Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Hong Kong Titles: Love and Life

“I don’t quite understand women’s hearts”
(Sandra Ng, “Portland Street Blues”)

“Intruder” (1997).  The gender conventions of crime and horror genres are inverted as Wu Chien-lien brings a subtle and restrained performance to the role of a female home invader and serial killer who systematically destroys those close to her principal male victim.  The narrative unsettles by implying the victim may have partly invited his own destruction, in concert with the chillingly rational calculus driving the killer’s actions.

“Enter the Eagles” (1998).  This Corey Yuen stepping-stone toward “So Close” pairs the martial arts virtuosity of Shannon Lee with Anita Yuen’s lowbrow humor to yield an action comedy with moments of real warmth.  Lee and Yuen form an unlikely pair of opposites caught up in a jewel heist gone awry.  Their bond is strengthened by adversity and loss, culminating in a classic bullets and martial arts climax buttressed by Lee’s genuine skill – one of the last of the genre.

“Nude Fear” (1998).  Kathy Chow’s intense, driven police investigator engages viewer identification as she simultaneously pursues a serial killer and confronts routine sexual harassment from her police colleagues and superiors.  Both the hideous extremes of the serial killer and mundane sexism of the police are traced to the same patriarchal sources.  Chow’s detective destroys them all.

“Portland Street Blues” (1998).  Sandra Ng delivers a compelling performance as a bisexual young woman struggling to forge an identity and find love in the intensely patriarchal environment of the triads.  In addition to its dramatic merit, the film thoughtfully examines the ambiguous links between power, autonomy, intimacy and gender.  Although ultimately betrayed by its double ending, “Portland Street” is a film that attempts to confront the problems of intimacy posed by gender role.

“Fulltime Killer” (2001).  Conventionally regarded as a vehicle for Andy Lau, the plot of “Fulltime Killer” turns on the competition between his character and a rival Japanese assassin for the coveted “Number 1” slot.  When not competing directly as assassins, these two character opposites also vie for the affection of a female video store clerk turned housekeeper, played by Kelly Lin.  However, this seemingly conventional masculine saga of competition and redemption is completely up-ended when Lin’s mild-mannered young woman steps out of a doorway with an automatic rifle.  The entire narrative ultimately turns out to have been driven by her.

“So Close” (2002).  Perhaps the jewel in the GWG crown, “So Close” combines the generic conventions of female assassin and policewoman films in a sensual mix of starkly elegant visual imagery and attraction.  Shu Qi and Zhao Wei play off each other as sisters whose career as cheerful contract assassins is interrupted by both an ex-boyfriend and Karen Mok as the relentless police investigator in pursuit.  This film drips symbolism as it voyeuristically peers into private spaces, sensualizes the police action genre with the subversive subtext generally found in assassin films, and suggests the sublimation of sexuality into action and pursuit.

One index of the slippage from pre-eminence of HK action films is that only six worthwhile titles foregrounding female performers could be identified from post-1997 productions using the screening criteria, and only two of these were released since 2000.  Two films, “Enter the Eagles” and “So Close” were directed by Corey Yuen.  “Enter the Eagles,” with its climactic confrontation between Shannon Lee and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, may be one of the last in a distinguished line of plausibly “realistic” kung fu action films to place greater emphasis on physical skill than special effects.  Martial arts appear to have recently been supplanted by martial effects – of which “So Close” is the best to date.  Other strong action parts for women in recent HK film include Sandra Ng teamed with Shu Qi and Kristy Yeung in the “Young and Dangerous” triad spin-off “Portland Street Blues,” as well as an important supporting role for Kelly Lin as the focus of a lethal romantic triangle in Johnnie To’s assassin film “Fulltime Killer.”  The venerable HK policewoman drama receives one final polish – and possibly its best characterization – in “Nude Fear” where Kathy Chow’s dedicated public servant becomes a killer’s target – and eventually the agent of an intensely personal agenda.  From the opposite side of the law, yet another HK sub-genre perhaps finds its ultimate expression in “Intruder.”  Wu Chien-lien brings compassionless insouciance to a profoundly disturbing, violent role.
Several of these HK titles (“Portland Street Blues,” “Enter the Eagles,” “So Close”) establish relationship interest and character development across two or even three female protagonists.  By contrast, many of the Japanese and Korean films considered here tend toward a more individual focus.  HK genre GWG films have tended to re-frame a variety of relatively traditional action conventions by the device of changed gender.  Law enforcement and crime or “muscle” dramas are akin to their male-gendered action counterparts.  Female vengeance dramas are distinctively gendered, but closely resemble comparable Western genre films.  HK cinema’s embrace of the genre film combines formulaic refinement with what David Bordwell has referred to as the art of entertainment.  Perhaps more than any other national cinema, the HK film industry has, until comparatively recently, extended its action roles to embrace female performers.
The six HK films considered here perhaps represent some of the crowning achievements of various action sub-genres.  All are also strong relationship dramas, but involve notably atypical affections.  These include voyeuristic passion and the allure of outrageous acts (“Fulltime Killer,” “So Close”), blind loyalty (“Intruder”), bisexual attraction (“Portland Street Blues”), the loss of family and lover (“So Close”), lesbian attraction (“So Close”), lust murder and stalking (“Nude Fear”).  The characters of the unusual, autonomous women foregrounded in these films stimulate equally unusual, intense interests within their narratives.
The relative absence of conventional, male-centered relationship interests helps define the ideological address of these films.  More typical action narratives frequently incorporate women as objects of male courtship or sexual gratification, or, less commonly, as spouses or mothers.  Female roles that eschew sexuality such as Shannon Lee’s in “Enter The Eagles” may avoid recuperative patriarchal narrative themes, but also do not affirm the sexuality of the protagonists.  The films reviewed here mostly do affirm the sexuality of their central female characters, but predominantly do so in ways that do not define femininity by reference to patriarchal agendas.
Kathy Chow’s detective in “Nude Fear” hesitates momentarily before inviting the married man her character desires into her apartment.  But it is still clearly her character’s choice.  Wu Chien-lien’s serial killer could simply walk away from her mutilated, absent husband – but does not.   Kelly Lin’s character “Chin” in “Fulltime Killer” initially describes herself as “just an ordinary girl” yet subverts the familiar generic norms of a “rival assassin” narrative by revealing a calculated desire to seek excitement in her life by bonding with an assassin – a form of deviance.  “So Close” virtually fetishizes scopophilic pleasure – becoming an ode to voyeurism in its emphasis on cameras and surveillance.  This allows the audience to intently peer into the genesis of two relationships.  One, between Shu Qi’s assassin character “Lynn” and an ex-boyfriend, prompts a move to retire from the killing business, followed by death.  The other, a surveillance-mediated flirtation between Zhao Wei’s assassin character “Sue” and Karen Mok’s police investigator “Hong,” brings life and liberation.  At the point of bonding, the two women each renounce their erstwhile professional allegiances to find common cause as well as possible romantic interest.  The contrast of women surrendering their career autonomy in favor of a relationship with a man or with another woman could not be more pronounced – and does not appear to have been as explicitly juxtaposed in another HK title.  A close parallel might be the resolution of the Japanese film “Sugar Sweet” (2001) directed by Desiree Lim in which “Miki” (C Snatch Z) resigns her position as an high-powered executive working for a male boss rather than become a “zombie.”  Such endings clearly pose an ideological question, however superficial the narrative.
“Portland Street Blues” presents a comparable critique within a different narrative.  Sandra Ng’s bisexual character “Thirteen” falls for Alex Fong’s muscular but inarticulate character “Coke.”  In an ironic turn, she also surrenders relationship possibilities with “Yun” (Kristy Yeung) while gaining hard-won power as a triad boss.  “Mandy” (Shannon Lee) also represents a distinctively ambiguous figure in “Enter the Eagles.”  After quickly dispelling doubts about her physical prowess, much of the film is spent establishing an antagonistic bond of opposites with Anita Yuen’s irritating petty thief “Lucy.”  Each loses their male partner – “Mandy” her brother-in-law (Michael Wong) and “Lucy” her lover (Jordan Chan).  Over the course of five notable female action films across two decades – “Yes, Madam!” “She Shoots Straight,” “Women on the Run,” “Enter the Eagles” and “So Close” – Corey Yuen appears to have refined a relationship formula grounded on ambivalence.
With the exception of “Nude Fear,” the six HK titles considered in this review prominently employ the device of a “double ending” – involving elements of both narrative closure and the implied beginning of a completely new life superimposed on the ending.  “Chin” and “O” drive away together at the end of “Fulltime Killer,” “Yan” walks away with her husband at the close of “Intruder,” “So Close’s” “Hong” and “Sue” establish a tenuous bond, “Lucy” and “Mandy” form a partnership at the end of “Enter the Eagles,” and “Thirteen” pairs off with her business partner in the final scene of “Portland Street Blues.”  The double ending appears in numerous HK action and drama titles, and manifests the fantastic wish-fulfillment aspect of action film – and, by extension, patriarchal male-centered narratives.  Their traditional narrative resolutions restore the patriarchal order.  The second ending (in which the male protagonist typically gains the woman he desires) typically signifies the next cycle of the newly re-established patriarchal order.    But in the female actioner, the second ending may involve very different developments such as the woman getting the man (“Fulltime Killer”), getting the woman (“So Close”), or getting a female partner in future crime (“Enter the Eagles”).  Such endings offer conspicuously optimistic alternatives to traditional patriarchal resolutions.  If the form of the emerging relationships seems atypical, this is only by reference to the generally conservative norms of the action genre in general.  They may be less unusual when considered in the context of what Karen Hollinger has termed female friendship films, further illustrating the artificial limits placed on relationship possibilities for women by the usual genre conventions of action film.