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 briefly reviewed.

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.

Sandra Ng (Portland Street Blues) and Rosamund Kwan (Love among the Triad)
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).
Kara Hui (Vengeance of the 6 Dragons) and Michiko Nishiwaki (Hero Dreams)
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.
Elizabeth Lee (Widow Warriors) and Cynthia Khan (Queens High)
“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.
Anita Mui (A Better Tomorrow III) and Yukari/Kara (Burning Ambition)
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.
Karen Mok (Sexy and Dangerous) and Yukari /Moon (Angel Terminators II)
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.
Agnes Aurelio (Licence to Steal) and Sibelle Hu (The Mighty Gambler)
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.
Shannon Lee (Enter the Eagles) and Elaine Lui (Red Wolf)
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 action.