Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Near Misses: Playing by Patriarchal Rules

“Just show her that there’s a difference between man and a woman”
(“Two Cops 3”)

Western film theory, especially that based on feminist or cultural studies approaches, has characterized the action film as “muscle drama” – an exposition of the patriarchal norms of masculine autonomy, violence and duty.  Such theorizing either considers the conventions of action film inherently patriarchal, or identifies “recuperation” (i.e., restoration) of such norms even when female characters are foregrounded in action narratives.  The figure of the “Final Girl,” theorized by Carol Clover as a “masculinized” female surrogate in the action resolution of horror narratives, is one such instance.  Other concerns involve the “sadistic” (i.e., intrusive, controlling) cinematic gaze that constructs women’s bodies and actions primarily as artificial objects of male viewing pleasure.

Several recent Asian films serve to illustrate how patriarchal norms continue to operate in this manner within action narratives that nominally privilege and empower women.  Some instances are subtle, others blatant.  One of the best examples, the Korean police procedural “Two Cops 3” (1998), even set out to critique gender discrimination!  Sang-Jin Kim’s film, an installment in a popular series of Korean police “buddy” narratives, provides an instructive counterpoint to the police dramas reviewed later in this essay.  In choosing to focus on the resistance of an all-male detective division to its first female inspector as a means of examining pervasive gender discrimination, the film falls into a trap of its own making.  Police procedurals present female characters with the impossible dilemma of protecting and serving the very forces that ultimately oppress them in both personal and institutional ways.
Ming-jung Kweon gives her best in “Two Cops 3” as “Inspector Choi” with a rousing display of Tae Kwon Do (she’s supposed to be a third-degree black belt), but this is ultimately just another visual spectacle to be exploited.  Despite her high academy scores and martial arts skill, “Choi” proves unable to subdue a series of moderately menacing felons – including a caricature rapist who turns on her.  Her reluctant partner, a profoundly misogynist “Dirty Harry” figure named “Inspector Lee” (Bo-sung Kim), publicly reckons “Choi” will only last a few days on the job, and she’s quickly relegated to typing reports and fetching coffee for the other detectives.  Although intended as an exaggerated parody of the “glass ceiling” for professional women, this treatment appears genuinely demeaning.
As “Choi” trains harder, takes bigger risks and makes some major arrests, it’s unclear whether she’s pursuing her professional mission or seeking to ingratiate herself into the male club.  When “Choi” first reports for duty it’s with military bearing and a snappy salute.  As the film progresses, however, her manner softens.  With seeming inevitability this opens the door to an intrusive, sexualized gaze.  Kweon is a physically beautiful woman and the film spares no opportunity to peer at her low-cut blouse or completely nude body while bathing.  This is wholly gratuitous – “Inspector Lee” is not seen in this manner – and is compounded by even more egregious sequences of sex with her imagined by “Lee” during a stakeout.  Although “Choi” saves “Lee” by shooting a criminal who is threatening him, “Lee” rescues her from certain death twice – the second time by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!  Her recovery from near drowning represents a crucial transition as “Choi” is now fully accepted into the community of detectives.  In the final scene, “Choi” joins “Lee” in a communal bathhouse after work.  This allows him to gaze at her nude body in reality.
The price of occupational acceptance seems unacceptably high, and “Choi’s” enthusiastic efforts run the gamut of rejection, ridicule and imagined sex object – with equanimity verging on the abject.  Features worthy of note include costuming and appearance (“Choi’s” low necklines, emphasis on lipstick), the cinematic gaze (repeated viewing of “Choi’s” nude body), narrative emphasis on “Lee’s” struggle to accept “Choi” rather than her contest with the patriarchal system, male agency in repeatedly saving her, and male privilege in sexually fantasizing about her or looking at her.  The surplus of shockingly sexist dialog is intended as comic, but impresses as mean-spirited in its pervasiveness.  The film does, however, provide a perhaps unintended emblematic illustration of the essence of patriarchal oppression.  “Inspector Lee” is shown respectfully sitting with his father – a practiced martial artist – who advises his son with the wisdom of an admired elder, “If you don’t take control over women from the beginning, you’re useless.”
If “Two Cops 3” wallows in everyday sexism, other action sub-genre films offer a much darker opportunity for exercise of the sadistic gaze – once again under the guise of privileging a female protagonist.  The Japanese crime drama “Beautiful Target” (“XX: utsukushiki hyoteki,” 1995), directed by Naosuke Kurosawa, exemplifies how a female protagonist’s self-determining actions can be turned to patriarchal purpose and the service of the male cinematic gaze.  Clues to the origins of this can be found in directorial filmographies – which in Kurosawa’s case includes “Young Lady Detectives:  Heart Beat!” (1987) in which the well-known body builder (later martial artist, action star and stunt double) Michiko Nishiwaki stars in a “pink” (soft-pornographic) film.  The cinematic vision of a female action film realized by a pink film director is obviously likely to differ from that crafted by a martial artist (such as Corey Yuen).
In “Beautiful Target,” Yoko Natsuki plays “Dr. Kyoko Mizuki,” a visually striking but dispassionate medical examiner who becomes the target of a sadistic stalker and serial killer of women.  In a disturbing sequence, “Mizuki” – who possesses not only a high status career but also classically aquiline good looks – is subjected to a horrific home invasion in which she is stripped, groped, blindfolded, bound in a humiliating position and videotaped by the assailant.  Her body and status are portrayed as highly vulnerable, while that of the male detective investigating the case is almost indestructible.  Here, the male body is nearly impervious to harm when tempered by service – as when the injured detective rises from his hospital bed after a nearly fatal hit-and-run – while the body of the male serial killer as an anonymous, looming threat is immune to female blows or even repeated stabbing!
Determined to save herself by finding the perpetrator before he strikes again, “Mizuki” teams with “Natsumi” (SHIHO), a female switchblade-wielding gang leader who has lost a girlfriend to the killer.  “Natsumi” finds “Kyoko” tied up in her apartment, and the two unlikely opposites become partners and then lovers.  Kurosawa guides the narrative through seedy bars and clubs toward a climax in which “Mizuki” tracks the killer to his lair, where he has abducted and tied up “Natsumi.”  Such narratives and scenes are characteristic of many Japanese genre films that relish the torture and humiliation of women.  “Beautiful Target” is additionally disturbing because it is actually quite well acted and manages to generate a measure of drama and character identification.  However, despite their best efforts, “Kyoko” and “Natsumi” cannot finish off the perpetrator by striking and stabbing him repeatedly.  His mysterious, cloaked body – emblematic of an all-powerful male figure – must be finally put to death by a shot fired by the miraculously recovered detective “Komiya.”  Despite her recent intimacy with “Natsumi,” “Kyoko” ultimately collapses into his arms.  In one final plot twist, there is an implication that she may have been awakened to the “pleasures” of the conduct to which she was exposed, and could now become a perpetrator of similar acts herself – representing ultimate symbolic identification with the oppressor.
Despite its status as representative of blatant exploitation genres, “Beautiful Target” also illustrates the workings of patriarchal conventions in horror action.  First, the figure of “Dr. Kyoko Mizuki” cannot protect herself, either professionally or privately at home.  She is gratuitously and painfully humiliated – her body and entire life debased and exposed to the highly invasive cinematic gaze of the perpetrator, his video camera and the audience.  Her moments of intimacy and solidarity with “Natsumi” provide further opportunities for voyeurism.  “Natsumi,” a prototypic “Final Girl,” is later herself subdued, rendered helpless and humiliated.  Indestructible males wage the real battle to destroy or save “Kyoko.”  To suggest that such portrayals of helplessness, despite effort and heroism, might convey disdain for – if not hatred of – women, in no way diminishes Yoko Natsuki’s acting performance which is committed and intense.  In brief, the problem with such films is less the immediate (but more obvious) exploitation devices of scene and plot, and more the ultimate purposes to which they are put.  “Kyoko Mizuki” invites identification as a heroic protagonist, so her failure and humiliation represent ultimate narrative betrayals.
Other problems in female action films are subtler and perhaps therefore more insidious.  Notable Asian female action performer Michelle Yeoh stars in (and produced) Jingle Ma’s “Silver Hawk” (2004), a film that makes a series of choices that cumulatively align its narrative with conventional patriarchal authority.  Like “Wing Chun” (1994) – to which it bears considerable narrative similarities – it is an effortless fantasy of empowerment displaced from the present time.  Again, like “Wing Chun,” its protagonist “Lulu Wong” (Michelle Yeoh) is disguised by costume and engages in stylized, gravity-defying wuxia.  The airily bloodless combat of “Silver Hawk’s” fantasy action doesn’t generate visceral engagement.  Indeed, the character of “Silver Hawk” is noteworthy for not taking lives.  When the film’s villain “Alexander Wolfe” (Luke Goss) identifies her compassion as her “weakness,” this suggests an unspoken verdict.
Although superficially a rival to traditional law enforcement, “Silver Hawk” is fabulously wealthy and is clearly aligned with established authority.  Her crime fighting within the film text protects national and corporate interests.  The device of “doubling” her character allows maintenance of “proper place” by “Lulu Wong.”  After stereotypic swagger and posing, her childhood friend and protector “A-Ren the Rich Man” (Richie Ren) – now a police inspector – not only discovers her identity (i.e., “unmasks” her) but also spares her from arrest and then joins her in a professional and perhaps personal relationship.  Her character’s unlimited wealth and powers ultimately prove no match for the male civil servant!  This illustrates precisely the ways in which female action films give back the power and authority their characters have, at first glace, acquired.
Of course in other instances, such as the Korean police procedural “Tube” (2003), there is no pretence of sharing power with women at all.  Here, the principal female character “Kay” (Doo-na Bae) is relegated to witnessing and admiring the self-sacrifice of a male detective as her repeated advances are ignored or brushed aside in the cause of duty.
A common theme in the above examples is that their female characters simply cannot overcome the odds against them.  This is how powerlessness is ultimately re-affirmed by such film texts.  It is by explicit contrast to this standard that other titles were selected for review in this essay.  Although admittedly low-genre films, their striking affirmation of personal power and rejection of subjugation by patriarchal forces are neither typical nor necessary constituents of action plots.  As such, they represent oppositional narratives that entertain while ultimately inverting – and perhaps subverting – action stereotypes.