In general, six principal sub-genres may be
identified in this retrospective of female-centered action films of the
past decade-and-a-half. Triad, police and fugitive dramas are defined
by relationships between the protagonists and organizations or individuals.
Three other sub-genres pit a lone individual against the rest of society.
These include the roles of assassin, serial killer and vengeance-seeker.
A final sub-genre appears to submerge the individual in a collective enterprise.
In this section, some of the major films illustrating each sub-genre are
Live by the Fist, Die by the
Gun: Triads and Heroic Bloodshed
“I heard that you’ve become the lady boss
of the triad.” (Kristy Yeung, “Portland Street Blues”)
Apparently inspired by the 1980s wave of triad
action productions, female crime films were able to borrow the formula
but inject new life by the novelty of changed gender role. Female
actors could play crime bosses (Yukari Oshima, “Angel,” 1987; Sibelle Hu,
“The Mighty Gambler,” 1992; Joyce Godenzi and Agnes Aurelio, “License To
Steal,” 1990; Cynthia Khan, “Queen’s High,” 1991; Sandra Ng, “Portland
Street Blues,” 1998) or low level triad members (Yukari Oshima, “Angel
Terminators II,” 1993; Karen Mok, “Sexy and Dangerous,” 1996; Sandra Ng,
“Portland Street Blues,” 1998; Kara Hui, “Crazy Mission,” 1999).
This dual perspective mirrored that for mainstream triad films in which
crime-lord epics following the model of “The Godfather” contrasted with
a worm’s eye view of life on the street.
Although remaining close to formula, such films
nevertheless added the novel element of placing female action actors in
roles conveying power and control – frequently over male subordinates.
It is difficult to recall a film casting a woman as the ruthless head of
an international drug cartel prior to “Angel” (1987). Just as this
part helped establish Yukari Oshima’s HK acting career, other crime boss
parts provided Sibelle Hu, Cynthia Khan and Sandra Ng with some of their
best roles in films distinguished by good direction, superior action choreography,
adequate plots and good casts. Perhaps the limited box office of
some of these films may be attributed to the reversal of familiar roles.
Structurally similar derivative plots would also cast female leads as the
head of a legitimate business facing takeover by organized crime.
Sample roles included Michiko Nishiwaki’s computer business and Kara Hui’s
uncle’s restaurant in two Taiwanese productions, “Raiders of Loesing Treasure”
and “Pretty Woman at War,” respectively, as well as Kara Hui’s own restaurant
business in “On Parole” (1993) and “On Parole 2” (1994). Other supporting
roles for Hui as a dutiful, hard-working relative drawn into fighting off
unwelcome gang attention due to the shady activities of male family members
included “Naughty Boys” (1986) and “The Vengeance of Six Dragon” (1992).
Wang Lung-wei’s “Widow Warriors” (1990) improved
on “The Godfather” plot by killing off both the triad patriarch and all
his sons. This leaves the surviving widows and daughters to orchestrate
bloody vengeance. In so doing, Elizabeth Lee, Tien Niu and Kara Hui
take over the triad operation, their characters displaying not only cunning
and ruthlessness but also readiness to fight and die. Wang Lung-wei
had starred opposite Kara Hui in “My Young Auntie,” and here directed her
in one of her best “Heroic Bloodshed” roles.
“Heroic Bloodshed” movies have been among HK cinema’s
most popular action products. Often focused in sentimental ways on
the tension between loyalty and personal honor on the one hand, versus
selfish greed and venality on the other, such films have typically offered
redemption by honor and masculine bonding. Yet acclaimed director
Tsui Hark used Anita Mui’s striking screen presence in exactly this manner
in “A Better Tomorrow III.” The balletic gunplay and trademark costuming
typically associated with Chow Yun-fat’s character in the ultra-masculine
“A Better Tomorrow” films are playfully attributed to Mui’s mentoring in
this teasing “prequel.” Mui defines “cool” in this satisfyingly robust
actioner. This entertaining film represents an instance of successful
crossover by an excellent director and actor into action cinema.
Likewise, the appeal of “Angel Terminators II”
is drawn not from its effects or production values, but from the conspicuous,
flouted independence of Yukari Oshima. Her character wanders the
streets, drifting in an out of jobs and pointless fights. The inevitable
clashes with father, authority figures, triad bosses, assailants, employers,
customers, and a stammering admirer define virtually all the male characters
as oppressors, exploiters or fools. It is also probably Oshima’s
best role, projecting a tense fusion of glamour and grunge. As with
other Wong Chun-yeung films – and Heroic Bloodshed films in general – success
rests primarily on efforts to portray depth of character.
Whereas Oshima’s petty triad fought a lonely and
doomed battle against all-comers, Sandra Ng’s masterly acting performance
in “Portland Street Blues” (1998) suggests a more general cinematic maturing.
In “Portland Street” Ng’s character “Thirteen” is clearly complex and flawed.
Alternately abused and ignored by males as a spike-haired teen on the fringes
of triad crime, Thirteen swims with the current. In an ironic turn,
she acquires all the tools of male control – suspicion, ruthlessness, domination
– only to lose warmth and trust in relationships. This is an action
film that at last depicts people as both complex and flawed. No one
is wholly virtuous or wicked. Most significantly, it is not gender
or orientation, but specific choices, actions and life history that define
the person. Of course, it is precisely these elements that have always
lain at the heart of dramatic tragedy.
Some of Kara Hui’s performances have also tended
to emphasize a lonely, uphill struggle against the odds. Often playing
a straightforward small business owner, Hui’s character is typically backed
into a corner by the greed and machinations of others. The influence
of crime is never far removed. She struggles against the legacy of
a criminal past and to protect family and friends from harm – then eventually
fights. The resolution of these tensions in films such as “Naughty
Boys,” the “On Parole” titles and “Vengeance of Six Dragon” typically invokes
an underlying appeal to traditional values – relationships with male partners,
solidarity with family and overlooking the inappropriate conduct of others.
This tends to associate many of Hui’s roles with more conservative cinematic
conventions and values.
A recent title, Corey Yuen’s “Enter the Eagles”
(1998), is unusual for an HK production in that it represents a “crime
caper” film in the familiar tradition of many Western crime dramas.
Set in the Czech Republic it features Shannon Lee and Anita Yuen in a well-paced
adventure that may be light on drama but more than compensates with ample