Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG


“Portland Street Blues” (1998)

Yip Wai Man’s “Portland Street Blues” ambitiously shifts back and forth between time, character and locations with satisfying dramatic integrity.  The film justifiably garnered award nominations for the three principal female actors.  Sandra Ng’s rather gaunt physique contributes to her character’s hard screen persona, accentuated by excellent close-up filming of nuances of calculating facial expression.  The story weaves back and forth between her character “Thirteen’s” late adolescence on the fringes of triad society as “Teenie,” and what she must later do to become “Sister Thirteen” – the only female boss of the Hung Hing gang.  This narrative obviously invites comparison with the Korean “My Wife Is A Gangster” films.

“Thirteen” – who is named for her father’s gambling luck – presents as superficially defiant and brashly assertive, yet this conceals vulnerability and pathos.  Apparently bisexual, “Thirteen” endures the slight of others looking past her to admire her close friend “Yun” – ably acted by Kristy Yeung.  Seemingly unable to fully understand intimacy, “Thirteen” eventually defines herself as lesbian, yet ironically misses the most obvious opportunity to form a genuine relationship.  Instead, she has the misfortune to become infatuated with “Coke” (Alex Fong), a member of a rival triad who takes refuge in the Mainland.  Alex Fong also brings considerable subtlety to this nearly wordless part.
“Thirteen’s” character arc spans three key events – coming of age following the murder of her father (Ng Man-tat), coming to terms with her identity, and becoming a triad.  These reflective, inner themes are given external reference by action.  Deaths and brutality provide the punctuation to a discourse on how people misunderstand and mistreat each other.  “Thirteen” evolves from a spike-haired, street-smart teen into a shrewd and occasionally ruthless adult.  Swimming with the current of male-dominated triad society, “Thirteen” develops suspicion as tool of survival.  Yet the emotional price of acquiring prototypic male habits is presented as very high.  The female drug addict “Scarface” (Shu Qi) plays a pivotal role in “Thirteen’s” transition, as her own downfall – brought on by a disastrous relationship with a corrupt detective – provides opportunity for “Thirteen’s” advancement in Hung Hing.
The various strands of this emotionally complex drama are eventually woven together in a relatively satisfying action resolution, when “Thirteen” is faced with an attempted takeover by a rival gang.  Only the final scene (a clear reference to the “Young and Dangerous” series) does not ring true and represents an instance of the “double ending” that characterizes (and compromises) so many HK action films.
Good cinematography, uniformly superior acting and a memorable theme combine to produce a solid action drama.  This is definitely not a GWG film, although there is gunplay.  The violence, when it occurs, serves to demarcate episodes in the narrative, while providing a context for pervasive undercurrents of exploitation and erosion of trust.

“Black Angel” (1998)

Takashi Ishii’s directorial background in “pink” (pinku eiga) titles remains noticeable in his more recent female action films.  Although many of their sexual scenes continue to hover on the border of the gratuitous, they nonetheless also invite reading strategies that are highly critical of patriarchal norms and exploitation.  This is certainly true of “Black Angel, Vol. 1” (“Kuro no Tenshi, Vol. 1,” 1998), one of the few Japanese GWG titles that bear serious comparison with the best of that genre from HK.

Riona Hazuki plays “Ikko” who, orphaned as a child, returns to Japan from exile in the United States to exact revenge on the yakuza “Nogi” (Jinpachi Nezu) who had her parents killed in front of her.  As a child “Ikko” was saved by “Mayo” the “Black Angel” (Reiko Takashima), a hitwoman in her father’s gang, but as an adult she must now confront “Mayo” who is drug addicted and controlled by “Nogi.”  “Ikko’s” partner is a gay Japanese-American man named “Zill” (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi).  On arrival in Japan this pair immediately kick, shoot and stab their way through “Nogi’s” subordinates until “Zill” gets careless and is beaten to death, while body armor saves “Nogi” from “Ikko’s” exquisitely choreographed slow-motion shooting spree in a strip bar.  As she tries to flee she is caught by a wretched “Black Angel” and handed over to “Nogi.”
“Ikko’s” torture and assault at the hands of “Nogi” and his men triggers a flashback to even worse treatment for “Mayo.”  Pulling herself from the wreckage of drug dependence, she rescues “Ikko” and nurses her to recovery.  This sets the stage for the women’s retaliatory vengeance in a hail of gunfire.  But, in one further betrayal of trust and expectations, “Ikko” learns that her sister-in-law (Miyuko Ono) – who is “Nogi’s” lover – might actually be her real mother.
The final confrontation on a rooftop high above the Tokyo skyline captures the spirit of the film – dark, bleak and without hope.  The protagonists die needlessly, for reasons of vengeance or affection.  At earlier points Ishii guides the narrative through seedy clubs, an abandoned hospital, and a stark concrete and glass office block – settings devoid of a trace of warmth.  In the narrow hallway of a club “Ikko” is knocked down but comes up leering, driving a switchblade into an unsuspecting bouncer.  She shoots his boss in the groin.  In the back of a car she extends her palm to shield her face from blood spray as she shoots a yakuza point blank in the head.  A particularly bouncy theme song offers an incongruously jolly counterpoint.
“Black Angel, Vol. 1” is a competent GWG film with solid production values, good camerawork and distinctive lighting effects.  Predominant dark hues and deep shadow evoke the spirit of noir.  Hazuki is one of a number of Japanese female performers who are particularly striking in repose.  Fortunately, here she is also served well by a strong narrative, good pacing and – above all – adequate action choreography.  Ishii clearly recognized that it was necessary to do more than simply put “a gun and a girl” in front of the camera – as Jean-Luc Godard had once remarked.  Although not physically imposing, Hazuki can move well and performs quite competently during some relatively challenging action scenes.  Overall, the film packs enough of a visual and narrative punch to easily forgive its limitations.

“Score 2:  The Big Fight” (1999)

Hitoshi Ozawa’s “Score 2:  The Big Fight” seems reminiscent of the basic plot device of Tarantino’s influential “Reservoir Dogs.”  Six gangsters identified only by code names are brought together to retrieve 500 million yen – the proceeds of a bank robbery – that are now concealed on the grounds of an amusement park.  The catch is that the exact location of the money is unknown and the gang has exactly seven hours to locate and retrieve it during the overnight hours.  In the tradition of “Reservoir Dogs” things go horribly wrong as the gang members succumb to mutual suspicion that rapidly degenerates into a series of stand-offs and shoot-outs.  The security of the entire operation has been compromised, with the gang’s activities being monitored by a pair of corrupt detectives who arrive at the scene with a truckload of shotgun-toting backup.  The gang members suddenly find themselves battling for their very survival against a more numerous and heavily armed enemy.

What ensues is an extended and gratuitously violent shootout spanning the better part of half the film, during which the combatants are whittled down to the two corrupt and sadistically violent detectives, Ozawa’s devious and double-crossing character “Joker,” and Aya Nakamura’s “Queen” as the group’s driver.  Nakamura is, of course, the principal reason for watching this film, and has an unexpectedly strong role – particularly for a Japanese production.  While many of the conventions of yakuza actioners are in evidence – snarling confrontations, gratuitous gunplay, geysering blood, sadistically intimate violence, Nakamura subverts typical genre expectations.  Despite very briefly parading in a tight-fitting mini-dress and stacked heels, Nakamura spends the bulk of the film in paramilitary combat gear, complete with boots.  She’s in the thick of the action and displays some convincing combat pistol stances, and participates in firefights without even blinking.  At one point she looses off with an assault rifle.  After being wounded, “Queen” patches herself up and keeps on fighting.  In the course of the combat she temporarily rescues two of the male gang members, and appears more shrewd and courageous than the rest of the gang.
At the end, “Queen” is cornered and beaten by one of the two detectives who drunkenly attempts to assault her after repeatedly striking her in the face.  Unlike many comparable scenes in Japanese films, the viewer is unambiguously aligned with Nakamura’s character.  Although there is very brief nudity, she acidly taunts the assailant, “Can you get it up, shorty?” before kneeing him in the groin and kicking him away.  After a powerful slow-motion sequence in which Nakamura re-fastens her military-style clothing and contemplates vengeance with a bruised and bloodied hate stare, she sets her assailant on fire and shoots him repeatedly.  The camera presents her body as resilient and strong in the face of dire physical adversity.
Aya Nakamura’s hair is bleached blond in this film, further undermining conventional signifiers.  Unlike so many Japanese GWG films, there is no emphasis at all on gender coded costuming, romance or sexuality.  Nakamura is simply a competent soldier who unflinchingly shoots her way through the opposition to become, quite literally, the last surviving member of the entire cast.