Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Unrepentant Opposition

“You evil creep!  You bastard!  I will kill you if I have a chance”
(Kathy Chow, “Nude Fear”)

Unlike the traditional male action hero, women’s exercise of power and autonomy in these titles is frequently associated with criminality – but without stigmatizing the protagonists.  There appears to be an implication that in order to act effectively as an individual in the service of justifiable causes, it may be necessary to act in opposition to prevailing norms.  Since such causes frequently involve the opportunity to acquire power, participate in unconventional relationships or have the satisfaction of effectively punishing the perpetrators of great abuse, many of these female action films offer potential political subtexts along with readings of their surface narratives.

The figure of the unregenerate criminal may be the most subversive of all, due to her explicit opposition to fundamental norms of patriarchal power.  Many female action films potentially neutralize this subversive figure by romance – either as a resolution or as a backstory.  It is only the occasional title that does not recuperate or implicitly privilege male agency in some way.
Two HK films directed by Corey Yuen are illustrative.  Despite ample well-choreographed action sequences for both Joyce Godenzi and Carina Lau in the police drama “She Shoots Straight” (1990), both female characters’ aggression is impelled either by professional duty or vengeance.  In both instances this is exercised at the behest or on behalf of Tony Leung’s character.  His relationship with all the principal female figures in the film – as their police supervisor, husband, brother or son – clearly establishes and circumscribes their roles.  When they act, it is by virtue of their relationship to him.  By contrast, a later Corey Yuen title, “So Close” (2002), introduced and then marginalized a tepid romantic interest for Shu Qi’s character, but otherwise unleashed her, and those played by Vicky Zhao Wei and Karen Mok Man Wei, in a ferocious three-way contest for power, autonomy and vengeance to which males are strictly incidental subordinates or targets.  Although the climax of both films necessitates that pairs of female rivals collaborate in defeating mortal foes, in the decade between these titles the culture has advanced.  Whereas the police officers played by Godenzi and Lau operate (barely) within the law to apprehend criminals, the assassin and arrested cop played by Zhao and Mok operate outside it to destroy their enemies, forge an unexpected bond of intimacy and surmount their greatest personal constraints.  This represents a triumph for the women’s relationship film, with no surrender or compromise at the end.
The variable of latency – the delay between experienced loss or harm and retaliation – is perhaps a relevant factor in determining whether recuperation of patriarchal conventions is likely.  As a generic convention, immediate retaliation for proximal harm appears generally excusable.  Thus the retaliation of Pauline Wong’s assault victim character in “Her Vengeance” (1988) or of Michelle Yeoh’s policewoman avenging her murdered colleagues in “Royal Warriors” (1986) is presented as natural.   However, other titles addressing long-delayed or generalized retaliation for abuse (e.g., “Daughter of Darkness,” 1993; “Trilogy of Lust II,” 1996) often destroy their protagonists by means of male counter-aggression.  This may take the form of official sanction – as in the judicial execution of Lily Chung’s character – or gendered violence – as in the murder of Julie Lee’s.  Such conservative resolutions tend to vitiate the social criticism these narratives might otherwise suggest.  However gratuitous their content, the issues of abuse so bluntly raised demand justice.  But when female characters dispense this, they are often eventually destroyed.  Their vengeance does not, ultimately, destabilize the prevailing order.
One noteworthy exception, of course, is the classic Japanese vengeance film “Lady Snowblood”  (“Shurayukihime,” 1973). In dispensing what might be termed “intergenerational” vengeance on behalf of her family who died before she was even conceived, “Yuki” (Meiko Kaji) is killing people who do not even know her.  “Yuki’s” role is conceived as both destabilizing and explicitly political.  She becomes aligned with radical, anarchist politics of the day – especially in the sequel “Love Song of Vengeance” (“Urami Renga,”1974) – and contributes directly to the overthrow of architects of the contemporary ruling power structure.  Part of the enduring fascination of "Snowblood” is “Yuki Kashima’s” steely adherence to the norms of polite outer behavior.  Her seeming gentleness and normalcy are both deceptive and subversive.  A truly oppositional figure who, after all, exists only to kill, “Kashima” nonetheless seems far from being crazed or uncontrolled.  Indeed, she is the essence of poise and self-control – whether mingling in society or supplicating for the life of a man she wants to kill in person. Her outrageous conduct therefore cannot be excused or dismissed as the product of derangement – with its corresponding patriarchal implication that alienation from the prevailing order caused by adversity so isolates and damages the individual that she must be neutralized or destroyed.  Thirty years on, “Snowblood” has not been bettered.
The legacy of “Snowblood” is prominent in the Japanese films reviewed here.  Implacable avengers are named “Yuki” (“Snow”) in two of them – Miho Nomoto’s character in “Wild Criminal” (1999) and Yumiko Shaku’s reprise of “Shurayukihime” in “Princess Blade” (2001).  In other instances (“Black Angel,” 1998;  “Gun Crazy,” 2002), female characters return to exact vengeance as adults for losses suffered when they were children.  Once satiated by the demise of their foes, the avenger’s wrath collapses.  This testament to the power of duty as a debt owed and paid indirectly affirms significant Japanese cultural traditions.
The ideological address of Korean films appears more distinctively personal.  Immediate escape from suffocating controls or outright abuse seems prominent in titles such as “Yellow Hair 2” (2001), “No Blood No Tears” (2002) or “My Wife Is A Gangster 2” (2003).  “H:  Murmurs” (2002) and “Tell Me Something” (1999) place women on opposite sides of the ultimate patriarchal divide separating law enforcement from the perpetrator in crime drama.  Issues of sexual victimization and gender violence are quite graphically addressed.  Collectively, these films may be read as implicating a system of values and cultural norms in which violence is but one extremity of a dimension of repressive control.  In numerous instances women are depicted as coerced, abused or even killed ultimately because of their gender.  This violence is visited on children (“Tell Me Something”), both single and conventionally partnered women (“No Blood No Tears”), as attacks on female reproductive status or sexual preference (“H:  Murmurs”), or expressed in attempted occupational and sexual exploitation of a vulnerable stranger (“My Wife Is A Gangster 2”).  Exploitation and discrimination can be experienced at the hands of even trusted individuals (“Yellow Hair 2”).  The acts of retaliation in these films rightly do not place their perpetrators beyond personal redemption and harmony – thereby preserving the force of their social critique.
For the viewer seeking opportunities to challenge patriarchal assumptions or stereotypes and wishing negotiation of non-dominant ideological constructions of female roles in Asian contemporary action films, the following texts are highlighted.  Few – perhaps none – would be conventionally regarded as explicitly feminist, and most are aligned at some points with patriarchal assumptions.  However, they are selected because they offer numerous opportunities for alternative reading possibilities that may illuminate the negative aspects of patriarchal power to such an extent that identification with the latter is made exceedingly difficult.  Although the primary focus is on films that appropriate and invert action genre conventions and ultimately challenge the patriarchal order, consideration is also given to their technical aspects that may heighten or otherwise manipulate the emotional response and engagement of viewers.