Recurrent Themes

“Relatives?  Family?  I can live on my own.”  (to Brigitte Lin, “Lady in Black”)

Cinema both reflects and shapes some of the values and assumptions of its target audience if it is to find resonance as entertainment.  In addition to examining the filmographies of directors or actors and summaries of sub-genres, it may be possible to discern more universal underlying themes that can contribute to description and comprehension.

Brigitte Lin (Lady in Black) and Deannie Yip (Soul)
The first, and most prominent, might be broadly conceived as “Traditionalism” versus “Unconventionality.”  One pole presents a cinematic vision of traditional social relations in which communal spirit and group loyalties – plus respect for elders – may be emphasized over individual autonomy.  Within this framework, superficial plot elements of aggression, dominance and obedience resonate to themes of respect, as well as illustrating the repercussions of individuals’ actions.  Such factors have received occasional critical examination in period actioners such as “Wing Chun” (1994) or “Kung Fu Mistress” (1994) in which Michelle Yeoh and Kara Hui respectively don male clothing in order to succeed as kung fu practitioners in a hostile, male-controlled world.  When order or balance are ultimately restored by romance, the leading characters change back into traditional female garb, reconcile with their estranged elders and relinquish their chosen careers.  The recent, internationally successful “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) eloquently addresses similar themes of autonomy versus duty.
Michelle Yeoh (Wing Chun) and Lin Hsiao Lan (Heroic Fight)
Perhaps at the furthest extreme one may locate contemporary titles directly descended from classic kung fu films.  Veneration of tradition is implicit in all classic martial arts plots.  This is sometimes made quite explicit, as in the odd, futuristic “Flash Future Kung Fu” (aka “Health Warning,” 1983) in which a martial arts school (comprised entirely of men) attempts to preserve the “old ways” against a wave of drugs and nihilistic punk violence (in which females participate) amidst chaotic, post-apocalyptic ruins.  Lin Hsiao Lan aka Sharon Foster (“The Dignified Killers,” 1987), the diminutive Taiwanese action performer, brought her Chinese Opera skills to several entertaining Taiwanese action films that emphasized both personal asceticism – to the point of asexuality – and dutiful respect for paternal authority (e.g., “Kung Fu Wonder Child,” 1989; “A Heroic Fight,” 1989).  The latter film, set in contemporary society, represents perhaps a clear affirmation of traditional values in which Lin unquestioningly fights for her father’s business and honor, as well as the lives of her family.
Blow Your Head Off and Tattoo Girl
The majority of action films, including most Cat. III offerings tend to cluster around the “traditional” pole.  “Law and Order” films stress loyalty or duty, while often depicting male dominated power structures or surrogate “families.”  Traditional kung fu roles may de-emphasize sexuality for both genders.  Respect for family and honor are prominent.  Vengeance motives indirectly affirm the value of the relationships lost, and by so doing contrast the roles of quiescent partner and active avenger.  Even the quintessential “loner” – the assassin – may be tamed by romance.

“I’m numb to all this, history stuff.”  (Carrie Ng, “The First Time Is The Last Time”)

Somewhat related to this theme is examination of the sources of the characters’ actions.  By convention people often credit their own successes to inner motives and their own failures to external circumstances.  When examining the fortunes of other persons, this is often reversed.  Others’ failings are often viewed as characterological while their successes may be due to lucky accident.  Another Taiwanese film, “Pretty Woman at War” offers an explicit illustration.  Kara Hui’s character has her passport and money stolen during a trip to Japan.  Acceptance of an offer of assistance exposes her to drugging and assault.  Teamed with several other women thrown together by circumstances into comparable misfortune, she fights against the gang members who threaten them and their relatives.  The depiction of external pressure and chance encounter with injustice is so prominent that it becomes seemingly possible to excuse any retaliatory act.  By contrast, when Tsumura Yukari (Yukari Oshima) finally confronts her last assailant in “Vengeance Is Mine” (1997), he offers a reasoned bargain.  Despite an equally low production budget, Oshima hesitates, frowning, thoughts apparently racing, her gaze distant.  It’s a defining moment, compressing the unspoken contemplation of a future lifetime’s alternatives into a screen instant – acting that wordlessly conveys an inner debate.

Yukari Oshima and Moon Lee in Kickboxers Tears
Of course, other films provide even richer contrasts in characterization.  Cynthia Khan’s eager, dutiful policewoman, a virtual template for similar roles, seems remarkably opaque.  What is the audience to make of her personal life, background or motives?  She seems permanently on duty, well groomed, eternally vigilant.  Clearly, this is a role in which duty, while internalized, is strictly rule governed and hence externally shaped.  The audience does at least glimpse a private life for Moon Lee’s policewoman in “Beauty Investigator” (1992), but this is still different from Sandra Ng’s inner dialog in “Portland Street Blues” (1998).  Faced with a shyly presented ring from her male partner and long-time protector, she wonders, “Does this match Thirteen?”  This throws into relief the primacy of her own sense of identity.  In “Soul” (1986), Deanie Yip Tak-han plays a middle-aged married woman whose seemingly comfortable life bursts apart in the course of a single day.  As her life unravels she is forced to confront unpalatable truths about past decisions.
Sandra Ng (Portland Street Blues) and Lily Chung (Daughter of Darkness)
A few films also tackle issues such as addiction (“Women On The Run,” 1993), abuse (“Daughter Of Darkness,” 1993) and unrelieved rage (“Angel Terminators II,” 1993).  These deeply flawed characters, played by Joh Yung, Lily Chung and Yukari Oshima are the more compelling for our capacity to identify with their weakness.  Who does not experience the urge to blame mistakes on past events as a means of evading responsibility?  As Oshima’s character “Bullet” says, “Yeah, I am greedy.  I fail to be a good girl, but I was forced to!”

“There’ll be a lot of sex elements.  And fights in the movie.”  (“Vengeance Is Mine” ’97)

A final dimension concerns exploitation themes.  While what is considered cinematic exploitation may be culturally specific, there are obvious contrasts between relatively graphic Cat. III productions that include scenes largely incidental to the plot, and those films that develop coherent plots and character irrespective of specific content.  Both “Naked Killer” (1992) and “Rock on Fire” (1994) are examples of Cat. III action films from which removal of the sexuality would drain much of their raw force and entertainment value.  Lesser films could be edited without apparent loss of continuity.  Yet other productions may involve culture-specific references.  Conventions of cross- dressing, present in a number of action films (e.g., “Police Story III:  Supercop,” 1992; “Project S,” 1993;  “Oh!  Yes Sir!” 1994; “Beauty’s Evil Roses,” 1992) may reflect either comedic taste or something more (as when a female martial artist fights Alex Fong while cross-dressed as a man in “Beauty’s Evil Roses”).

Baby (Naked Killer) and Carrie Ng (Evil Instinct)
On the other hand, films that eschew sexuality (e.g., “The Mighty Gambler” 1992) or even violence (e.g., “Soul,” 1986) may nevertheless entertain with satisfying characterization.  The hero of “Mahjong Dragon” (1997) is a middle-aged motorcycle cop played by Josephine Siao Fong-fong who goes to the Mainland in search of a husband.  She offers an HK passport in return for her middle-aged physique.  Marvelous moments show her stuffing tissue paper and toilet rolls under her clothing to enhance her physique, only to sweatily discard them.  Gambling addiction and well-choreographed fight sequences round out this hauntingly humorous depiction of an unlikely hero who will pursue her informant into an elevator on her motorcycle!  Wong Chun-yeung’s “That’s Money” (1990) and “The Big Deal” (1992) also lampoon exploitation elements.  Of the two, “That’s Money” is superior, placing the typically prim Yukari Oshima into a variety of suggestive situations that allow her to act in convention-defying ways.

Josephine Siao (Mahjong Dragon) and Almen Wong (Her Name is Cat)