Beautiful Blood on Your
Successors to GWG
Hong Kong Titles: Love and
“I don’t quite understand women’s hearts”
(Sandra Ng, “Portland Street Blues”)
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
“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.