbed and in isolation for hundreds of years. As girls are wont to do in they immediately head to the beach and break out their tiny bikinis. It is here that they meet local Dennis (Andy On Chi-Kit) and reformed mercenary Wang Laoying (Collin Chou Siu-Lung as Ngai Sing), a brother-in-arms and friend of Bai Xue’s late younger brother Bai Yun, and occupy themselves with swimming, diving and sailing. Along the way they pick up native guide and noble savage Sen (Xing Yu), betrothed of the princess of the Tiger Tribe. That night the girls go out clubbing and drinking in Pattaya beach and the obligatory bar brawl breaks out. Dennis introduces himself as a National Geographic documentary maker and soon the expedition is headed for Kana.
As the expedition heads deeper and deeper into the jungle the girls notice that the armed militia escorting Dennis is not what it seems. The expedition and the para-military units run into the Tiger Tribe and a fierce fight breaks loose. The natives are able to ward off the Chinese intruders but the girls are captured and imprisoned. The Tiger Tribe warrior princess Ha Er (Wang Danyi Li) and chieftain Aliao (Shi Fanxi, as Lawrence Shi) decree that the girls will be sacrificed to their god. Tongtong deduces what language the tribe speaks and is able to negiotiate the girls’ release. Dennis is revealed to be working with his Triad boss stepfather (Fu Hua-Yang) who are after the precious stones and other natural resources that the Kana jungle houses. The Triad boss sends Black Dragon (Kohata Ryu) and a female assassin (Renata Tan Li-Na) to neutralize both the backpacking girls as well as the native Tiger Tribe. By this point the girls have been accepted by the tribe and are being inducted into their ranks. Will the girls be strong enough to defeat the mercenaries that threaten the lush Kana jungle?
The main cast looks like they were ordered straight out of a Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated Swimsuit catalog. Why Yu Nan, Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Wang Danyi Li ever agreed to be part of this production is anybody’s guess. Someone must have desperately needed the paycheck or wanted a cheap vacation in Thailand. Multiple award-winning and arthouse queen Yu Nan is the obvious draw here and Western viewers might recognize her from the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) and as Maggie from The Expendables 2 (2012). The other big name is Hong Kong and Mainland China veteran Collin Chou Siu-Lung. His earliest appearance of note was in Encounter of the Spooky Kind II (1990) but he’s known to Western audiences as Seraph from The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) as well as Ryu Hayabusa from the entertaining DOA: Dead or Alive (2006). Next to that his credits include, among many others, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Mural (2011), and Special ID (2013). Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang was in the Sino What Women Want (2011) as well as Jing Wong's Treasure Inn (2011) and not much else. Like Wang Qiu-Zi she too rose to prominence as a model. Wang Danyi Li was unfortunate enough to be in the universally reviled 2011 remake of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) only to end up here. Renata Tan Li-Na would redeem herself with the Chrissie Chau Sau-Na wuxia The Extreme Fox (2013). She would become popular as a singer/dancer just like Wu Jing-Yi. Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (a year away from adopting her Patricia Hu alias) would go on to become the focus in the breast-centric action romp Ameera (2014). Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Andy On Chi-Kit were in better movies before and after this and they bring some semblance of respectability to this brainless waste of talent.
Where Angel Warriors falters most disastrously is in its screenplay. This is the absolute last place to look at improving the already deeply troubled Sino-Thai relations. Like its Italian forebears of the 1970s and 80s Angel Warriors is rife with imperialist - and genetic xenophobia depicting Thai people as uncultured, jungle-dwelling savages in need to saving by the enlightened white-skinned Chinese. The pre-title opening narration from Xing Yu is in Engrish and thus insulting to not only the Thai but to the English as well. The screenplay briefly toys with the idea of spirit animals and totems, but nothing is really made of it. For a bit it pushes an eco-friendly and animal welfare narrative, but both ideas are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced. Since this an ensemble cast with a few models, dancers and assorted Sino beauty queens the first thing the girls do is break out the bikinis, splash and swim in the nearest lake and before the expedition the girls party in revealing evening dresses. Mainland China might be demure and chaste but they never not took the time to extensively ogle a beautiful girl. It’s difficult to estimate whether writers Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu are just terrible at what they do or whether they were handed the wrong project. Regardless, Angel Warriors is nothing short of a modern day Green Inferno (1988) or a spiritual Sino precursor to the Filipino zombie ensemble comedy iZla (2021). On a lighter note, if you want to make a drinking game out of every time “extreme outdoor backpackers” is mentioned, you’ll be hospitalized within a good 30 minutes.
In theory the affordability of CGI should be a boon to Chinese exploitation cinema but h!story has proven it be more of a bane instead. In what seems like a regional trend it’s the rampant CGI that completely kills much of the production. There’s a time and place for CGI but in Angel Warriors it’s used indiscriminately and disproportionately especially in places where practical special effects would have sufficed. A combination of stock footage, animatronics and practical effects could’ve rendered the tiger scenes. The action scenes are as bullet-ridden and explosive as any contemporary American production. The fight choreography by Ma Yuk-Sing is up to the required standard, although high-flying wire-fu, martial arts acrobacy and interesting fighting routines weren’t in the books here. Obviously there was some budget to go around with Angel Warriors, but apparently the majority of funds was spent in the wrong place. Angel Warriors should’ve opted for the cost-efficient route and used CGI only sparingly. Somewhere along the way somebody lost the plot and the production obviously suffered direly from it. Angel Warriors is definitely not alone in its over-reliance on and over-usage of CGI, it’s a trend in Asian cinema of late. Hopefully the savage critical response will lead to a more old-fashioned special effects usage. Whenever the screen isn’t blinking director Fu Hua-Yang will remind us that all the girls are really pretty.
One of the remnants of this being an Charlie’s Angels (2000) derivative the five girls all wear sexy outfits corresponding with their main interest or defining character trait. Only Bai Xue and Tongtong wear anything remotely semi-practical. Yanyan, Ah Ta and Dingdang all wear some Tomb Raider imitation outfit and midriff baring tops lest we forget that they are played by Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang and Wang Qiu-Zi. Not that any no extreme outdoor backpacker would ever wear what the Angel Warriors are seen in here. Suspension of belief is one thing but Angel Warriors goes completely overboard in reminding everybody how attractive the main cast is. Only Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (who apparently had the greatest potential of becoming a star of her own) was able to move on from Angel Warriors although the following year’s Ameera (2014) all but killed her career. It would be interesting to see Yu Nan, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi, and Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (either seperately or together) in a full-blown Girls With Guns - or period costume wuxia production. It’s not so much that these women can’t act but that they are victims of a poor screenplay. There’s always hope that either Jing Wong or Tsui Hark will pick up them in the future.