“You’ll be sorely missed.” (Ann Bridgewater, “Operation Pink Squad”)
Hong Kong has produced more fighting femme fatale films than any other movie industry. Indeed, these films have represented one of several defining characteristics of Hong Kong cinema’s appeal as popular entertainment. Part of the mystique of HK action film has involved the claim of verisimilitude – real-life martial artists, compellingly dangerous stunts, full contact. Whether expressed in the fluently cultivated language of Michelle Yeoh discussing how directors sought “good hits” or Yukari Oshima’s deliciously fractured English, “Hong Kong movie is real,” female performers adhered to these defining principles as assiduously as their male counterparts. By so doing, they set their work apart from other film industries.
In the last few years Hollywood appears to have taken notice. Effects-assisted martial arts have featured prominently in a number of recent popular action films and parts for female fighters are beginning to appear. Perhaps international audiences who cheered for Zhang Ziyi in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” may also be inspired to sample the many HK movie antecedents to her contemporary role in “Rush Hour 2.”
Hollywood’s technical expertise may eventually
succeed in turning female fighting roles into another entertainment commodity,
but it is unlikely to entirely capture the quirky, improvisational flavor
of HK cinema of a decade ago. Somehow, knowing that a performer truly
did ride a motorcycle in a risky stunt or actually executed a spectacular
scissor kick yields greater satisfaction than the best computer-generated
effects. A person’s talent rightly commands greater emotional response.
When combined with striking appearance, screen presence, and mobilization
of primal emotions by simple vengeance plots, this may account for the
seeming paradox that lesser films may yet evoke stronger reactions.
There is little doubt that, in this regard, the best female performers
in HK action films succeeded in transcending the financial and artistic
constraints of their medium to create enduring, memorable performances
worthy of repeated viewing.