Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG


“Pistol Opera” (2001)

“Pistol Opera,” by veteran director Seijun Suzuki, is a surreal, imagery-laden excursion into non-narrative pure cinema.  A beautiful visual interpretation, the film unfolds in a series of striking tableaux that fit together to compose a subtext of sensuality and death, with many references to “Branded To Kill.”  The conventions of Japanese stage – including vivid costuming and makeup, and stylized gestures – appear deliberately fused with lighting and sets reminiscent of Japanese B-movies in artful exploration of visual possibilities.  Close-ups accentuate the severe physical beauty of Makiko Esumi whose expressive yet minimal hand motions, ironic facial expression and austerely traditional costuming collectively subvert attractiveness stereotypes.  As Suzuki himself acknowledged, Esumi was not regarded as an object of conventional desire.  She plays “Miyuki Minazuki,” an assassin suggestively nicknamed “Stray Cat.” “Stray Cat” is glimpsed crouching in autoerotic rapture with her gun as well as engaged in ritualized sadomasochistic interactions with “Ms. Uekyo” (codenamed “The Agent”) who is her contractor (played by Sayoko Yamaguchi).  “Are you . . . a lesbian?” asks “Uekyo” in the film’s opening moments.  “Sorry, but not with you, Ms. Uekyo” “Stray Cat” replies.

At least four symbolic axes interrogate broader social themes.  The minutely choreographed ritual of assassin rankings and social comparison arguably connotes a broader critique of fetishized attention to social rules of place.  A generational perspective is provided by the characters of a wise elderly woman, and a young girl eager to learn the skills of an assassin from “Stray Cat.”  Gendered commentary involves the juxtaposition of four women – “Stray Cat,” her mentor “The Agent,” the old woman and a young girl – against representatives of patriarchal forces who include a crippled assassin known as “The Teacher” (“Sensei”), an omnipresent assassin known as “Hundred Eyes,” and one identified as “The Useless Man!”  As the film unfolds the young girl’s character evolves from child to young woman (played by Yeong-he Han and Kan Hanae) and provocatively insists her name is “Sayoko” – the same name as the performer who plays “The Agent!”
A final subtextual axis involves the interplay of nationalist and patriarchal themes.  The film’s climax is enacted in an exhibition hall named “The Terror (Show).”  This is a freak show, a grotesque collection of cruel oddities, the centerpiece of which is a photographic representation of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima.  Juxtaposed with other images of death, it forms a virtual altar in a cult of deathmaking.  Earlier in the film a Westerner, (“Painless Surgeon”), literally feels no pain and stabs an older Japanese man in the head and “Stray Cat” in the leg.  By bleeding, she induces him to prove his own imperviousness to pain and suffering by stabbing himself in the heart.  In the film’s closing moments, “Stray Cat” is survived by her male mentor “Goro Hanada” (Mikijiro Hira), the former “Number 1” (“Sensei,” “The Champ”) who faked his physical disability but also doubted whether any former “Number 1” could regain his position.  In between, “The Agent” drapes herself in a Union Jack and recounts a dream of the American, British and Japanese flags becoming “bloody . . . muddy and shitty,” while the female consort of the former “Number 1” assassin describes a recurring nightmare in which, after Yukio Mishima’s suicide, she unsuccessfully attempts to stitch his head back onto his body.  It is precisely this revanchist symbolic order that is challenged by “Stray Cat.”
In what is, perhaps, commentary on a uniquely Japanese fascination with a supposed momentary beauty of death, “Pistol Opera” presents a series of ecstatically smiling corpses of victims shot in the medulla oblongata, the old woman’s tale of the brief beauty of a beached dead goldfish – big as a whale, the young girl’s search for death, and culmination in exquisitely costumed ritualized death for her, the contractor, and “Stray Cat.”  “Stray Cat’s” last words are, “Don’t touch.  Don’t look!  The corpse belongs to me” as the former “Number 1” screams “Baka!” – cursing his own folly in sudden realization of the meaning of her ritual suicide.  Within the interplay of elements of surreal visual spectacle, Suzuki has investigated substantially similar social and gender politics as the other narrative films reviewed here.  It is at the foot of Mount Fuji – a symbol of Japan itself – that “Stray Cat” calmly shoots herself.

“Princess Blade” (2001)

Despite its marketing as “Princess Blade,” Shinsuke Sato’s “Shura Yukihime” bears the same title as the classic “Lady Snowblood” and is clearly a remake of that film.  It is also a play on the Japanese translation of “Snow White.”  While both films are displaced from the present – one to the end of the 19th Century during the Meiji Restoration, the other to an indeterminate period in the 21st Century – they retain striking continuity of themes.  Each involves a female assassin – “Yuki” – who seeks to avenge her dead mother.  The name “Yuki” (“Snow” in Japanese) connotes purity, while “blood” connotes sincerity.  Those responsible are dispatched with a most phallic, penetrating weapon – a ninja sword in “Lady Snowblood” and futuristic katana in “Princess Blade.”  Along the way the character of “Yuki” finds momentary solace in a somewhat ambiguous relationship with an already marginalized male figure – a subversive journalist and terrorist revolutionary in the respective films.  Both will die, and the character of “Yuki” will endure great physical suffering to survive and fight again.  The juxtaposition of bloody action with beautiful images of water (with their potential Shinto purification connotations) is a device common to each film.

Despite the presence of Donnie Yen as action choreographer for “Princess Blade” and some interesting lighting and camerawork evoking a dystopian, post-apocalyptic landscape, the original “Snowblood” remains unsurpassed and may stand as an enduring classic of Japanese cinema and Asian female action film.  This is mainly attributable to the powerful screen presence of Meiko Kaji who transforms “Yuki Kashima” into a terrifyingly chilling dealer of death – beautiful but utterly cold.  As one of her targets begs for his life at the point of her sword, “Yuki” remains unmoved and asks, “Are you scared?  I bet you are.”  Kaji performs with an absolute economy of motion.  Her self-discipline concentrates ferocity into a glance or gesture.  The uncomfortable image of a victim begging on his knees in front of a powerful female protagonist, only to be executed nonetheless, is not generally encountered in HK cinema.  It is, however, a turning point in both “Lady Snowblood” and “Wild Criminal” (another Japanese title reviewed here).
Where “Princess Blade” really shines is in its virtual fetishization of the katana.  Yumiko Shaku’s “Yuki” is never without her weapon, and the film’s closing shot leaves her inspecting the blade at a moment when other filmic traditions might suggest throwing the weapon into the water in symbolic rejection of its destructiveness.  In addition to the central positioning of the katana in many of the film’s scenes, the fight sequence between “Yuki” and a female member of the assassin clan led by “Byakurai” (Kyusaku Shimada), sensualizes and perhaps even eroticizes the katana.  Having knocked “Yuki” down, her opponent slowly pierces her hand with a katana, literally pinning her to the ground like a specimen.  She then leans over her, lingering close to “Yuki’s” face before suddenly licking her blood.  This moment is electric in its transgression, and might be compared with a comparable act by Yukari Oshima’s “Madam Yeung” in “Angel” (1987).  Sidling up to a strung-up victim of torture, she also quickly fingers and licks his blood.
Despite their narrative similarities, “Snowblood” and “Princess Blade” each succeed for different reasons.  “Snowblood” is infused throughout by the singular intensity of Kaji’s “Yuki” – who emerges as an implacable maniac observing the courtesies of a patriarchal order while literally gutting it at every turn.  Kaji’s “Yuki” hacks her way through everyone.  Her measure of enlightenment is restricted to an ultimate and private confrontation with physical agony, realized only after her lifetime’s purpose of vengeance had been fulfilled.  By contrast, the visual style and transgressions of “Princess Blade” peak in that surreal facial lick.  Yumiko Shaku’s “Yuki” is a distinctively postmodern, androgynous figure whose character is alienated yet is compelled to fight by her conditioning.  Her lack of resolution is satisfyingly ambiguous.  Shaku’s “Yuki” is a more nuanced character.  Recognizing her alienation from the assassin clan of which she is princess, she is forced to question the very basis of her life’s mission.  However, this same history has conditioned her body to “just move” and, in the tradition of kenjutsu, she mentally vanishes into the blade.  While the diminutive Shaku is hardly an intimidating figure, her character’s subordination to the imperatives of habit disconcertingly implies the potential to do anything.
After discovering that her clan is actually responsible for her mother’s murder, Shaku’s “Yuki” slices through their surviving members.  Seriously wounded and bleeding copiously, she seeks refuge in the home of a retired terrorist (Hideaki Ito) and his mute, traumatized sister.  After this brief interlude in a situation barely resembling normalcy, “Yuki” is tracked down by the clan.  As she fights, the only people outside the clan who have sheltered her are themselves killed.  Her character’s destiny apparently remains joined to the katana, and over the course of the narrative she gradually emerges as a more malignantly destructive figure than first apparent.

“Yellow Hair 2” (2001)

“Yellow Hair 2” employs a variety of creative cinematic devices, including distinctive editing, extreme slow motion, an unusual color palette in which the central characters are sometimes colored while backgrounds are monochromatic, and extreme close-up examination of the body parts other than eyes or face.  These heighten visual sensations and viewer visual excitement to a narrative set in predominantly mundane urban and suburban locations.  Like “No Blood No Tears,” You-min Kim’s narrative runs backward and forward around the central event of an essentially chance encounter between the main protagonists.  This is situated at the checkout counter of a convenience store where one of them, “Y” (played by Yi Shin) is employed as a clerk.

Three seemingly inexplicable acts – “Y’s” acceptance of a check without ID from “J,”  “J’s” gratuitous assault on the store owner, and a stranger “R’s” videotaping of the scene – are gradually demystified and linked via separate backstories that not only provide narrative context for the chance encounter, but invest each of the characters with pathos.  “Y” is a naïve, simple young woman whose hopes of perhaps becoming a movie star are cynically exploited by her agent, who alternately cons and blackmails her into providing sexual favors.  She’s an easy mark, with a history of vulnerability to sexual exploitation.  He blackmails her using a secret video of their sexual activity.  At her jobsite a hidden camera records her changing clothing, fueling the voyeuristic desires of her elderly boss.  Turning to the old man for help, she narrowly evades a further instance of sexual exploitation.  When he is unexpectedly assaulted by a mysterious customer, it is “Y” who rushes to his assistance and inadvertently causes a near-fatal fall.
This altercation in the convenience store is filmed by “R”, a compulsive videophile with a penchant for videotape verite.  He does not anticipate inadvertently recording a homicide.  “J,” the perpetrator, is the film’s pivotal character.  This beautiful woman is initially shown smashing a beer bottle over the old man’s head, causing his apparent death at the entrance to his own store.  Eventually, her backstory is retraced to reveal an ambiguous, passionate affair with a man whose parents – in the traditional Korean manner – investigate his new partner only to discover that she is a transgender person.  The origins of her loneliness, passionate attachment, unusual lovemaking and androgyny are slowly revealed.  She can entrance a bar full of men by performing a soft rock ballad, but also can ride a motorcycle at high speed in her daytime job as a messenger.  She can also ruthlessly gun people down.  “Y” joins those that have become attracted to “J,” but this is only after “Y” has had enough of male sexual battery and after “J” confirms her present gender by fully disrobing!  She is played by real-world transgender model Ri-soo Ha.
“J’s” androgynous figure can be loved by both men and women, precisely because she combines the beauty of an archetypical feminine physique with the aggressively self-directing role of traditionally masculine autonomy.  The complexity of this interplay is graphically illustrated when “J” attempts to play a stereotypically feminine role for the benefit of her male lover by cooking a special meal on his return from a trip.  Instead of gratitude or appreciation, she is treated with ridicule, physical abuse and food literally thrown in her face.  But when she kills adversaries and pilots her motorcycle unerringly through the traffic, and helps concoct a blackmail plot to retaliate against “Y’s” former agent, “Y” falls for her as a partner who can provide strength and security – but also one who does not exploit and abuse.  In her femme guise “J” experiences brutal rejection by her male lover.  But as a strong woman, she re-awakens warmth and hope in “Y” who has also been trampled in her conventional relationships.  In this brief union, both women taste the prospect of fulfillment as well as renewed purpose – within the context of the shared enterprise that marks this unconventional women’s friendship film.  Its address of transgender and “bi” sexuality may also be considered highly controversial within a Korean cultural context.
The moment of optimism is all too brief, however.  Seemingly deranged by discovery of “J’s” gender reassignment, her ex-boyfriend seeks her out in desperation.  After advising him about suicide by drug overdose, she unwisely considers the matter settled.  He, however, takes impulsively violent action with a pistol, resulting in one more ironic turn in this bleak, dark examination of prejudice, patriarchy and exploitation.
“Yellow Hair 2” features the innovative cinematography, solid acting and memorable score that have characterized many recent Korean action dramas.  This is also an aggressively confrontational work that directly challenges abuse and exploitation within sexual relations, as well as contesting some of the background assumptions from which they ultimately flow.  Although action is not particularly frequent, it is a key element of the film that signifies preparedness to shape events rather than submit to them.  This is a morally ambiguous, nuanced text that also examines the contributions of chance and folly.  The harder “Y” and “J” struggle to escape the limiting confines largely imposed by the prejudice of men, the deeper they nonetheless fall into a criminal, “outsider” status.  Eventually, escape in the form of literal emigration becomes an attractive option.