From Angel to Martial Angels

“I bet it’s the foreign girl.”  (“Operation Pink Squad”)

The relatively brief popularity of female-centered action films spanned approximately six years, with the majority of the best produced between 1987 and 1993.  The demand for screen talent attracted a number of female martial artists and bodybuilders from Pacific Rim countries, including Japan (Yukari Oshima, Nadeki Fujimi, Michiko Nishiwaki), Australia (Kim Maree Penn) and the Philippines (Agnes Aurelio) as well as the United States (Cynthia Rothrock, Karen Shepherd) or Europe (Saskia Van Rijswijk).  Other than Cynthia Rothrock, most of these non-Chinese performers were initially cast as villains – potentially exploiting the legacy of national rivalries.  As several acquired recognition and popularity with repeated casting they would also be offered action parts as police officers.  These roles provided a ready context for display of their physical prowess, while dubbing overcame language difficulties.

Agnes Aurelio (She Shoots Straight) and Michiko Nishiwaki (My Lucky Stars)
Although Agnes Aurelio would only appear in three films and Nadeki Fujimi in approximately ten, their athleticism and screen presence contributed strong supporting action performances in prominent titles such as “She Shoots Straight” (1990), “License to Steal” (1990) and “The Big Score” (1990) (Aurelio), and “Killer Angels” (1989), “Mission of Condor” (1991), “Crystal Hunt” (1991) and “Cheetah on Fire” (1992) (Fujimi).  Additionally, Fujimi was cast at the action lead in “Pink Panther” (1993), “Wonderful Killer” (1993) and “Rock on Fire” (1994).  Michiko Nishiwaki  would have more than 20 parts, eventually having leading roles in films such as “The Real Me” (1991), “Raiders of Loesing Treasure” (1992), “Passionate Killing in the Dream” (1992) and “Whore and Policewoman” (1993).  British newcomer Sophia Crawford would gain a presence in numerous action films comparable to her compatriot Mark Houghton – portraying either a villain in numerous fight cameos or appearing in minor supporting roles.
Nadeki Fujimi (Rock on Fire) and Sophia Crawford (Hero Dream)
Action films also offered prominent screen careers to several former Malaysian, Hong Kong or Taiwanese dancers (Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee, Cynthia Khan) and models or beauty contestants (Jade Leung, Joyce Mina Godenzi, Chingmy Yau).  The film careers of most would have run their course by the early 1990s, but a few would continue to remain active in the Asian film industry.  Yau (“Naked Killer,” 1992; “Deadly Dream Woman,” 1992; “Raped by an Angel,” 1993; “High Risk,” 1995), in particular would appear in more than 40 roles during the 1990s – many produced by Wong Jing – although only a small number would be in contemporary action.   Action films presented opportunities for established performers, as well.  Shaw Brothers veteran Kara Hui (“The Inspector Wears Skirts I – IV,” 1988 – 1992) continued to appear in supporting roles in numerous action films throughout the period (e.g., “Pretty Woman at War,” 1988; “Burning Ambition,” 1989; “The Vengeance,” 1991; “Bloody Revenge,” 1992; “The Vengeance of Six Dragon,” 1992; “On Parole,” 1993; “A Story in Beijing City,” 1993;“Crazy Mission,” 1999) – amassing a career filmography of approximately 90 parts – while martial artist Sharon Yeung closed out her film career with a number of contemporary actioners (“Angel Enforcers,” 1989; “Princess Madam,” 1989; “Angel Terminators,” 1990; “Way of the Lady Boxers,” 1992).
Chingmy Yau (Raped by an Angel) and Do Do Cheng (Tiger Cage)
At some point in their careers a number of female dramatic actors also appeared in action films.  Some, such as Sibelle Hu (“The Mighty Gambler,” 1992), would entirely cross over into martial arts actioners, risking typecasting in the process of dozens of supporting roles alongside virtually all the prominent female action actors of the day (e.g., with Sandra Ng in “Fire Phoenix,” 1990, Carrie Ng in “Crystal Hunt,” 1991, Saskia Van Rijswijk in “Fatal Mission,” 1991, Sharon Yeung in “Way of the Lady Boxers,” 1992, Moon Lee in “Angel’s Project,” 1993, to mention but a few).  A range of other actors, such as Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia (“Lady In Black,” 1987), Rosamund Kwan Chi-lam (“Vengeance Is Mine,” 1988), Pauline Wong Siu-fung (“Her Vengeance,” 1988), Pat Ha Man-chik (“On the Run,” 1988), Anita Mui Yim-fong (“A Better Tomorrow III,” 1989), Elizabeth Lee Mei-fung (“Widow Warriors,” 1990), would each appear in some action dramas.  Most did not personally practice martial arts – relying instead on traditional film techniques.  Their appearance in quite diverse film genres may have assured screen longevity, and avoided the potential career pitfall of Cat. III that would confront the action actors.

Pat Ha/Rosamund Kwan (Vengence is Mine) and Tien Niu/Elizabeth Lee (Widow Warriors)

Some – most prominently Carrie Ng Kar-lai – would hone their acting talents during the transition from actioners to Cat. III.  Ng (“The First Time Is the Last Time,” 1989; “Fire Phoenix,” 1990; “Hard to Die,” 1990; “Sex and Zen,” 1991; “Ladies Killer,” 1991; “Crystal Hunt,” 1991; “Cheetah on Fire,” 1992; “Naked Killer,” 1992; “Remains of a Woman” 1993; “Passion Unbounded,” 1995; “The Armed Policewoman,” 1995; “Evil Instinct,” 1996; “X-Cop Girls,” 2001) would appear in more than 40 films of various genres – mostly in supporting roles – but earning the prestigious Taiwanese Golden Horse award for Best Actress for her performance in “Remains of a Woman.”  A few other actors would appear in more recent action dramas (e.g., Maggie Siu Mei-kei  “Sting of the Scorpion,” 1992; “Murders Made to Order,” 1993; Carol Cheng Yu-ling, “Once a Black Sheep,” 1992; Michelle Lee Kar-yan aka Michelle Reis, “The Other Side of the Sea,” 1994; Valerie Chow Kar-ling, “The Armed Policewoman,” 1995; Jacqueline Wu Chien-lien, “Beyond Hypothermia,” 1996 or Sandra Ng Kwan-yu, “Portland Street Blues,” 1998) – a film genre that had progressively dwindled to a trickle by the end of the decade.  A scant few female action actors – among them Kara Hui, Yukari Oshima, and Cynthia Khan continued to make essentially unchanged action films across two decades – longer in the case of Kara Hui.  Although the popularity of contemporary action in general substantially declined during the late 1990s, the Wong Jing film studio and other independent production companies continued to make such films.
Carrie Ng (Mission of Justice) and Maggie Siu (Murders Made to Order)
Now, after a brief hiatus, the HK film industry may have rediscovered the action genre.  Several fine recent productions suggest an emerging trend toward cinematically lush, well scripted and scored dramas that emphasize moments of intensity, ambiguity and irony over more conventional character trajectories.  Films such as “Jiang Hu:  The Triad Zone” (2000), “The Killer of the Lonely Heart” (2000), “Skyline Cruisers” (2000) and “Martial Angels” (2001) seem distinctively postmodern.  New female performers such as Josie Ho (“The Legend of a Professional,” 2000) or Shu Qi and Kelly Lin (e.g., “Martial Angels,” 2001) capture an aesthetic of estrangement – while Sandra Ng’s experience and depth of characterization have also featured prominently.  Complemented by good effects, these recent titles are once more both technically and artistically impressive – rekindling some of the essential excitement that has distinguished HK cinema at its best.  The only proviso appears to be that there are no obvious successors for the relatively small number of female performers whose physical talents (in martial arts or gymnastics) originally contributed so prominently to these genre films.  Also, many recent female action roles have been only supporting ones (e.g., “Purple Storm,” 1999; “Cold War,” 2000; “A War Named Desire,” 2000; “X-Cop Girls,” 2000), comic parody (e.g., “Cop Shop Babes,” 2001) or as cameos within films with Cat. III themes (e.g., “Raped by an Angel 5:  The Final Judgment,” 2000).  Even Clarence Ford’s “Martial Angels” (2001), that explicitly set out to recapture familiar GWG territory with updated cinematography and effects, stumbles due to indifferent action choreography in the final third.

Hsu Chi/Kelly Lam (Martial Angels) and Sandra Ng/Jo Kuk (Jiang Hu)