The film revolves around three Ming Dynasty lawmen, He Zhong Heng, Luo Zhang and Ying Hao, who graduated in academy together. Sworn brothers and best friends since their days in training, all three of them are assigned in the big city as law enforcers for the Imperial court, but upon discovering the legal system is hopelessly corrupt and the civilians are being abused, the sworn brothers must question their choice: between loyalty, or duty.
Far darker and more realistic than most of the Shaws' period pieces released at the time, What Price Honesty paints the costumed period-piece universe it's set in as a bleak, bleak moral world where even the most idealistic of heroes would cave in to corruption, strife and abuse. To quote director Patrick Yuen:
"Although it is a costume drama, it is designed to reflect the gloomy aspect of the bureaucracy, the social injustices and human frailties which are also evident in present day society."
What Price Tropers?
- I Ate WHAT?!: Part of the Humiliation Conga inflicted on He Zhong Heng by the corrupt court and the cruel Fifth Master; after starving him for five days, Zhong Heng is served a bowl of rice, which he hungrily digs in... only to discover there is a dead rat hidden in it.
- The Atoner: Luo Zhang, after betraying Zhong Heng and allowing his former sworn best friend to be imprisoned and abused by the corrupt magistrate.
- Bait-and-Switch: Towards the end of the film, Zhong Heng, having captured Magistrate Ge alive, is confronted with Lord Huang, the Head Minister, who berates Magistrate Ge for accepting bribes, pushing innocent civilians into living through hell, and allowing criminals to go free, claiming that he will end Magistrate Ge's corruption immediately. The Head Minister then draws his sword... and impales Zhong Heng, the hero, instead, before congratulating Magistrate Ge for a job well done. Turns out the supposed Big Good of the movie is the true villain of the picture.
- Big Good: Subverted with Lord Huang, the Head Minister and ruler of the Imperial Court, who appears to be a kindly, benevolent man. It turns out he's even worse than Magistrate Ge and the Fifth Master, and is behind all the bribery and corruption in the city.
- Blade on a Stick: Sun Long uses a guandao during his rampage scene. By the time Zhong Heng, Luo Zhang, Ying Hao arrives with a detachment of reinforcements to arrest Sun Long, there are at least a dozen dead officers beside Sun Long, and plenty of red on the blade of that guandao.
- Blood Brothers: The three leading lawmen, He Zhong Heng, Luo Zhang and Ying Hao, are best friends from military training camp who swore to be brothers and stick their necks out for each other no matter what happens.
- Break the Haughty: Zhong Heng in the second half of the film. The sadistic Fifth Master, after framing him, even takes time to rub it into his face."I though you said you wanted to expose me? Go ahead and do it now! You can't, can you? Well I'm going to enjoy making you retract your promise of justice and make your life a living hell..."
- Clear My Name: Zhong Heng in the second half of the film, after being framed and imprisoned by the corrupt Magistrate Ge, had to find a way to expose the Magistrate's corruption and earn his freedom.
- Corrupt Politician: Lord Ge, the Magistrate and the film's Big Bad, who enforced a rule of tyranny, dictatorship, allows his underling the Fifth Master to abuse citizens on his behalf, and much of the film is spent on Zhong Heng trying to expose Ge's actions to Lord Huang, the Imperial Chief Magistrate and the Big Good of the film. In a horrible last-minute twist of events, it turns out Huang is another example of this trope, and is workign in tandem with Lord Ge in extorting the citizens.
- Diabolus ex Machina: Yeah, the film's all-powerful Big Good? He's behind all that corruption, which Zhong Heng realized two seconds before he gets betrayed and backstabbed.
- Dirty Cop: The Fifth Master, leader of the Imperial constables, who blatantly accepts bribes in front of his men.
- Downer Ending: After all the trauma, suffering and torture Zhong Heng and Luo Zhang sits through for most of the film, you'd expect a happy outcome. Except no. None of the three main characters outlives the credits, and despite Luo Zhang finally killing the villains responsible for the corruption, given the hopelessly flawed justice system, his efforts will be swept under the rug and made null.
- Establishing Character Moment: In his first scene, the Fifth Master publicly accepts bribe from a convicted murderer, telling his underlings to have the murderer released... while shoving a stack of silver ingots handed to him by said murderer into a drawer under his desk. One that is filled with gold and silver pieces, collected after months and months of accepting bribes.
- Excrement Statement: In Zhong Heng's first night in prison, having being flogged and beaten up by several punks and gangsters led by Sun Long, one of them then pees on the semi-unconscious Zhong Heng, under Sun Long's orders.
- Eyepatch of Power: Sun Long, the bandit leader, is shown sporting an eyepatch after being arrested. He's notably extremely pissed off at Zhong Heng, the main character who is responsible for him losing an eye in the first place (see next line for details).
- Eye Scream: The arrest on Sun Long, the rampaging bandit chief, ends with Sun Long and Zhong Heng duelling each other, one-on-one, with Zhong Heng winning by slashing his eye out.
- Fake a Fight: This is how Luo Zhang managed to sneak a weapon for Zhong Heng, pretending to beat up his former best friend, but secretly dropping a knife for Zhong Heng to use as an escape tool.
- Force Feeding: Attempted; during the prisoners' beat-down delivered on an imprisoned Zhong Heng, one of the prisoners sees a cockroach on a wall and decide to make him swallow. Zhong Heng instead bites off the prisoners' forefinger.
- Greater-Scope Villain: Lord Huang, the Imperial Minister and Head Magistrate. Turns out the film's alleged Big Good turns out to be even worse...
- I Have Your Wife: It's not explicitly stated which member of the family, but as it turns out, Luo Zhang didn't willingly betray his best friend, Zhong Heng; his family was framed prior to the story by corrupted court and thrown in prison, and Luo is only serving the villains to ensure his family's safety.
- Human Pincushion: Luo Zhang, but the good news is that he had killed Magistrate Ge and Lord Minister Huang, the two main villains, seconds before he gets nailed by the archers nearby.
- Hurting Hero: Zhong Heng, the protagonist, whose attempts to expose the corrupt justice system had him framed for theft, locked in a prison cell with dozens of prisoners who hates him, get the stuffing beaten out of him, reduced to a semi-unconscious state (the reason he didn't die is because the Fifth Master specifically instructs him to be kept alive for more flogging), peed on, forced to swallow a cockroach, flogged for days, starved for days, being tricked into eating rice in a bowl containing a dead rat, and in his weakened state, locked in a Punishment Box with Sun Long, a bandit who craves to kill Zhong Heng slowly and painfully.
- Just Following Orders: The Magistrate's officers turns out to be these, being law enforcement personnel just doing their jobs. Granted, they're shown accepting bribes and abusing innocent civilains occasionally, under the Fifth Master's command (who is, by proxy, the Magistrate's orders as well). And yet the film treats them pretty much like disposable mooks in big fight scenes, allowing Zhong Heng to kill them by the dozens without raising any red flags about conscience.
- Master Swordsman: He Zhong Heng and Luo Zhang.
- Off with His Head!: An unlucky officer lose his head to Sun Long's halberd during the rampage scene.
- One-Man Army:
- Zhong Heng takes plenty of names throughout the entirety of this film, even when the odds are piled against him.
- The bandit lord, Sun Long, have plenty of kills as well, via halberd during his one-man rampage.
- Questioning Title?: Granted, the film's poster and title cards doesn't have a question mark on it, but it's still a question. And the Price of Honesty is DEATH.
- Sacrificial Lion: For most of the first act, the film revolves around the brotherhood between it's leads, He Zhong Heng, Luo Zhang and Ying Hao, as they rise through the ranks of being imperial officers and Inspectors. But Ying Hao dies unexpectedly at the start of the second act, in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the rampaging bandit Sun Long, and the film goes darker from that point onwards.
- Self-Destructive Charge: Right at the ending of the film: the Head Minister, Lord Huang, turns out to be working with Magistrate Ge. After Zhong Heng gets betrayed and stabbed by Huang, Luo Zhang, finally reaching his Rage Breaking Point, breaks formation and charges ahead, stabbing Huang to avenge Zhong Heng. Magistrate Ge tries to flee, but Luo Zhang hacks him to death, allowing himself to be nailed by several archers.
- Sword Fight: Tons of it.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Ying Hao's wife, who gets killed by Magistrate Ge's underlings several days after losing her husband, her only crime being the only named character who is a decent human.
- We Can Rule Together: Invoked, when Magistrate Ge offers Luo Zhang a plate of silver for assisting in framing Zhong Heng and arresting him. But Luo refuses, and instead asks for his family, framed and imprisoned, to be released instead.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: For a moment at the end of the film, it seems like Zhong Heng, after ALL that crap he sat through, being flogged, starved, beated and tortured for days before finally earning his justice, had finally exposed Magistrate Ge's corruption and extortion to Lord Huang, the Head Minister and the film's patented Big Good. Lord Huang then congratulates Zhong Heng for his efforts, draws his sword to "enforce immediate justice"... and uses it to stab Zhong Heng. Because it turns out Lord Huang is another Corrupt Politician working alongside Magistrate Ge.