Director: Herman Yau
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Lo Ka Leung, Tse Kwan-ho, Alex Fong, Timmy Hung, Wilfred Lau, Lam Suet
Runtime: 2 hrs 5 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Drug References)
Released By: Shaw Organisation & Clover Films
Opening Day: 20 July 2023
Synopsis: Hong Kong police agent Cheung (Aaron Kwok) works undercover in Kang’s (Sean Lau) drug cartel. For years, he assists the notorious Thai-Chinese military veteran in operating the syndicate out of Southeast Asia before moving to Hong Kong. Following the trail of information left by Cheung, Superintendent Au (Louis Koo) leads the Narcotics Bureau to bust the syndicate, but Cheung is heavily wounded and saved by Kang in the exchange of fire which follows. Word travels fast, and it isn’t long before militia leader Dai (Lo Ka Leung) receives a tip-off about Cheung’s betrayal… What emerges in the frontline of war is a familiar face, but this time, as a friend or foe?
Benny Chan’s passing last year was a loss for the Hong Kong filmmaking industry in more ways than one, given how he was one of the few directors who could confidently pull off an old-school action blockbuster. Though it was intended that he take the reins of this threequel, Chan’s passing meant he could no longer return to the franchise that he started back in 2013. That mantle has been assumed by Herman Yau, who was behind the admittedly underwhelming 2019 sequel; fortunately, Yau has upped the scale and stakes of this latest chapter, and while ‘Heaven or Hell’ may not reach the glorious heights of the original film, it still is an engaging action thriller thanks to Yau’s strong sensibility for spectacle.
Opening literally with a bang, Yau introduces us to his triumvirate with a thrilling set-piece at the Tuen Mun container terminal. Just as drug lord Suchat (Sean Lau) and his men are about to drive off with barrels of drugs smuggled from off the high seas of Hong Kong, they are intercepted by the police. In the ensuing firefight, Suchat’s left-hand man Rong (Louis Koo) reveals that he is in fact an undercover police officer, and while Rong manages to emerge unscathed, the same cannot be said of fellow undercover cop Billy (Aaron Kwok), who is gravely injured and ends up following Suchat to Laem Chabang in Thailand on a cargo vessel.
While Rong – otherwise known as Superintendent Au (Koo) – tries frantically to locate Billy, the latter falls in love with a village girl Noon (Yang Caiyu) who had nursed him back to health. Billy also bides his time by supporting Suchat as he rebuilds his business with a former associate Mee Noi (Tse Kwan-ho) in the Golden Triangle somewhere in the mountains along the Thai-Myanmar border; in particular, Suchat forms an alliance with Dai Jinrong (Gallen Lo), who commands an army to oversee and protect his drug-producing empire cultivated from the crops grown by the villagers in the poppy farms surrounding his camp.
Without giving too much away, it should not come as a surprise that Billy will eventually find a way to contact Au, who will team up with no less than the Royal Thai Police to raid Dai’s village one evening and crush his army once and for all. Indeed, the money shots of air raids conducted by the Thai air force on Dai’s mountain camp belong to that explosive climax, where Billy will have to make a choice whether to follow the oath he took to uphold the law or to respect the bond of brotherhood between him and Suchat. Oh yes, despite promising a heavyweight team-up among Lau, Koo and Kwok, it is only right at the very start and very end that the three veterans share the screen together, which we admit is slightly disappointing to say the very least.
As much as the tag-line promises “a face-off between righteous and loyalty”, those expecting a character-driven crime thriller will probably go away underwhelmed. Yau has always been a better director than scriptwriter, and without his regular writing partner Erica Li, he struggles to build compelling character arcs for his three main leads, and ends up relying largely on the charisma of his actors than anything else. Most frustratingly, Yau throws in flashback after flashback to lay out the backstory behind the characters – whether is it how Suchat came to trust both Rong and Billy or even how Rong and Billy became buddies – which not only comes off clumsy but breaks the storytelling momentum of the main narrative.
Thankfully, Yau’s ability to construct big action set-pieces remains undiminished. Together with veteran action choreographer Li Chung-chi, Yau pulls off a number of intense gunfights and vehicular chases that count among the most exhilarating we’ve seen from Hong Kong cinema in recent memory. His insistence on using real guns and real sets, despite the hassle of doing so during the pandemic, pays off tremendously, especially in the bold, ambitious climax where literally all hell breaks loose. If it’s a storm of action you’re seeking, we can reassure you that you’ll love this showcase of old-school blockbuster making.
For keeping his audience engaged in between the action, Yau has to thank Lau – indeed, as the arrogant but loyal drug lord Suchat, Lau’s against-type villainous turn is an absolute guilty pleasure, and hands-down the most interesting character in the entire film. Compared to Lau, Kwok is competent but hardly outstanding; on the other hand, Koo is almost a supporting player through the film, and sadly for the most part inconsequential. Still, Koo fares better than former TVB heavyweight Lo, who is woefully miscast as the fierce but fair guerilla leader. No thanks to the thin writing, Lo doesn’t quite know how to fashion the character, and ends up delivering a laughably weak performance that is even cringe-worthy to watch.
Still, this third chapter remains notable for its exhilarating old-school action, which as we’ve said in the beginning, is more a more a dying breed in Hong Kong cinema with veteran filmmakers either retiring or passing on. While Yau made his reputation as a horror shlock filmmaker, he has in recent years pivoted to blockbuster action, and in the process destroyed no less than the Cross Harbour Tunnel (in ‘Shock Wave’), the Central MTR station (in the 2019 ‘White Storm’ sequel) and the Hong Kong International Airport (in ‘Shock Wave 2’). Here, with all manner of weaponry as well as aerial firepower, Yau carries the torch once borne by such luminaries as Benny Chan and hopefully still by Dante Lam. And for that reason, despite its narrative and character shortcomings, ‘The White Storm 3: Heaven and Hell’ deserves your attention and even admiration; after all, we can’t say for sure how long more Hong Kong cinema will have something as bombastic as this.
(As delightfully old-school as Hong Kong action gets, this muscular showcase of guns, firepower and brotherhood boasts a gleefully villainous performance by Sean Lau)
Review by Gabriel Chong