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).

Brigitte Lin (Lady in Black) and Unknown in The Deadly Rose
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.
Pauline Wong (Her Vengeance) and Sharla Cheung Man (Bet on Fire)
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.
To Kwai-fa/Nadeki Fujimi (Pink Panther) and Pat Ha/Rosamund Kwan (Vengeance is Mine)
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.
Kathy Chow (Nude Fear) and The Lady Punisher
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.
Maggie Siu (Murders Made to Order) and Dodo Cheng (Tiger Cage)
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.
Sharla Cheung Man (Deadly dream Woman) and Michiko Nishiwaki (Dragon Fighter)