“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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