Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG


“Tell Me Something” (1999)

Yoon-Hyun Chang’s “Tell Me Something” begins as a police procedural in which “Detective Cho” (Suk-kyu Han) heads the investigation of a series of grisly murders in which mismatched body parts have been dumped around the city in garbage bags.  The male victims are quickly identified as the former lovers of a reclusive and mild mannered woman “Su-Yeon Chae” (Eun-ha Shim).  She is being stalked, and police attention naturally centers on the stalker.  Darkly atmospheric, rain soaked scenes invoke the conventions of noir and heighten the suspense of plot twists that alternate perspectives while never revealing the killer’s true identity until the very end.

A sense of helpless foreboding verging on paranoia gradually grows as “Detective Cho” struggles to protect “Su-yeon,” but seems powerless to prevent the grisly murder of his own partner “Detective Oh” (Hang-Seon Jang).  A cinematic gaze that includes surveillance cameras placed by the stalker and videotapes made as trophies by the killer contribute to an atmosphere of grim unreality in which “Cho’s” grasp on the substance of the case seems increasingly slippery.
As the investigation flounders, the coolly impassive “Su-Yeon” gradually reveals something of her past.  To the evocative rhythm of Enya’s ‘Boadicea’ – itself a subtle symbol of avenging wrath – “Su-Yeon” calmly shows “Cho” her father’s art studio – allowing the viewer flashbacks to the horrific abuse she endured there as a child.
Suspicion finally settles on “Su-Yeon’s” friend “Sung-Min” – a medical student portrayed in another eerily cold performance by Jung-ah Yum.  However, in the first of two final plot twists, “Su-Yeon” reveals the true extent of her ruthlessness and capacity for dissimulation in a violent confrontation with her friend at a Tower Records store.  This provides a natural opportunity for effective use of music to establish the scene.  As “Su-Yeon’s” home offers up the final secret, she nevertheless slips away and is glimpsed adopting a new persona in a suddenly chilling betrayal of all that has gone before.
Shim delivers an understated performance as the apparently traumatized and helpless “Su-Yeon” who ultimately deceives everyone and surprises with her character’s core of stone.  Solid acting, excellent cinematography and effective musical score support a plot that repeatedly misdirects attention toward false leads.

“Wild Criminal” (1999)

“Wild Criminal“ (aka “Awful Crime”), directed by Hide, can be read as a yakuza variant of the Wachowskis’ “Bound” in which a gang boss’s female partner betrays him by seducing a strong, capable woman and drawing her into a plot to steal the gang’s money.  “Bound” has been critically analyzed as an instance of “neo-noir” – a film that extends the classic film noir theme of male anxiety concerning domination by female sexuality to a blatant triumph of self-defining, exclusively female solidarity and sexuality.  In “Wild Criminal,” Aya Nakamura plays “Tomoyo,” the ex-girlfriend of a gang leader “Udo” (Riki Takeuchi in a supporting role) who has fallen from power.  She is kept alive and given as a trophy to “Suwa,” a part played with chilling conviction by Hitoshi Ozawa.  While “Suwa” relentlessly physically and sexually abuses “Tomoyo,” she secretly schemes his downfall while duplicitously affirming his masculinity and power.  After saving “Yuki” (Miho Nomoto) who is discovered dumped in the trunk of an abandoned car at the scene of a gang shooting, “Tomoyo” later encounters her working as a croupier in “Suwa’s” casino.

Despite her physical attractiveness and the pathos of her circumstances, “Tomoyo” has to work hard at winning “Yuki’s” confidence.  This culminates in a well-filmed pivotal scene, characteristically set at the water’s edge on a deserted beach.  Sitting in “Yuki’s” two-seater, “Tomoyo” alternately pleads and pouts as she presents her plan to fleece “Suwa.”  “Yuki’s” indifference – portrayed throughout by Nomoto’s deadpan, slightly mocking facial expression and eyes hard as marbles – is finally softened when “Tomoyo” shyly reveals the flaw in her plan to kill “Suwa” and escape with his casino takings by herself.  She may be independent enough to plan out the crime, but hasn’t yet learned how to drive!  “Yuki’s” all-too independent character initially laughs in contempt at “Tomoyo’s” self-admitted weakness, but this is softened by sudden appreciation of the momentary irony.  This scene is among the better-acted moments of these films, with some striking facial close-up cinematography.  “Yuki” problematizes “Tomoyo’s” dependence with her simple invitation to drive the car.  This is a turning point in their emerging relationship, and “Tomoyo’s” naïve admission, “I don’t have a driver’s license” invites an ideological reading of everyday disempowerment.
The emotional thaw of ironic laughter elides into affection as “Yuki” finally responds to “Tomoyo’s” overture.  This is filmed with warmth, unlike the exploitation scenes so frequently associated with the Japanese GWG genre.  Yet, at other points, this film presents disturbing imagery of “Tomoyo” being beaten, assaulted or tortured, and “Yuki” knocked down and sexually assaulted by her own erstwhile gang partners.  Despite significant continuity errors, these scenes are quite grim and relentless in their import, and effectively establish a common bond of strength in suffering between the two principal female characters.  Nomoto is glimpsed nude in the shower but this is presented as an act of personal purification as she leans on the shower wall, strong and immobile.  Montage is used to good effect to present “Yuki’s” strength.  Dark scenes of assault are progressively edited with brightly lit shots of the water cascading over Nomoto’s body – clearly connoting displacement of pollution by cleansing.
“Yuki’s” response – .357 magnum in hand – would do justice to her namesake in “Shurayukihime.”  One assailant is shot down immediately, the other repeatedly kneed in the groin, then allowed to prostrate himself while begging to be spared.  During his futile pleas for a non-existent mercy the camera is positioned from his viewpoint, forcing the viewer to look up at “Yuki’s” power and imminent vengeance as she coldly utters “Sayonara” and blows him (and the viewer) away.  This might be Miho Nomoto’s best cinematic moment to date.  There are few other current female performers whose facial expression can be so deadpan, so devoid of compassion, whose mocking hint of cruelty leaves no concession to hope at all.
Once the play is set in motion, “Tomoyo” must endure another round of abuse from “Suwa,” this time with “Yuki” hiding underneath the bed.  After “Suwa” drinks himself into an alcoholic rage, “Yuki” attacks him.  Following a relatively well-choreographed brawl, “Suwa” grabs Tomoyo as a human shield.  “Yuki” shoots him anyway, wounding “Tomoyo” in the process.  She then binds him to a chair with duct tape and beats him unconscious.  When finally confronted with the cash, the two women experience another bout of mutual mistrust.  This is interrupted by a corrupt detective associate of “Suwa,” played by Shun Sugata, who shoots “Yuki” and strangles “Suwa.”  “Yuki” is saved in the nick of time by “Udo,” with whom she has cut a deal on the side.  She then stages a mock execution of “Tomoyo” to seemingly erase the surviving witness.  However, one final narrative twist remains.  All is revealed as having been part of the women’s elaborate plot.  Avoiding a last double-cross by “Udo,” the two women are faster on the draw and, in a slow motion hail of gunfire, send his body staggering back into the same car trunk in which “Yuki” had been dumped.
A physical transformation of Aya Nakamura’s character “Tomoyo” – from seductive yet victimized to strikingly powerful – is accomplished in this final brief scene.  As she unexpectedly floats into the scene from behind Miho Nomoto, her clothing, hair, body posture, movements and facial expression have all changed.  Nakamura now flaunts much of “Yuki’s” hard self-possession that verges on arrogance.  When the pistols come out, the affirmation of personal power is compellingly evident.  A similar slow-motion bodily transformation into a lethally powerful figure is also made by Nakamura at the end of “Score 2.”  But perhaps the most provocative moment of “Wild Criminal” is when “Tomoyo” recalls finding “Yuki” in the car trunk, a smear of blood at the corner of her mouth.  Much later, in “Yuki’s” rundown apartment, Nakamura playfully smears lipstick on the edge of Nomoto’s mouth while speaking the line “I really wanted to save you.  Because I thought it was beautiful . . . the blood . . . on your lip.” It captures the transgressive essence of this film.

“Fulltime Killer” (2001)

Johnnie To’s film takes the familiar narrative elements of the romantic triangle and male rivalry, only to subject the viewer to a sudden glissade toward alternative constructions of personal reality.  “O” (Takashi Sorimachi) is as unassuming and discreet as “Tok” (Andy Lau) is arrogant and demonstrative.  Yet it is “O” who will kill his childhood friend and who maintains an ambiguously intense interest in his female housekeepers.  Both “Tok” and “O” are successful contract assassins based in Hong Kong.  When “Tok” seeks to challenge “O,” he develops a relationship with his maid “Chin” (Kelly Lin) who appears naïve.  However, the ambiguous nature of character and relationships is frequently suggested by references to playing roles from films as well as the literal wearing of a mask.  Although “O” picked “Chin’s” notice advertising cleaning services from a bulletin board, he is using her as an elaborate cover while it eventually emerges that she has actually sought out him – and perhaps “Tok” as well.  Earlier notions of the nature of motives and corresponding relations become progressively destabilized.

Although “O” has recruited Chin to clean his official address, her mild, self-effacing manner is ultimately revealed as a disguise for an intense fascination with “O’s” activity as an assassin.  By cleaning his apartment, she is essentially performing for him.  When “O” is too shy to respond to her, she turns to “Tok.”  A crisis develops when “O” is targeted himself, and a group of killers come to his residence only to find the maid.  After “O” rescues “Chin,” he sends her to his safe house in an adjacent building where she discovers his duplicity and voyeurism.  He has been observing her every moment from this vantage point.  However, it is soon “O’s” turn to be surprised when, instead of surrendering or fleeing during a police raid, “Chin” grabs an automatic rifle and joins him on the balcony outside.
What follows is a classic slow-motion Hong Kong cinematic shoot-out, involving the symmetry of the assassin (Sorimachi) and his new female partner (Lin) against the pursuing police investigator (Simon Yam) and his female partner (Cherrie Ying).  On the run, “O” and “Chin” pause in a field far from the city.  “Chin” confronts “O” about the fate of her friend “Nancy,” his previous maid.  As “O” professes his attraction for “Chin” he seems to realize it may all be too late as she pushes him away and demands to be heard.  Although brief, this scene is pivotal.  “O” talks about wanting to seek out a peaceful life, and “Chin” then assumes control.  As she explains her fascination with his activities, it becomes evident that she arranged to work for him as a means of meeting.
The narrative focus then abruptly switches to Simon Yam’s “Inspector Lee” who, following the death of his partner “Gigi” (Ying) and the failure of his investigation, appears to experience a nervous breakdown and becomes obsessed with writing a book about the story of “Tok” and “O.”  Tormented by the lack of an ending, he is one day presented with an account by “Chin.”  Although her account does not seem to match reality, “Lee” realizes it’s just a story, and for a moment achieves a measure of personal peace.
The film features excellent acting performance by all cast members, creative cinematography, exceptional editing, and a memorable theme and score by Guy Zerafa.  Kelly Lin delivers a subtle portrayal of the ambiguous figure of “Chin.”  Far from being “just an ordinary girl,” as she disarmingly describes herself, her character’s unusual interests and emerging influence supply the narrative resolution.  At the end, she quite literally supplies the script.