Yes Madam: Law and Order

“Officer Wu, emotion is hard to control!”  (to Sibelle Hu, “Drugs Area”)

While seeming, at first glance, to represent the opposite side of the triad drama coin, HK police dramas also appear to constitute several specific sub-categories.  Some, drawing apparent inspiration from the Hollywood “Police Academy” series, offer spoofs on training and rookie assignments.  In addition to pratfalls, these typically also employ numerous traditional role-affirming devices, including male supervisors or team rivals, general bumbling or incompetence, or more directly sexist depictions of harassment and romantic involvement in the workplace.  The action is frequently played for laughs.  Films such as “The Inspector Wears Skirts I – IV” (1988 – 1992) reveal their nature in their English language title.  The four entries in the series nevertheless feature some of the industry’s most popular action actors and feature some genuinely striking moments.  Where else can Sandra Ng be seen wielding an RPG-7 while Kara Hui provides a spoof on Drunken Fist as well as a serious demonstration of skill with nunchaku?

Kara Hui, Cynthia Rothrock and Ellen Chan (Insp. Wears Skirts)
“Operation Pink Squad” (1988), an early police action comedy, also pits an undercover team led by Sandra Ng and Ann Bridgewater against the machinations of their male police supervisors who set them up to fail.  Veering unpredictably between action, drama and occasionally remarkable vulgarity, it’s a strange mixture.  Ng also appeared in “They Came to Rob Hong Kong (1989), an action comedy that features some worthwhile action sequences involving Chingmy Yau and Kara Hui.
Ann Bridgewater in Operation Pink Squad and They Came to Rob HK
“The Armed Policewoman” (1995) provides a slightly different perspective.  Rather than focusing on training academy sequences, the film parades many the same stereotypes as the “Skirts” series as female beat cops are armed.  One of them (Carrie Ng) goes undercover posing as the mini-skirted attorney for a triad leader who is the target of an investigation.  Although the action is occasionally well paced and entertaining, the female protagonists (including Valerie Chow Kar-ling) seem to solve their cases by luck or looks rather than basic police procedure.  To some extent, all these films might be partitioned according to the filmmaker’s ultimate approach to how women’s roles are portrayed.
Valerie Chow (The Armed Policewoman) and Sandra Ng/Charine Chan (Sisters in Law)
“Velvet Gloves” (1996) is another training academy film – this time set in the Mainland – that is both devoid of humor and portrays a relatively credible elite paramilitary team.  There is no confusion here about what the film seeks to portray.  Duty is paramount, and aspects of the film uncomfortably resemble some of the cinematic devices employed in totalitarian propaganda.  Both the opening sequence – a series of full face shots of the female recruits individually presenting their diverse backgrounds – and the closing sequence – a graduation march past at full goose-step – bear resemblances.  In between, Jade Leung does a relatively credible job of presenting herself as a straight-as-an-arrow super-soldier who is trying to fill the shoes of her brother who was killed in action.  Political themes stressing collectivism, order and duty are conspicuous.  The contrast between “Velvet Gloves” and the “Skirts” films is striking.
Jade Leung (Peeping Tom) and Li Fei/Li Shan Shan (Cop Shop Babes)
Many of these “group” films suggest continuity from the traditions of earlier action films that emphasized the visual stimulation of costume, comedy and action above character or plot.  Accordingly, police “buddy” films appear to constitute a separate formula.  These have included some of the best HK actioners, teaming some of the finest combinations of action talent.  Sharon Yeung, a skilled Northern-style wushu practitioner since childhood, starred in “Angel Enforcers” (1989), with Kara Hui in “Angel Terminators” (1990), Moon Lee in “Princess Madam” (1989) and Sibelle Hu in “Way of the Lady Boxers” (1992).  In addition to the martial arts skills of the female leads, several of these films benefited from superb martial arts performances from male supporting actors such as Dick Wei – who surely deserves special mention for enlivening so many female action films – and Mark Houghton – who has carried the burden of being a foreign “heavy.”  Other female action actors provided memorable villains – Ha Chi-chun as a cross-dressed crime boss (“Angel Enforcers”) and the savagely sensual Michiko Nishiwaki (“Angel Terminators,” “Princess Madam”).  “Lady Super Cop” (1993) also cast Carina Lau as an action lead in a police buddy drama, while Nadeki Fujimi and To Kwai-fa appeared as partners in several Taiwanese police actioners (e.g., “Lady Killer,” 1992; “Wonderful Killer,” 1993).  “Beauty Investigator” (1992) offered a similar role for Moon Lee.  “Cheetah on Fire” (1992) teamed Sharla Cheung Man, Carrie Ng, Nadeki Fujimi and Donnie Yen Chi-tan in some of their best action roles.  One of the highest action quotas of any film mentioned here culminates in a full-blown military engagement.  The Taiwanese film “Marked for Murder” (1994) also offers some good action scenes.
Moon Lee (Secret Police) and Sharon Yeung (Deadly Target)
Although breaking no new ground in terms of role or character development, these films nevertheless satisfy by delivering competent, strong performances and action sequences showcasing the genuine physical skills of the actors.  They essentially represent traditional martial arts films with updated story lines.  In these films relationships may provide the fuel for vengeance motives, but the characters’ principal loyalty is to their duty and their partner.  This was effectively lampooned by Carol Cheng in the action comedy “Once a Black Sheep” (1992) that featured Cheng’s sharp comedy and wordplay, in addition to well choreographed fight scenes.
Do Do Cheng (Her Fatal Ways)
A closely related, highly influential role was the “tough cop” model – again a popular male formula.  In D&B’s “In The Line Of Duty” series formula elements involved extensive re-training of the stars (both Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Khan trained as dancers), careful set-piece action choreography, and extensive support by stunt teams and accomplished martial artists.  Cynthia Rothrock – an accomplished wushu stylist – helped launch the first in the series (“Yes, Madam”), while numerous HK action actors such as Dick Wei, Michiko Nishiwaki, Donnie Yen and Waise Lee provided additional talent.  A successful formula combining heroes and villains with a coherent plot and numerous well-staged action scenes yielded numerous derivative titles  (“Madam City Hunter,” 1993; “The Tough Beauty and The Sloppy Slop,” 1995; “Yes Madam 5,” 1996) in which Cynthia Khan honed a role that combined a roundhouse kick with almost Confucian calm and designer jeans.  As the sub-genre has played out in recent low-budget Taiwanese or Mainland derivatives (e.g., “Tiger Angels,” 1997; “Super Cops,” 1997) it appears to have run its course.
Michelle Yeoh (Yes Madam) and Cynthia Khan (In the Line of Duty III)
Cynthia Khan’s role in these films – and to some extent Michelle Yeoh’s in the two previous titles of the series – seemed to rest on reassuring tranquility and wholesomeness – perhaps as an antidote to the violence inherent in the part.  In many ways, the results were relatively conventional, combining the appearance of asceticism traditionally associated with martial arts with obedience to an invariably male supervisor – affirming continuity with traditional social order.  This can be seen in clear relief in “Madam City Hunter” in which Kara Hui’s sensuality in her relationship with Khan’s screen father – itself an excellent performance – makes her suspect.  Khan’s policewoman characters are invariably demure and prim, reassuring in their neutrality.
Maggie Cheung (First Shot) and Carina Lau (She Shoots Straight)
Such characteristics probably contributed to Moon Lee’s success also.  Virtually synonymous with “undercover” police dramas that would end in a frenzy of kung fu and gunplay, Lee’s trim athleticism and “girl-next-door” screen persona propelled her into the league of top female earners in the HK film industry by the early 90s, as well as garnering an international fan base that outlasted her semi-retirement from filmmaking that would shortly follow.  Films such as “Angel 2,” “Angel 3,” “Killer Angels,” “Devil Hunters,” “Mission of Condor,” “Angel Force,” “Beauty Investigators,” “Secret Police,” “Mission of Justice” and “Angel’s Project” defined sub-genre excess in which Lee’s pleasantly naïve character might endure “tomboy” jibes but triumph against impossible odds with a streak of cinematic viciousness.  Lee’s screen martial skills were impressive, but impossibly proficient.  Good choreography was able to make the most of her dancing skills and physical flexibility to produce spectacular performance art.  When occasionally paired with a vibrant emotional context, the results could rank among some of the best the sub-genre could offer.  These roles tended to typecast Lee in ways that limited her acting potential since the principal focus was on the action rather than character.  As a result, such films tend to provide exciting but ephemeral stimulation.
Gigi Leung (First Option) and Athena Chu (Raped by an Angel 2:  The Uniform Fan)
Other actors who proved they could carry physically demanding leads in police action dramas included Joyce Godenzi (“She Shoots Straight,” 1990), Sharon Kwok (“Red Fists,” 1992), Nadeki Fujimi (“Rock on Fire,” 1994) and Sandra Ng (“Thunder Cops II,” 1989).  The latter film, in particular, also offers one of the most intense dramatic performances of the entire genre.  Although appearing in many such roles, Sibelle Hu was typically more successful when cast in films opposite other action actors, rather than in leading parts such as “Drugs Area” (1991), “Fighting Fist” (1992) or “China Heat” (1993).