Righting Wrongs

“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.

Kara Hui Ying Hung (Stage Door Johhny) and Pauline Wong (Her Vengeance)
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.
Naked Killer - Chingmy Yau and Carrie Ng
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 films.

Jade Leung (Satin Steel) and Josie Ho (Legend of a Professional)
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.
Burning Ambition - the famous walk on glass scene
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 performers.
The Avenging Quartet - Cynthia Khan and Michiko Nishiwaki