From Aesthetic Violence to an Aesthetic of Violence

“I want to [do] action” (Yukari Oshima, in English)

Female performers have featured prominently throughout the history of modern HK action cinema.  Numerous high quality martial arts films with female action stars were made during the 1960s and 1970s, many of which remain genre classics.  At least a dozen female action actors achieved prominence during this time, predominantly in costumed, period roles.  Some achieved international recognition.  The Shanghai ballerina Cheng Pei-pei starred in 1960s Shaw Brothers martial arts productions, while a Chinese Opera player from Taiwan – Angela Mao Ying – appeared in comparable productions for rival Golden Harvest during the 1970s.  Kara Hui Ying-hung – still actively appearing in action films – made her name in several Shaw Brothers period action films during the late 1970s.  All three would star in action films with contemporary themes (e.g., “Virgin Commandos,” 1980; “Stoner,” 1980; “My Young Auntie,” 1981).  These films, and similar productions from the same period (e.g., “Golden Queens Commando,” 1984; “Pink Force Commando,” 1984) may be viewed as transitional – retaining many of the conventions of cinematography and character of the 1970s martial arts films but introducing more contemporary action.  After the popularity of kung fu films had largely run its course – to be supplanted by triad plots – New Wave directors such as Tsui Hark (“Dangerous Encounter – 1st Kind,” 1980) or Patrick Tam Kar-min (“Nomad,” 1982) experimented with intense, personal dramas set in contemporary urban society.  Some of these films offered increasingly unconventional female action roles, such as the villains played by Lin Ching-chi in “Dangerous Encounters,” Ying Hsia in “Girl with a Gun” (1984) or Pauline Wong Siu-fung in “Night Caller” (1985).

Cheng Pei Pei (Lunatic Frog Woman) and Angela Mao (Queens Ransom)
Two of the few female action performers to provide real continuity between the traditions of costumed, stylized martial arts and contemporary action cinema were Sharon Yeung Pan-pan and Kara Hui Ying-hung.  Yeung had trained in the Chinese Opera tradition since childhood and appeared in martial arts roles during the late 1970s and 1980s.  She also made several excellent contemporary action films before retiring from film in the mid 1990s.  Hui – who is still working – had received intensive training in martial arts at the Shaw Brothers studio and appeared in many classics such as the successful action comedy “My Young Auntie” (1981).  She would subsequently display her martial and athletic abilities in Golden Harvest’s “Naughty Boys” (1986).  Produced by Jackie Chan, this film appears to have served as a prototype for the “Inspector Wears Skirts” films (1988 – 1992).  This influential series of action comedies produced by Golden Harvest and Jackie Chan represented a prominent trend in female action films, but blunted the subversive edge of female action with comedy and reaffirmation of traditional personal and power relations.  Action comedy also provided the background for the prolific Sandra Ng Kwan-yu who would provide comic relief both in “The Inspector Wears Skirts” as well as comparable action comedies (e.g., “Operation Pink Squad,” 1988).  Ng would also star in one of the best serious police action films, “Thunder Cops II” (1989).
Inspector Wears Skirts I and III (Raid on Casino Royale)
The surge in popularity of more realistically combative female action films during the mid-1980s may be attributed in large measure to the physical performance skills of four women – American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock, former Miss Malaysia and ballerina turned actor Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng, Japanese martial artist and stunt player Tsumura Yukari (Yukari Oshima) and the ballet-trained Hong Kong actor Moon Lee Choi-fung.  Yeoh and Lee initially lacked previous martial arts training but had appeared in non-action film roles.  They would quickly adapt their physical flexibility and talents to the demands of fight choreography and within a decade would both be among the highest-grossing female actors in the industry.  Two distinct strands of action productions would evolve.  The first, launched with Yeoh and Rothrock, involved the relatively consistent support of major production companies – especially D&B – for fairly traditional police action plots.  The second, substantially identified with Lee and Oshima, tended to involve lower budgets and independent productions, but more varied action themes.
Cynthia Rothrock (Righting Wrongs) and Moon Lee (Bury Me High)
In 1985, reportedly at the suggestion of Sammo Hung, D&B Films’ Dickson Poon teamed Yeoh and Rothrock in the police drama “Yes, Madam.”  Yeoh’s hard training and rehearsal paid off and her performance alongside the proven wushu skills of Rothrock set a new standard for women’s participation in contemporary martial arts action dramas.  True to formula, D&B would follow up by casting Yeoh in a reprise of this role in “Royal Warriors” (1986), another excellent showcase for Yeoh’s agility and dedication (she reportedly dislocated a shoulder during filming – one of several serious injuries in her film career) as well as acting ability.  By this point formula elements included submissive male police colleagues and rejected romantic overtures.
Michelle Yeoh - Yes Madam and Royal Warriors
Following Yeoh’s marriage to Dickson Poon, D&B found a replacement in the Taiwanese former jazz dancer and actor Yang Li-ching (“Split of the Spirit,” 1987).  Renamed Cynthia Khan from elements of Rothrock’s and Yeoh’s screen names, she would go on to star in the successful “In The Line of Duty” series (1988 – 1990), buttressed by an impressive array of martial artists and action actors in supporting roles.  She would also place among the top-grossing female actors in the HK industry.  Khan continued to appear in action films for D&B (“Tiger Cage 2,” 1990; “Forbidden Arsenal,” 1991; “Sea Wolves,” 1991) as well as for other production companies  (“Queen’s High,” 1991; “A Serious Shock! Yes Madam!” 1992; “The Avenging Quartet,” 1993; “Madam City Hunter,” 1993; “Pink Bomb,” 1993; “Yes Madam 5,” 1996).  Rothrock, too, made a number of other appearances in HK action films, including “The Inspector Wears Skirts” (1988) and “City Cops” (1989) as well as the outstanding martial arts actioner “Righting Wrongs” (1986) starring Yuen Biao and “The Blonde Fury” aka “Lady Reporter” (1989) for Golden Harvest.
Cynthia Khan - Queens High and In the Line of Duty IV
D&B adhered to this successful formula, subsequently casting former model Jade Leung Ching in the successful “Black Cat” (1991) in which Leung’s lack of martial arts skills was compensated by excellent choreography and action direction.  The predictable sequel “Black Cat 2:  Assassination of President Yeltsin” (1992) was not a success, however.  Mandarin Films would try to package Jade Leung as an action star in “Satin Steel” (1994), shot in Singapore and Indonesia.  Leung continued to appear in a number of other dramatic and action roles (“Enemy Shadow,” 1995; “Fox Hunter,” 1995; “Spider Woman,” 1995;  “Velvet Gloves,” 1996; “Killing Me Hardly,” 1997; “The Peeping Tom,” 1997; “Leopard Hunting,” 1998).
Jade Leung (Black Cat) and Joyce Godenzi (She Shoots Straight)
The other principal force behind D&B films, Sammo Hung Kam-po, would also attempt to forge an action persona for a newcomer.  Former Miss Hong Kong Joyce Mina Godenzi reportedly had no martial arts background until training with tae kwan do instructor Dick Wei for her film roles.  With the support of expert fight choreography and constructive editing, Godenzi was able to look convincing in a number of Sammo Hung action pictures produced by Golden Harvest (“Eastern Condors,” 1987; “She Shoots Straight,” 1990; “License To Steal,” 1990; “Slickers vs. Killers,” 1991) as well as appearing in Tsui Hark’s “The Raid” (1991).  Of these, her best role was probably as a police officer, very much in the ITLOD mold, in “She Shoots Straight.”

 “I’m a stunt woman too!  Can you believe that?” (Elaine Lui, in English)

While D&B films groomed attractive newcomers with intensive training, then surrounded them with proficient action actors or martial artists in relatively lavish yet formulaic productions that defined the female police action sub-genre, other directors introduced riskier elements.  Stanley Tong Kwai-lai, who had been action director for “Angel II,” directed the innovative action film “Stone Age Warriors” (1991) that eked out its meager budget with exotic location shooting in New Guinea and literally plunging its star Elaine Lui Siu-ling into challenging stunts and extended action sequences.  Tong, a personal friend of Michelle Yeoh, would likewise direct her comeback in the superior stunt work of “Police Story III:  Supercop” (1992) that brought Yeoh to the attention of Jackie Chan’s worldwide audience.  Stylistic similarities between the graphically violent gunfights forming the principal action set pieces in “Supercop” and “Angel II” reflect the prominent influence of Tong’s action choreography.  The action staging in “Supercop” and sequel “Project S” (1993) confirmed Yeoh as a major star.  She would subsequently appear in the action film “Wonder Seven“ (1994) as well as a range of other parts.

Elaine Lui (Stone Age Warriors) and Moon Lee (Angel)
Another influence can be traced to the success of the American television series “Charlie’s Angels” (1976 – 1982) that reportedly inspired the film “Deadly Angels” (1977).  Its sequel, “Angel” (1987) written and produced by Teresa Woo San, became a surprise hit, launching a sub-genre sometimes termed “Girls With Guns” (GWG).  “Angel” incorporated a number of formulaic triad movie elements, but featured Elaine Lui and Moon Lee as female crime fighters who would expend unlimited amounts of ammunition in frenzied shootouts.  Large doses of mayhem and well choreographed – albeit exaggerated – martial arts sequences carried the team through two sequels, “Angel II” (1988) and “Angel III” (1989), although Lui would not appear in the third installment.  However, the status of “Angel” (1987) as an HK action classic was due in large measure to a powerful performance by Yukari Oshima.  Possessing a unique combination of legitimate martial arts background, stunt training and prior action acting experience (“Funny Family,” 1986; “A Book of Heroes,” 1986; “Millionaires’ Express,” 1986), she stole the scenes she was in.
Moon Lee/Sibelle Hu (Angels Project) and Yukari Oshima (Godfather's Daughter)
Oshima would go on to defy the odds against non-Chinese actors in the HK industry by appearing in several dozen more HK action movies which, when added to her Taiwanese and Philippine roles, would ultimately result in a filmography of more than 60 action parts.  Two triad and police action classics directed by Frankie Chan, “Burning Ambition” (1989) and “The Outlaw Brothers” (1990) feature some of the best fight sequences of contemporary HK action films.  Additionally, the sheer number of Oshima’s action roles represents a sizeable industry contribution.  Moon Lee and Elaine Lui would also each appear in a string of action films, Lee starring in “Devil Hunters” (1989), “Killer Angels” (1989), “Princess Madam” (1989), “The Nocturnal Demon” (1990), “Angel Force” (1990), “Mission of Condor” (1991) and “Secret Police” (1992), as well as D&B’s “Fatal Termination” (1990) and Golden Harvest’s “Bury Me High” (1991), while Lui (“The Innocent Interloper,” 1986) would appear in another D& B actioner “Live Hard” (1989) as well as “Bullet for Hire” (1991), “Rich Man” (1992) and “The Red-Wolf” (1995) in supporting roles.  However, her best part was in “Stone Age Warriors” in which she occupies center screen as an engaging yet combative Japanese heroine.  Lee’s typecasting as an action hero would almost get her killed when explosives were prematurely detonated during the finale of “Devil Hunters.”  The status of these performers was earned at the expense of real physical risk.
Tsui Hark's Time and Tide and Dangerous Encounter of the 1st Kind
Both Lee and Lui would again cross paths with Oshima.  Lui would fight with her in “Spiritually A Cop” (1991), but it was the screen partnership between Lee and Oshima in approximately a dozen productions that became virtually synonymous with female urban action films of the early 1990s.  The director most clearly identified with the GWG sub-genre (e.g., “Devil Hunters”), Wong Chun-yeung, skirted the emerging Cat. III but edged his stars toward flirtation with subtextual symbolism as well as graphic depictions of primal emotions – trauma, anger, suffering – that added a psychological dimension to movies such as “That’s Money” (1990),  “Dreaming The Reality” (1991) and “Angel Terminators II” (1993) with the support of experienced actors such as Kara Hui Ying-hung and Sibelle Hu Hui-chung.  Even lesser productions like “Story of the Gun” (1991) and “Mission of Justice” (1992) included some elements that added complexity to the typically flat characterization of action roles.  The associated symbolism represents something more than mere formula.  By allowing his physically competent and self-assured performers to parade their skills, Wong also re-discovered the athletic sensuality inherent in martial arts.

Anita Mui (Shanghai Shanghai) and Gigi Leung (A War Called Desire)