Beautiful Blood on Your
Successors to GWG
Near Misses: Playing by Patriarchal
“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
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
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
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
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.