“Black Cat” (1991)

(D & B Films Co.; Dir. Stephen Shin Kei-yin)

A fine acting performance by Jade Leung elevates this relatively routine re-make of “La Femme Nikita” into a worthy action drama.  Leung not only carries the movie, but did so without significant prior film experience.  Unlike many of her later parts in which her characters have tended to be one-dimensional, here she loves, loses, gets emotional, expresses anger and veers between hope and despair.  Her opening scenes, as a rather grimy, violent, desperate individual who lashes out at her tormentors, are especially impressive.  The rest of the film also includes some memorable operational sequences, as well as a convincing romance.  In short, Leung opened her film career on a high dramatic note that would not be repeated.

Briefly, the plot concerns a secret government agency that arranges for the shooting and abduction of a young woman (Jade Leung) who is deemed a worthy candidate for training as an assassin.  She is physically revived with a computer chip implanted in her brain to ensure compliance, if needed – although this features very little in the plot.  Brought to a high pitch of operational readiness by her trainer and controller (Simon Yam) – who seems to have more than just a professional interest in his pupil – the agent is released into the community and returns to HK to await activation.  There she meets a wildlife conservationist with whom she forms a relationship that brings temporary happiness until she is ordered on a mission to Japan.  This finally exposes her secret role to her lover, placing his life in immediate jeopardy.  She is ultimately faced with a seemingly impossible choice to which she responds with violent decisiveness.
The action scenes are competent rather than spectacular, and the high point may be a rather bizarre training assignment in which Leung’s newly operational agent is assigned to attack a wedding party that is protected by heavily armed bodyguards.

“Bury Me High” (1991)

(Golden Harvest/Bo Ho Films/Tsui Siu Ming/Paragon Films; Dir. Tsui Siu-ming)

Yuen Wah plays a rebellious military commander who usurps power in a fictional, rural Asian state.  A believer in feng shui, he rapidly displays megalomania and diverts his nation’s meager natural resources in an effort to create a world power.  Leaving aside questions of political allegory, the film presents military action on a scale seldom seen in Asian cinema.  There is even combat involving a platoon of tanks.  Yuen Wah is marvelous as the utterly ruthless dictator whose callous actions eventually alienate even his own sister (Sibelle Hu).  Together with a visiting American business tycoon (Moon Lee), she joins the rebel forces.  The climax is a full-scale pitched battle, culminating in a series of one-on-one martial arts contests.

Perhaps because she is directed here by her sifu, the emphasis of Lee’s part is primarily action rather than character.  Nevertheless, there are some unusual moments as when she continues to do business with the dictator after witnessing a mass execution – seemingly unperturbed.  Both the scale of the action and unusual theme of feng shui make this required viewing.

“Crystal Hunt” (1991)

(Cheung Yau Production Co.; Dir. Tsui Pak-lam)

This is a film that improves with repeated viewing, encouraging appreciation of the martial arts excellence on display.  Donnie Yen and Ken Lo are physically captivating, and – if one can get past the over-acting – so are Michael Woods and John Salvitti.  This film also provides a lot of screen time for Nadeki Fujimi who co-stars with Donnie Yen.  Her martial arts and action sequences are also impressive.  Fujimi’s jumping kicks seem to be a particular talent, even though her principal style does not appear to emphasize these.  With Sibelle Hu and Carrie Ng added to the mix – Ng in one of her most physically combative roles as well as looking every inch the ultimate femme fatale – the results are entertaining.

Ng’s character “Lisa” is informed that her father has a rare ailment that only a mysterious magic crystal hidden in the Thai mountains can cure.  With Ken Lo as her right-hand man, she coerces Professor Lau to orchestrate a search for the crystal.  When he is kidnapped by a gang that also seeks the crystal, his daughter “Winnie” (Nadeki Fujimi) becomes alarmed.  She joins forces with her former boyfriend and former police officer “Leung” (Donnie Yen) and his colleague “Madam Wu” (Sibelle Hu) to find her father.  When their confrontation with the gang proves nearly fatal, the trio is rescued by Lisa and her bodyguard.  At gunpoint they take over the search for Professor Lau, and form an expedition to find the forbidden cave where the crystal is located.  This leads to a running confrontation with the gang headed by the characters of Salvitti and Woods – a confrontation involving firearms, an exploding model aircraft, and excellent martial arts.  Watch particularly for Fujimi’s final kick!
Although the plot and characters lack subtlety, the film delivers what it sets out to – ample action.  Ng cuts some striking poses and expressions, as well as mixing it up with the martial artists.  She also has a marvelous scene staring at Ken Lo working out.  Nadeki Fujimi – who merits wider recognition – does not display any particular range of characterization, but nevertheless plays her role to the hilt.  She’s at her best in the fight sequences that are fortunately plentiful.  Fujimi seems to favor military-style clothing, and has evolved a quite distinctive look in her action parts.  Here she’s seen in a wider variety of costuming than usual, with some good close-up camera work.  Hu also performs competently.

“Dreaming the Reality” (1991)

(T & M International Film Co.; Dir. Wong Chun-yeung)

This underrated film features strong acting by Sibelle Hu and Moon Lee, as well as some structural similarities to “Angel III.”  At issue are the kickboxing sequences that are described in some reviews as filler material.  If the film is viewed solely as a Moon Lee/Yukari Oshima vehicle, then they are distracting.  But if the relationship of aspiring muay Thai boxer “Rocky” (Ben Lam) and Bangkok bar owner “Lan” (Sibelle Hu) is seen as pivotal, the focus of appreciation may shift accordingly.  From this perspective, the audience is kept in deliberate deprivation for Lee and Oshima – being afforded glimpses of martial prowess, costumed posturing, the studied ambiguity of “Silver Fox’s” wistful glances at other couples, or brief dream imagery of Oshima in a Thai policeman’s (male officer’s) uniform.  Oshima’s character casually poses and postures in the presence of executions, but is rattled by Silver Fox’s defection.  The little necklace – dismissed by Sibelle Hu’s “Lan” as so cheap – eventually adorns a grave.  These seemingly disconnected pieces are too numerous and salient to be coincidental, yet are never explicitly joined or assembled.  Scattered throughout the film, they pull at the level of background awareness.

The core narrative concerns an ex-HK cop “Lan” who runs a bar while struggling with her gambling and drinking habits.  When she fails to prevent Ben Lam’s character “Rocky” from signing on as a contract boxer, she attempts to have his contract cancelled.  Hu plays this part very well, displaying a flair for action comedy seldom seen in her other work.  Ben Lam is also convincing as the earnest, slightly naïve young man who thinks he can sidestep Lan’s prohibitions.  Everything changes when an amnesic woman (Moon Lee) stumbles in off the street.  Assuming she is a refugee who fell into the ocean, they put her to work in the bar.
The earlier thread, involving Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima being trained from childhood by “Fok” (Eddie Ko) as ruthless assassins, is interrupted by the story of Rocky and Lan.  Once Silver Fox has joined them, it is only a matter of time before the threads are woven together.  The climax involves a series of startling reversals.  Silver Fox recovers her memory but loses her innocence and happiness.  Rocky and Lan are rid of the boxing contract, but lose their business.  Oshima finally tracks down Silver Fox, only to be confronted with unthinkable alternatives.  Fok comes to enforce his code of unquestioning obedience and ends up losing everything.  There is considerable subtlety in how these characters’ actions ultimately affect their fates.
Solid action, good acting, superb costuming, and interesting plot elements combine to create a tantalizing mixture.  The action leads can be described as visually stunning, and there is a haunting piano theme as well as good musical score throughout.

“Lethal Panther” (1991)

(Filmswell International; Dir. Godfrey Ho Chi-keung)

Despite a wildly implausible plot, the cheerfully gratuitous roller-coaster action of “Lethal Panther” deserves to give the film cult status.  “Eileen” (Maria Jo) and “Amy” (Yoko Miyamoto) are contract killers.  Each is depicted at work executing the crime boss rivals of “Albert” (Lawrence Ng) who stages a ruthless gang takeover.  In the typical manner of Godfrey Ho/Philip Ko films multiple brief plot threads complicate narrative continuity.  Sibelle Hu makes a brief fighting appearance as an American agent investigating money counterfeiting.  When her investigation leads to the principal gang she almost apprehends one of the assassins.

Although skilled at their craft (Miyamoto has a wild, slow motion scene in which she shoots up a gang conference in a restaurant, then calmly strides out) each of the women has a weakness.  Eileen is in love with her controller, while Amy is sending money to fund her brother’s study in Paris.  After surviving several attempted rub-outs by various gang factions (including an over-the-top shootout in a grocery store), contracts are eventually taken out on both assassins by Albert.  He ties up the loose ends by arranging for further assassinations of his rivals, and turning the female assassins on each other.  They are then confronted with painful choices.  By the time the action escalates to a bullet-riddled, blood-drenched climax (in a warehouse) there’s hardly anyone left for Sibelle Hu to arrest.
Yoko Miyamoto is coolly alluring as the icy Amy.  Even rather contrived notes such as her flashbacks to Vietnam (are all female assassins in HK movies Vietnamese?), chain smoking and beer drinking do not detract from her undeniable screen presence.  The slow motion action scenes work well, and the film, in places, even develops pathos.  Despite numerous graphic scenes, this rather uneven production nevertheless ranks as a GWG classic.

“Queen’s High” (1991)

(Rising Fortune Films Co.; Dir. Chris Lee Kin-sang)

Arguably Cynthia Khan’s best career role as “Kwanny,” “Queen’s High” features some excellent action sequences as well as competent acting.  It also includes a scene that has become one of the icons of recent HK action cinema – a shootout at a wedding.  Under intense pressure from his gang rivals, Kwanny’s brother (Simon Yam) nevertheless encourages her to go ahead with wedding plans.  As their family and bodyguards gather at the ceremony, the opposition strikes – leaving Khan in a wedding dress firing a submachine gun while her husband and brother are killed.

After taking over the weakened gang Kwanny initiates negotiations, then leads a vengeance raid on the opposition.  In the course of these proceedings she discovers the treachery of her other, adoptive brother.  This ultimately leads to a confrontation with a Japanese gangster and his assistant (Kim Maree Penn), as well as the numerous men on their payroll at her company’s warehouse.  Whoever prevails must then face the waiting police.
In addition to acting well, Khan delivers an excellent action performance that is both energetic and physical.  The gunplay is well executed, with betrayal of family providing the requisite vengeance imperative.  Khan’s costuming is also spectacular.

“Stone Age Warriors” (1991)

(Golden Gate Film Production; Stanley Tong Kwai-lai)

Stanley Tong could have submitted this film – if proof were needed – as evidence that direction, not budget, is the primary determinant of merit.  With a combined crew and cast at times as few as 11, Tong shot this exotic action adventure on location in New Guinea.  “Eko” (Elaine Lui), the daughter of a missing Japanese businessman, mounts an expedition in search of her father accompanied by a female insurance investigator (Nina Li Chi).  Guided by Fan Siu-wong, the two women plunge into the New Guinea jungle, braving a variety of natural and human hazards.  Highlights include a sequence in which they are swept over a waterfall and a confrontation with Komodo dragons.

When they finally locate the gang of drug smugglers who kidnapped Eko’s father, the women are themselves seized for ransom.  After Eko is released, she teams with Fan’s character to turn the tables on the gang and their supporting tribal warriors.
The action scenes throughout the film are well up to Tong’s usual high standards, and the narrative is well told and well acted.  This is probably Lui’s career best.  She is engaging yet relentless.  As the protagonists try to cling to a helicopter in the closing reel, it’s genuinely unclear if all will make it out alive.  Dick Wei has a cameo appearance at the beginning of the film as an ill-fated tour guide.  “Stone Age Warriors” is also of interest for two action scenes that would subsequently be repeated during the climax of two better-known titles directed by Stanley Tong.  In the first, Elaine Lui engages in solo combat with a giant male opponent who lifts her off her feet in a chokehold.  Michelle Yeoh’s character would face a similar challenge during the climax of “Project S.”  Later, Lui and Fan escape by clinging to a long rope suspended from a helicopter.  This device would also feature prominently in the climactic chase sequence of “Police Story 3:  Supercop.”