II. Narrative and
“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.”
(Jean-Luc Godard, film director)
Structure and Story
The search for underlying structure may be
particularly relevant to genre films since these are often highly formulaic.
Low budget action productions may seek to displace audience attention from
a unified flow of events and instead diffuse interest over a larger field
of characters and ensuing conflicts (Note
1). Particularly noteworthy (and higher-budget)
HK action films that maintain a singular narrative axis, such as Stanley
Tong’s “Police Story III: Supercop” (1992) are well regarded (at
least by Western fans) but also tend to be the exception in this genre.
The more typical “improvisational feel” of HK films may bear some structural
similarities to the strategies of television. Television also typically
lacks the resources to lavish money or time on the details of setting.
In the absence of evocative settings, both entertainment forms often displace
interest from linear story construction to richness of characterization.
Budgetary constraints essentially dictate trade-offs between character,
cast size and location.
In common with other low budget productions of
the HK film industry, many GWG films may therefore occupy a somewhat ambiguous
textual space. Although produced and generally regarded as “film,”
low budget HK action features often bear closer resemblances to made for
television movies or action series that to either Hollywood feature films
or the work of acknowledged auteurs in the HK industry. Structural
and budgetary constraints combine to produce works with narrative and stylistic
features resembling televisual products. Further blurring of this
distinction may result from the limited cinematic release of many HK action
films, and extensive video marketing of the same product.
These factors may partly explain seemingly universal
features of how female performers are typically used in GWG films.
Essentially three narrative constituents may be discerned: the primary
flow of events, setting, and character. It could be predicted that
films rated highly on any single index might be experienced as satisfying.
Films satisfactory on all three may be outstanding. Among the genre
films considered here, vengeance and assassin films tend to focus on what
has been termed the syntagmatic axis (Note
2) – the flow of events per se. Since
the setting is frequently the individual body and mind of the principal
protagonist – wrestling with the aftermath of assault or grappling with
the moral quandary of a heinous occupation – a competent lead actor can
essentially carry the film. It is perhaps no coincidence that some
of these titles provided capable actors such as Pauline Wong (“Her Vengeance,”
1988), Rosamund Kwan and Pat Ha (“Vengeance Is Mine,” 1988) or Jacqueline
Wu (“Beyond Hypothermia,” 1996) with unusually ample screen time.
In otherwise undistinguished surroundings, the dramatic narratives are
enacted in the settings of their minds and bodies, and there is no reason
to deviate from a linear flow of events. Interestingly, these narratives
featured interventions by male helpers whose supporting roles helped sharpen
focus on the female protagonist.
By contrast, physical setting appears as a critical
factor in several other titles. Low budget HK features have made
use of “exotic” locations such as Thailand (e.g., “Final Run”, 1989; “Angel
Force,” 1990; “Hero Dream,” 1993; “Whore and Policewoman,” 1993) to displace
audience interest. A primary emphasis on character may be discerned
in films such as “Guardian Angel” (1996), “Angel of Vengeance” (1993),
“Lethal Panther” (1991) or “Angel the Kickboxer” (1992) that eschewed narrative
continuity in favor of multiple characters and sub-narratives. Despite
being frequently culled from edits of other films, such efforts could occasionally
Certain titles managed to integrate all these
elements. “Stone Age Warriors” (1991) and “Police Story III:
Supercop” (1992), both directed by Stanley Tong, serve as examples, as
does the Tsui Hark film “A Better Tomorrow III” (1989). But the majority
of GWG films have relied most heavily on characterization and action rather
than narrative continuity or setting. Consequently, consideration
of genre role (Note 3)
is central to analysis.
HK action films in general appear to have developed
a distinctively eclectic merging of the visual, narrative and thematic
concerns of action and police procedural genres – conventionally represented
as predominantly male discourses – with elements of comedy, horror and
science fiction, as well as soap opera. Soap opera or melodrama are
conventionally represented as directed at female viewers (Note
4). This generic amalgamation and tonal
variation permits a broad range of readings of the resultant texts – part
cinema, part soap. Such maximization of the range of possible negotiated
texts within the dominant frame may promote appeal to diverse viewers.
Notes: Narrative and Genre
1. See Allen, “Audience-oriented criticism
and television.” In, Allen, op. cit., pp. 106 – 113. Also see
Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Psychoanalysis, film, and television.” In,
Allen, op. cit., pp. 203 – 246, esp. pp. 228 – 232.
2. Allen, op. cit., p. 106. See also
Ellen Seiter, “Semiotics, structuralism, and television.” In, Allen,
op. cit., pp. 31 – 66, esp. pp. 46 – 49.
3. For a discussion of the inherently conservative
ideology represented by hero teams in the muscle drama genre, see Fiske,
op. cit., pp. 294 – 295.
4. See Allen, op. cit. and Gillian Dyer, “Women
and television: An overview.” In, Helen Baehr & Gillian
Dyer (Eds.), Boxed In: Women and Television. London:
Pandora, 1987, pp. 6 – 16. See also Feuer, op. cit., p. 140 and e.
ann Kaplan, “Feminist criticism and television.” In, Allen, op. cit.,
pp. 247 – 283, esp. p. 264.