“Action movies can directly give you some
message” (Moon Lee, in English)
Action movies have contributed prominently
to the appeal and commercial success of recent HK cinema. By the
late 1970s directors had mastered technical developments in filmmaking
methods, yielding a vibrant, innovative cinema that was both popularly
entertaining and artistically satisfying. More portable equipment
facilitated increased use of location shooting with the result that the
urban landscape of Hong Kong became an increasingly familiar backdrop.
During the 1980s and early 1990s the products of the HK movie industry
dominated Asian markets and achieved broader international appeal.
When the combination of modern cinematography and bold direction was fused
with the skills of performers schooled in the traditions of martial arts,
Chinese Opera and gymnastics on the one hand and the action conventions
of American, European or Japanese gangster films on the other, distinctive
and widely popular action films were the result.
Mastery of Hollywood techniques of continuity
filming and constructive editing represented only one half of this successful
formula. The other involved meticulous action choreography and distinctive
pacing or patterning of action sequences – skills and conventions that
are now beginning to infuse some Hollywood productions with comparable
vibrancy. Some of the principal performers and directors of this
genre would acquire international reputations, making significant contributions
to modern action cinema as a whole.
One of the more distinctive features of recent
HK cinema has been the prominence of action roles for women. During
the past two decades, more than 200 films – equivalent to a year’s total
industry output at its peak – have featured female actors in leading roles
in contemporary action titles. The total would be significantly greater
if period swordplay dramas or witchcraft/sorcery themed films were included.
Despite HK cinema being in advance of Hollywood by at least a decade in
its portrayal of female action roles, the contributing factors were not
predominantly feminist. Traditional wuxia myths and fiction, embellished
in popular stories, had long featured female protagonists or platonic companions.
Chinese Opera performers might frequently play characters of the opposite
gender. Derivative commercial pressures may also have contributed
to a diversification of sub-genres employing female leads. Thus,
while some of these action films can be read as post-modern commentaries
on gender role, social power relations or sexual orientation, others require
a context-sensitive view of the culturally specific conditions under which
individuals resort to violence.
For the individual to act in an extreme, convention-defying
manner, violations of values associated with honor, respect for elders
and duty to family, organization or collective interest are likely sources
of external motivation. Indirectly, therefore, many HK action film
plots rest on the theme of vengeance as a means of restoring honor or “righting
wrongs.” This not only may involve honor-related themes that can
differ according to the gender of the protagonists, but also broader themes
of underlying duty that differ from Western notions of individual autonomy.
Consequently, for Western viewers, the infusion of gender reversal into
otherwise familiar action conventions can appear to associate primary emotions
with rather basic social beliefs or values in ways that may be received
as provocative, exciting and subversive. Gender can also provide
a prism capable of refracting action clichés into their true constituents.
When the female fighter is the first to pull the trigger or the last one
standing, the effects can be dramatic.
“Brother, money and power are inseparable.”
(“Bury Me High”)
With shooting schedules often measured in weeks,
improvised scripts and minimal production or post-production resources,
many HK filmmakers have tended to leverage their relatively tiny budgets
principally by the marketability of actors. Such factors contributed
to the proliferation of re-makes of successful formulas, as well as numerous
cameo roles. In contrast to the output of the traditional studios
– Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest – and Jackie Chan’s meticulously staged
action spectacles, many low budget and independent productions both adhered
to formula and improvised the details. One unintended yet fascinating
result was the creation of genres or sub-genres – derivatives of successful
Some of the most illuminating material is to be
gained from the leanest productions. Those with the least rehearsal,
fewest technical effects and smallest budgets paradoxically grant actors
correspondingly greater latitude. When there are no repeated takes,
no stunt doubles and perhaps no script, filmmaking becomes a performing
art akin to circus – as much a skill of the actor as the director.
Naturally, HK cinema of the period had its share of superstars, big budgets
and technical effects. But it may not be in such glossy, well-rehearsed
work that some of the most rewarding insights on values and roles may be
gained. Such films may be too carefully crafted as either entertainment
or art house productions. In some ways, low budget genre films yield
a richer lode. It is precisely such films that offered career opportunities
to those female action actors who helped shape and define the unique attributes
of HK cinema during the past two decades.
The best of these female-centered action films
may perhaps be viewed as icons affirming raw power, autonomy or physical
skill in ways seldom seen elsewhere – in addition to their value as entertainment.
Unlike the Western film industry that maintains strict divisions between
film as art, mainstream action, and exploitation, HK actors have routinely
bridged such distinctions. Fine performers (and performances) may
be found buried in the cheapest of low-budget action productions.
Given the necessary reliance of directors on the physical talent of many
of the performers – rather than on special effects or stunt teams – some
of these films may additionally provide action cameos that are classics
of performance art in their own right. This review of the more prominent
films of this type made over the last decade and a half attempts to examine
their distinctive themes as well as outline the careers of the principal