“Beauty Investigator” (1992)

(New Treasurer Films Co.; Dir. Lee Tso-nam)

Moon Lee fans will be amply rewarded by enticing costuming and good fight sequences in this engaging tale that does not set its sights too high, yet delivers amply.  Lee and her flighty female police screen partner “Grace” are sent undercover as nightclub hostesses to track a serial killer.  While fending off the expected assortment of lecherous pawing and harassment, they stumble across a major smuggling transaction that is linked to an underlying takeover war between the nightclub owner, “Brother Bee,” and his local as well as Japanese rivals.  When Bee contracts for a Japanese assassin to hit his rivals, he is surprised by her gender.  Yukari Oshima plays this part with gusto, kicking, punching and garroting her way through the opposition while wearing a dusty, shapeless topcoat.  Quite by chance it is she, rather than the bumbling policewomen, who finally confronts the serial killer.  Although his role is over-acted, Oshima’s is not.  Her uniquely intense screen presence is compressed into this instant.

Oshima and Lee spar on several occasions.  At one point Oshima is even breathing pretty hard.  Despite impressions to the contrary, Lee and Oshima had relatively few direct screen confrontations during their careers, and “Beauty Investigator” is worth viewing for this alone.  Sophia Crawford, Oshima’s protégée, also has a relatively substantial part in this film.  In some versions she has a gratuitous shower scene.  She also fights with her mentor at the end.  Sentimental and violent by turns, the female leads deliver performances that amply display their physical talent as well as the mid-range of their characteristic screen personas.  Billy Chow has a cameo fight appearance.

“Cheetah on Fire” (1992)

(Cheung Yau Production Co.; Dir. Thomas Yip Shing-hong)

“Cheetah” races from action scene to action scene throughout its running time, culminating in a bloody military engagement at a Thai village that leaves the viewer drained.  Although the fight choreography is not particularly sophisticated, the vigor and brutality more than compensate.  This film features some of the best action of this genre, and a particularly fine performance by Donnie Yen.  Gordon Lau and Michael Woods exude menace, while Ken Lo is also on hand to supply additional martial arts sparkle.  Sharla Cheung Man, Carrie Ng and Nadeki Fujimi also deliver spirited action performances – among their career best.

The sheer number of action performers adds weight and momentum to an otherwise insubstantial plot.  “Long Hair” (Gordon Lau) leads a violent gang in pursuit of a stolen missile guidance control chip.  Donnie Yen and Nadeki Fujimi play CIA agents who are assisted by the HK police (Carrie Ng and Sharla Cheung Man).  Eddie Ko and Shing Fui-on have supporting parts as criminals who are out of their league – attempting to sell the chip over the heads of Long Hair’s gang.
After a series of quite graphically violent confrontations has thinned out the field, the action shifts from HK to Thailand.  As the gang teams up with the forces of a warlord (Michael Woods), the pursuing law enforcement team seeks the assistance of the Thai army.  Unlike several other productions that employ similar finales (e.g., “Mission of Justice”), the final battle is protracted and quite intense.  In the tradition of HK plot twists, casualties among the protagonists are unexpected and severe throughout the film.
Although not particularly distinguished on any single index of plot, acting or cinematography, “Cheetah” nevertheless delivers consistently as an action film should.  The characters are sufficiently interesting to maintain engagement, the plot twists sufficiently convoluted to maintain suspense, and the action sufficiently frequent to hold attention.  In places the action may even make the viewer wince.  As an additional bonus, Carrie Ng, Sharla Cheung Man and Nadeki Fujimi are kitted out in combat boots, jeans, leather jackets or camo clothing.

“The Mighty Gambler” (1992)

(Chung Ngai Movie Production Co.; Dir. Wong Chun-yeung)

Sibelle Hu has enjoyed considerable popularity in a number of markets, and in “The Mighty Gambler” displays a compelling mixture of acting talent, physical toughness and glamorous screen persona.  This surely ranks as one of her best parts.  Familiar Wong Chun-yeung plot elements involve a female character who is placed in an ambiguous, risky situation by unforeseen circumstances.  Here, Hu plays an HK casino owner who faces an apparent takeover attempt from a Japanese gang.  After a pistol duel with their boss (Alex Man) results in his apparent death, Hu must deal with lethal retaliation and intimidation orchestrated by a surviving relative (Alex Fong).

Other features associated with Wong Chun-yeung films include a liberal mixture of gunplay and martial arts.  In addition to a shotgun-toting Hu, Michiko Nishiwaki (playing a Mainland relative of a casino employee) is on hand in a supporting role to deliver additional martial arts – confronting a swordswoman in the process.  Alex Fong escalates the firepower in the final fight with a heavy machinegun.
Although the pace lags a little in places, this is more than offset by excellent action choreography and Sibelle Hu’s screen presence.  There is the usual quotient of scheming and betrayals to maintain suspense, and – unlike many gambling-themed films – the majority of the action does not center on the tables.

“Naked Killer” (1992)

(Golden Harvest/Wong Jing’s Workshop; Dir. Clarence Fok Yiu-leung)

Reveling in its incorrectness, “Naked Killer” is a slickly seductive fantasy that eroticizes violence.  This is achieved by the physical appearance and lush costuming of Chingmy Yau and Carrie Ng as contract killers, the literal pairing of erotic content with death in the form of poisoned kisses or sex between “Princess” (Carrie Ng) and “Baby” (Madoka Sugarwawa) in a bloodstained swimming pool, and the explicit equation of male potency and firearms.

The plot concerns a young woman “Kitty” (Chingmy Yau) who is rescued from the consequences of revenge killing by “Sister Cindy” – a professionally appreciative hitwoman (Kelly Yiu).  After practicing on live targets in the basement, Kitty finds a new identity and line of work until her life is complicated by affections and jealousies.  While Cindy seeks to retain her apt pupil, Simon Yam’s police detective “Tinam” and Princess vie for Kitty’s affections.  Each brings their own problems to the relationship.  Tinam is impotent and vomits at the sight of a firearm, while Princess is a lesbian, already has a partner, and is contracted for a hit on Sister Cindy.  Inevitably, their agendas collide.  Suffice it to say that Tinam does eventually get to fire his gun, but it spells destruction for all.
“Naked Killer” succeeds as erotic fantasy without needing graphic sexuality.  Insistent fingers of desire, ambivalence and doubt push and probe.  It’s never really clear who will prevail – or how.  While Ng and Yam have certainly acted their share of characters on the edge, Yam rises to this occasion with a relatively restrained performance.  Kelly Yiu is superb as an older woman who utterly succumbs to her young protégée.
Although there is action, it pales in contrast to the sheer spectacle of the characters.  Ng, in particular, is so alluring that she may have risked the very typecasting she worked to avoid for much of her career.  Undoubtedly one of the best “assassin” movies, “Naked Killer” makes explicit certain themes that may only be hinted at in some other action films.

“Once a Black Sheep” (1992)

(Dir. David Wu Dai-wai)

Carol “Do Do” Cheng is best known for her comic roles, but turned in an inspired, dramatic performance as a careworn, cynical inmate in “Women’s Prison.”  In “Once a Black Sheep” she manages both drama and comedy, crafting a fallibly human, low-ranking police detective who hails from the Walled City of Kowloon.  Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, but with failing health, her character must battle criminals, her supervisors, and a gambling addiction.  Cheng’s character is hard but brittle, and loses composure when required to cooperate on a case with a polished ICAC officer (May Lo).  Each fools the other by pretending to be what they are not, betraying their stereotyped views of the other’s role.

Cheng’s comedy and wordplay – she quickly switches to English when explaining she was really saying “poor guy” – is quite faithfully rendered in unusually good subtitling.  After several solid initial action sequences, Cheng’s and Lo’s characters are sent undercover as a nun and recovering addict, respectively, to an island retreat run by a former triad turned evangelist.

After the expected quotient of humorous mishaps, the former gang associated with the evangelist tracks him down, resulting in a violent showdown at the retreat.  Along the way, Cheng gives a quite powerful and convincing action performance, using her physical stature to pummel a number of opponents and bad guys.

A relatively obscure action comedy, “Once a Black Sheep” provides an opportunity to watch a pair of good actors give solid performances.  Cheng’s policewoman is an unusually robust, vibrant character.

“A Serious Shock!  Yes Madam!” (1992)

(New Treasurer Films Co.; Dir. Lai Kin-kwok)

Some of the best action films cast their leads against type.  This may allow the performer to display acting range not seen in previous parts.  “A Serious Shock!  Yes Madam!” is exactly this type of film.  Moon Lee is cast as “May,” an increasingly unstable, homicidally jealous, rejected lover who uses her position as a police officer to conceal her crimes and frame others.  Cynthia Khan plays a fugitive from the law – innocent yet powerless – who is forced to rely on a punk car thief “Coco” (Yukari Oshima).  In turn, Coco is not nearly as tough or indifferent as her character might at first appear, and is quite fearful of the trouble that may ensue.  She also conceals and routinely lies about an illegitimate child and her own past homicidal acts.  While Khan and Lee have solid roles, Oshima’s is less satisfactory as she seems required to overact in places.

The interplay of these characters is intriguing precisely because they violate expectations generated by the performers’ numerous appearances in other action films.  More a drama than an outright actioner, the shootings and stabbings are depicted as unusually pointless and impulsive – stripped of any bravado.  The result is a great deal of pain and suffering, frequently driven by petty jealousies or greed.
After being framed for the murder of her fiancé, Khan’s former policewoman seeks unexpected refuge with Coco, thereby being exposed to her dubious activities and associates.  Both Khan and Oshima have some adequate action scenes, while Lee delivers a glimpse of insanity behind her character’s barely controlled professional façade.  She is both reckless and relentless, eventually pushing her quarry to a confrontation that neither can win.
Overall, the emotional effects of this film are rather negative, but it is nevertheless an interesting variant on more familiar roles and themes.  The tragic and futile consequences of violence are certainly prominent.  It’s definitely not GWG or another “Yes, Madam.”