Beautiful Blood on Your
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”
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
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.