Just Desserts: Vengeance
“I do love you, . . . but I hate you more!”
(Shu Qi, “Portland Street Blues”)
Several early vengeance films (“Lady in Black,”
1987; “Bet on Fire,” 1988) spend virtually the entire movie developing
sympathy for the female leads who lose everything in melodramatic fashion.
In “Lady in Black” Brigitte Lin’s screen husband (Tony Leung Kar-fei) persuades
her to embezzle a large sum of money from her employer to pay off his gambling
debt, then allows her to fall overboard during a boat trip. He is
later responsible for the death of her father and starts a relationship
with another woman. With the help of her friend from work (her son’s
godmother), Lin’s recovered character exacts vengeance on her husband in
a violent final scene. Similarly, in “Bet on Fire” Sharla Cheung
Man loses her entire family – in addition to being sexually assaulted –
at the hands of her father’s boss. She develops a close bond with
the character played by Cherie Chung Cho-hung. In the film’s final
moments the two women fight a life or death battle with the film’s villain
(Paul Chun Pui). Similar elements of loss and betrayal are present
in “Her Judgment Day” (1992).
Despite only veering into vengeance themes in
the closing reel, these films have a number of structural similarities
that appear to define a sub-genre. There is a sharp contrast between
the normal aspirations and behavior of the female protagonists, and the
duplicity, greed or threat presented by the principal male characters.
The former are seemingly driven to their desperate actions by the behavior
of the latter. In the face of unrelenting adversity, strong relationship
bonds are forged between many of the principal female characters – between
Brigitte Lin and her son’s godmother in “Lady in Black,” the two leads
played by Sharla Cheung Man and Cherie Chung in “Bet on Fire” and Rosamund
Kwan and Pat Ha in “Vengeance is Mine,” Pauline Wong and her sister in
“Her Vengeance” and Yukari Oshima and her sister-in-law in “Vengeance is
Mine.” This may also be discerned in “Soul” during which the character
of Deanie Yip slowly turns the tables on her pursuers once re-united with
her former friend from the days prior to her marriage (Elaine Kam Yin-ling).
These relationships are generally depicted as more genuine, caring and
worthwhile than those with the males. Also closely linked is the
prominence of harm to family members as the grounds for vengeance seeking,
suggesting that films ostensibly lying outside the mainstream actually
operate with rather traditional imperatives. “Lady in Black” spends
most of its running length on family relations while “Bet on Fire” spends
equal time on the nightclub hostess scene.
The theme of vengeance has also played a prominent
role in martial arts and action films. While male protagonists may
seek vengeance for “honor” related themes such as betrayal and loss of
friends or loved ones, female protagonists are frequently themselves the
target of assault in the more intense entries in the sub-genre. Here
too, loss of honor may back the individual into making a violent response.
Movies such as “Vengeance Is Mine” (1988), “Her Vengeance” (1988) and “Vengeance
Is Mine” (1997) feature performances by mature, experienced actors such
as Rosamund Kwan, Pat Ha, Pauline Wong and Yukari Oshima who are directed
in ways that convey the viciousness and lasting trauma of assault, essentially
devoid of the leering quality associated with many Cat. III scenes.
An actor with the skills of Pauline Wong is able to bring real pathos to
her character. Sprawled injured in the mud, she attempts to restore
a semblance of order by picking up the casually scattered contents of her
pocket book. This effectively offsets any charge of voyeurism.
Indeed, the quotient of graphic sexuality in these movies is actually quite
low. Oshima also delivers a mature, emotionally powerful acting performance
in “Vengeance Is Mine” – a late career best. Veering between sweaty
wretchedness and exultant cruelty, her performance commands attention in
a very low budget production. Other noteworthy features include conspicuous
weapon symbolism and rapid cutting back-and-forth between a woman in lingerie
in a bedroom scene and Oshima desperately fighting in the stairwell outside
– illustrating HK cinema’s contrasting views of women.
Despite the dubious nature of the subject matter,
these films unexpectedly succeed in making strong statements about independence
and self-reliance, as well as the exploitative nature of much male behavior.
It is when the female protagonists stop relying on others – whether friends,
relatives or law enforcement – to protect or avenge them, that they flourish
as characters. Such films seem to provide redemption in the ultimate
autonomy associated with wielding the power of life and death. Such
power is seldom questioned when exercised by male protagonists in film,
and these female vengeance films deserve to be judged by the same standard.
In one of the clearest examples, the film “Pink Panther” (1993) features
an all-female gang led by Nadeki Fujimi and To Kwai-fa who provide both
refuge and retribution for the victims of partner violence.
A number of Cat. III titles have also employed
superficially similar plot devices, but actually placed action actors in
traditional exploitation roles. In “Passionate Killing In the Dream”
(1992) Michiko Nishiwaki played a woman stalked by a serial killer played
by Gordon Lau, while in “The Peeping Tom” (1996) these roles were filled
by Jade Leung and Mark Cheng, respectively. These titles do contain
some action sequences, but are vitiated by gratuitous scenes of violence.
However, both films paradoxically include some of the best dramatic performances
by the principal actors. Mark Cheng, in particular, delivers an outstandingly
chilling characterization in “The Peeping Tom.” His performance in
“A Taste of Killing and Romance” is not far behind. A major problem,
however, with these and similar films (e.g., another low budget Michiko
Nishiwaki title, “Whore and Policewoman,” 1993) is lack of resolution.
All these films linger over scenes of violence against women, but close
on a relatively quick death (or simply arrest) for the male assailant.
The requisite emotional satisfaction of proportionate justice is missing.
One Cat. III HK vengeance title set in Thailand, “The Lady Punisher” (1994),
involves gratuitous acts throughout. Other titles, such
as “Sting of the Scorpion” (1992) or “The Deadly Rose” (1992) also definitely
involve final vengeance, but only after the female protagonists have been
pushed beyond the limit by being framed for murder or almost murdered themselves.
Traditional martial arts film (and action cinema
in general) has often employed the device of a family member’s suffering
as the cause of the hero’s quest for vengeance. A fine example of
such an updated kung fu plot is provided by "Kickboxer's Tears" (1992),
in which Moon Lee plays a gymnasium owner whose brother is killed in the
ring. One theme that may be discerned in several Taiwanese vengeance plots
(“Angel of Vengeance,” 1993; “Bloody Revenge,” 1992) involves the female
martial artist (Yukari Oshima, Kara Hui, respectively) searching for a
long-lost sister – only to discover too late that they have been forced
into prostitution. This device is used as justification for some
abusive scenes, followed by avenging rage. Similar “vengeance-by-proxy”
occurs in another Oshima fight vehicle, “Brave Young Girls” (1990) in which
her rescue of three women forced into prostitution is the pretext for an
extended fight sequence. Other vengeance driven films in the martial
arts tradition have featured a masked female vigilante (“The Justice Women,”
1990; “Deadly Dream Woman,” 1992 or “It Takes a Thief,” 1998). Unlike
more noteworthy fantasy action films (“Saviour of the Soul, 1991; “The
Heroic Trio,” 1993) such titles deliver their martial arts sequences while
remaining within the bounds of theoretical possibility.