Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Finding Worthy Successors: Looking for Ms. Wrong

“I’ve waited for this moment for fifteen years”
 (Ryoko Yonekura, “Gun Crazy”)

The present task of identifying a core group of worthy contemporary female action dramas was guided by several principles.  Titles were limited to those available in DVD format produced since 1997 that foreground credible female action performers in contemporary narratives emphasizing autonomy and effective use of power.  These criteria guided selection of an inclusive but surprisingly brief list of 18 films – six from each national cinema.  Although selected opportunistically, grouping by national origin also suggested several possible underlying generalizations.  These are further described below, together with aspects of the narrative and technical features that distinguish these films.

Fan writing, particularly concerning genre films, often includes lists and recommendations.  While such lists can inform and stimulate, there may be little agreement between different reviewers, and the potential viewer is offered little indication whether his or her spectatorial experience will match the rater’s.  This problem largely stems from failure to apply genre analysis or comparable organizing principles, and failure to operationalize the basis for ratings.  The latter can be narrowed by describing the general “reading strategy” of the reviewer, then identifying the features within each film text that make that strategy possible.  In this manner, potential viewers can determine their extent of alignment with the stated reading strategy.
By way of illustration, knowing that a particular reviewer assigns a given rating to a film or describes the performance of an actor favorably does not guarantee spectatorial engagement and emotional responding by another viewer.  For everyone who “likes” a particular film there may be another who does not.  The assigned rating fails to discriminate precisely because it seemingly locates the rated attributes in the film text itself rather than primarily in the interaction (“negotiation”) between text and viewer.  Questions about the merits of a particular film may dissolve in endless subjectivity until perhaps re-framed as a contingency – if the viewer enjoys (prior experience) this type of film (genre) emphasizing the specified themes (narrative elements), a positive viewing experience is likely (predicted positive viewer response).  By borrowing the language of cultural studies and viewer response theories, we can view this as the conditional proposition that specification of a general spectatorial position relative to a known genre assists prediction of the film’s likely reception.  If the film’s narrative and textual structure favors this reading strategy at multiple points, a positive viewing experience for viewers aligned with this perspective may be predicted.  It may even be possible to pick out the specific moments within the textual flow that favor (or do not favor) the specified reading.
It may also be possible to review the same text from the perspective of an alternative or subversive reading strategy, noting the extent to which isolated moments offer the possibility of disrupting or destabilizing the dominant ideology (as, for instance, in the “identity politics” of feminist, queer or ethnic readings of film texts).  Western viewers of Asian film may to some extent already engage in alternative reading strategies aligned with the suggestions of Third Cinema theorists.  This viewing experience is likely to be impelled by diverse motives and interests, and Asian cinema obliges its increasingly global audience by offering a diverse array of genre films favoring just about every reading possibility.
This review of selected contemporary Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean female action films proceeds first by reference to a particular viewing strategy, then considers the narrative and textual devices by which these films facilitate that particular strategy.  In essence, this review seeks to delineate a specific spectatorial ideology, then identify film texts whose reading is easily negotiated in accordance with that specific ideological perspective.  Preference, described in this manner, cannot be located either within the text or spectator – but is constructed by the act of viewing.
Many of the action film products of East Asian cinema present their depiction of women and female roles as an ideological problematic.  This is most marked in exploitation genres, but is also evident in more general questions concerning violence toward women and, more intriguingly, violence by women.  Given the sheer volume of films featuring action roles for women in Asian cinema, it is necessary to refer to entire genres or sub-genres rather than isolated film texts as in comparable studies of Western films.  It can be argued that there may be considerable overlap between progressive, recuperative and patriarchal ideological implications and specific sub-genres of Asian female action films, just as for Western genre analysis.  In this essay an attempt is made to identify a group of Asian action film texts that facilitate progressive, non-recuperative readings that may merit repeated viewing by ideologically aligned viewers.  Suggestions are offered concerning how specific narrative and textual features in these films privilege female characters as “bearers of the gaze” whose actions also shape the narrative conclusion.
In action films, conventions of individualistic, competitive masculinity provide a framework in which the dominant ideology appears “natural.”  The technology, cars and guns that are typically prominent in action films may themselves serve as symbolic attributes of maleness and its culturally delegated rights and powers.  In this ideological context, masculinity is also associated with obligations of duty and service.  However, this dominant ideological construction is challenged when such generic features are appropriated by female characters.