Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Non-Narrative Elements

“Killing blooms into a work of art”
(“Pistol Opera”)


Film theory maintains that costuming and narrative situations primarily construct gender.  Costume is conceived as an important site of visual pleasure conveying meaning or emotional effects.  Recurring patterns of images in settings and costuming provide familiar visual references that serve as a code to distinguish genres.  In additional to traditional narrative plot structures, conventional modes of visual representation in costuming have frequently served to undermine or limit the power and effectiveness of women in film.  In action films women are seldom positioned to drive the narrative.  Conventions of costume help define role and power allocation, while women have frequently also been made the subject of the male gaze by conventions of costume.  Costume, particularly for women in film, is therefore an immediately visually salient representation of role, authority and corresponding power.

From Ryoko Yonekura’s boots and leathers (“Gun Crazy”) to Shu Qi’s glacial runway-chic pantsuit (“So Close”), it is evident that these 18 films employ costume as an active representation of personal power.  Most (“Enter The Eagles,” “Portland Street Blues,” “So Close,” “Wild Criminal,” “Score 2,” “Princess Blade,” “Gun Crazy,” “Yellow Hair 2,” “No Blood No Tears, ” “H,” “My Wife Is A Gangster 2,”) attire their female protagonists in androgynous, practical clothing – especially during active combat.  “Tsu-Tsu” (“My Wife Is A Gangster 2”) is positively slovenly in permanently tousled hair and grubby sneakers.  The relatively nondescript conventional attire of the female protagonists of  “Intruder” “Nude Fear,” “Tell Me Something,” “Fulltime Killer” and  “Black Angel,” focuses attention on character rather than appearance, and magnifies the emotional impact of the character’s actions or experiences against their visual ordinariness.  Costuming is occasionally exaggerated for deliberate effect as in the high heels of “So Close,” the “trashy” style of gangsters’ girlfriends in “No Blood No Tears” and “My Wife Is A Gangster 2,” while “Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl” and “Pistol Opera” contain surreal violations of conventional attire (e.g., galoshes with a dress or boots with a kimono).

Musical Score

Of all the cinematic elements, music is the one routinely underutilized in Asian action film.  Many of the films reviewed in this essay are, however, distinguished by memorable opening or closing themes or scores.  The theme song of the original “Lady Snowblood” (‘Shura no Hana’ – ‘The Flower of Hell’) sung by Meiko Kaji was both beautiful and an efficiently eloquent presentation of “Yuki’s” dilemma.  “Princess Blade,” a re-make of “Snowblood,” scored by Kenji Kawai, is set in the near future and closes with an incongruously bouncy J-pop number that ices the cake on the film’s collision of sentiment and mayhem.  This, too, seems apposite within the film’s postmodern approach, as does the “Eastern Western” theme of “Gun Crazy” so reminiscent of the Sergio Leone films.

Of the HK titles reviewed here, “Fulltime Killer” also features a particularly memorable vocal theme.  The original score by Guy Zerafa adds to the intercultural appeal of a film that cheerfully co-mingles four separate languages.  Music is also used to establish the emotional tone of crucial scenes.  When “O” (Takashi Sorimachi) remembers now-dead “Nancy,” the country music becomes her theme – and later evokes recollection of her fate whenever it is played.  The eerily improved cover of ‘Close To You’ in “So Close” forms a seductive unspoken invitation from “Sue” (Zhao Wai) to “Hong” (Karen Mok) as well as evoking images of “Lynn” (Shu Qi).  The initial passion of lovemaking in “Nude Fear” is turned appropriately sinister by a grating, off-key musical accompaniment that gradually subverts the more typical lyrical style of love scenes – as befits the presence of a serial murderer in one’s bed.  “Portland Street Blues” contextualizes the sacrificial act of “Scarface” (Shu Qi) – a turning point in its narrative – with a sadly elegiac love song.
Korean films appear to make wider use of commercial music.  “Tell Me Something” provides a wordless exposition on the horror of abuses – both past and current – in which specific musical genres ranging from Enya to classical signify the state of mind of the protagonist and perpetrator.  The B-52s’ ‘Planet Claire’ energizes a jump-cut car chase in “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl,” while ‘Ave Maria’ provides ironic commentary on random killings perpetrated by the “Match Girl” (Eun-kyeong Lim) that themselves have a political subtext.  The original songs of “Yellow Hair 2” illuminate the hypocrisy of prejudice.  The transsexual “J” (Ri-soo Ha) can publicly entrance audiences as a lounge singer, but is savagely repudiated and persecuted in her private relations.


In cinematic terms, montage refers to contiguity editing of scenes in such a manner that emotional response to one or both elements is heightened.  The lovemaking scene between “Chin” and “Tok” in “Fulltime Killer” is edited with alternating scenes of “O” preparing “Nancy” for burial.  With a musical score resembling a metronome, warm bright lights and the passion of lovemaking contrast with dark blue shadows and preparation of the dead.  This disturbing montage of primal scenes of life and death is quite effective in deflecting any viewer identification with “Tok” or “O” at that point in the narrative.  Sudden images of past victims (“Nude Fear”) or past suffering (“Gun Crazy,” “Wild Criminal,” “Tell Me Something”) evoke pain and invite sympathetic identification.  “Wild Criminal” also uses montage to progress from one symbolic scene (an assault) to another (a shower) – both of which might separately invite a sadistic gaze.  Yet since their contiguity clearly directs attention to the pain of violence and undoing by cleansing, opportunities for scopophilic fetishism are neutralized.  Use of montage forces the viewer to confront both the act and victim from the perspective of the experiencing person “Yuki” (Miho Nomoto), rather than viewing her as an object.  Brief images of the killer’s fantasy drawings in “Nude Fear” provide a chilling counterpoint to otherwise routine interactions with a released kidnap victim.  Painful, avoided memories re-emerge as scenes juxtaposed with current action in “Black Angel,” “Yellow Hair 2” and “H.”

Slow Motion

HK cinema did not invent slow motion but made it its own.  By slowing the rate of presentation of narrative elements, the audience is allowed to develop maximal emotional response.  Primal life and death moments are slowed and extended in this manner in “Portland Street Blues,” “Nude Fear” and “Fulltime Killer.”  The latter film, in particular, involves elements of “bullet ballet” that are distinctive to HK action film.  Elements of slow motion are perhaps used with less frequency in Japanese and Korean action films, but are clearly present in “Gun Crazy” as “Saki” (Ryoko Yonekura) repeatedly blasts her way through the opposition with a pair of 9 mm automatics, and during fight sequences of “Princess Blade,” “No Blood No Tears,” and “Yellow Hair 2.”  “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” repeatedly plays with time by speeding and slowing action in knowing parody, further associating its narrative with the limitless possibilities of video gaming.  “Black Angel,” “Wild Criminal” and “Score 2” use extreme slow motion to heighten attention and allow emotional response to build during the approach of avenging women.  From the perspective of the offender, so to speak, the audience is given additional time to contemplate the awful fate that imminently awaits at the hands of the advancing agent of revenge.  It may be noteworthy that this appears most typically characteristic of Japanese titles – to which could be added the extended final standoff of “Gun Crazy.”  Slow motion is used in “Portland Street Blues” and “So Close” to emphasis moments of emotional intimacy.


Surrealist cinema seeks striking arrangements of objects or images to create momentarily heightened aesthetic impact.  Although largely abandoned by classical Hollywood, surrealist elements have begun to return to Western action cinema in the form of what Ann Marie Seward Barry has termed the “New Violence,” an aesthetically appealing juxtaposition of beautiful imagery and barbaric content.  From a Western viewing perspective, Japanese cinema should provide ample opportunities for such imagery, given Japanese cultural emphasis on the ephemeral nature of beauty, the “ah-ness” of a fleeting image or moment.  Such elements were abundantly present in “Lady Snowblood,” from “Yuki’s” umbrella filmed from above, her sun-drenched walk beside the ocean, to the bamboo Chikufujin dolls tumbling into the water.  Other images are darker.  Yuki’s otherworldly austerity when staring at “Banzo” in a bar, her grim blood-spattered face when contemplating the body of “Kitahama Okono,” her own blood in the snow, all involve the juxtaposition of evocative elements – particularly the white of purity and red of sincerity.

Among the current films reviewed here, in “Nude Fear” Kathy Chow’s detective “Joyce” is filmed from behind while eating a meal, framed by wall of photographs of murder victims – a static montage of the mundane and the horrifying.  The water cascades from another “Yuki’s” hair during a shower in “Wild Criminal.”  Instead of gazing at Miho Nomoto’s beautiful body, however, the viewer is directed to contemplate the resolve captured in her immobile stance.  Her posture and very absence of motion heighten attention to the flow of water, thereby denying the viewer erotic spectatorial possibilities.  She too is later seen framed by the ocean, whose metaphoric significance seems particularly pronounced in certain Japanese films.  The rapidly changing images of “Fulltime Killer” associate the ordinary with unusual significance.  A message posted on a board, a crumpled sheet of paper, a woman gazing from a window all have current significance within the narrative because of prior events and the way foreshadowing is employed.  The resulting images linger.  “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” presents a virtual kaleidoscope of imagery, balancing its narrative at any moment on the edge of real and artificial worlds.
“Pistol Opera” is an intensely visual, non-narrative film that could be viewed as a contemporary instance of surrealist cinema.  Borrowing from the staging conventions both of classical Japanese theater and B-movies, “Pistol Opera” presents a rich feast of unusual images and finely nuanced gestures.  It invites distinctly political reading possibilities as characters wrap themselves in the flag of Western powers or battle to the death in the setting of a sadomasochistic freak show whose centerpiece is an image of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima.  The austere physical beauty and traditional garb of “Stray Cat” (Makiko Esumi) are complemented by her modern boots in an embodiment of her symbolic role as a multi-layered challenge to the traditional order.