III.  Ideology and Spectatorship

Ideological Readings

When ideology is regarded as involving a series of tensions arising from competing interests – economic, ethnic, religious or gender-based – the products of popular culture may reflect and help shape these.  Film genres such as police dramas that embody dominant, patriarchal values will therefore be read as natural and in accordance with the world view of adherents of the dominant ideology, while negotiated readings involve selective emphasis on certain portions of the text that overlap with the perspective of the viewer.  Oppositional readings might explicitly regard the entire text as an expression of ideology.

Gigi Leung (First Option), Do Do Cheng (Tiger Cage)
Independent of the structure of their surface text, GWG titles appear to operate primarily in one of three narrative modes that can differ according to the ideological reading suggested.  In addition to generally recuperative and inherently conservative police procedurals, it may be useful to borrow two elements of Napier’s (Note 10) typology of anime – films that also frequently foreground the female body in extremis – comprising the “personal apocalyptic” and “carnivalesque.”  Napier’s description of individual bodies in transition (personal apocalyptic) may be contrasted with the rebellious, violent, and sometimes bawdy disinhibition of the carnivalesque or “festival” mode (Note 11) that up-ends the dominant ideology if only temporarily.   When applied to GWG films, carnivalesque narratives might include not only action comedies with subversive elements (e.g., “The Outlaw Brothers,” 1990), but also those that involve prominent – albeit temporary – shifts in roles (e.g., “Widow Warriors,” 1990).  Personal apocalyptic narratives may include vengeance, assassin or fugitive titles involving the apocalyptic transformations of loss – of physical safety, personal honor, autonomy or even life.  Particular films can combine these various narrative modes.
Almen Wong (Her Name is Cat), Josie Ho (Purple Storm)
Most GWG police procedurals bear resemblances to their televisual antecedents, while personal apocalyptic and carnivalesque narratives may be distinguished by the degree to which the principal female protagonist is foregrounded.  Personal apocalyptic mode may grant the greatest screen time to the female protagonist as she undergoes her transformation, but it remains important to gauge the extent to which her character truly drives the narrative.  In the classic and disturbing HK title “Her Vengeance,” Pauline Wong’s character completely dominates the screen and the narrative.  She is clearly the “bearer of the gaze,” to the extent that the camera makes extensive use of close-ups of her eyes in a modification of shot/counter-shot conventions in which she visually interrogates the targets of her counter-aggression.  The viewer is invited to identify with her perspective as a predator.  This is achieved without fetishization of the body or incorporation of prominent gender-coded symbols.  The very ordinariness of her appearance and manner throughout the film only magnifies its horrific impact.
Cynthia Khan (ITLOD III), Cynthia Rothrock, Michelle Yeoh (Yes Madam)
By contrast, many carnivalesque films diffuse narrative continuity across sub-plots and characters – often co-mingling genres.  Thus, the path-breaking “Yes, Madam!” (1985) could be considered a carnivalesque blend of comedy, crime and police procedural.  Roles are exaggerated, and when conventions are flouted it is often with heightened drama.  By contrast, the “In The Line of Duty” films that shortly succeeded “Yes, Madam!” tended to be straightforward police procedurals.

Police procedurals and muscle dramas are among the genres most closely identified with Western male viewing preferences (Note 12) and patriarchal ideology.  In these genres, male controlled power structures typically delegate authority to the individual protagonist which is then used in the service of the state or more vulnerable persons (frequently women).  The protagonist’s conflicts or deficiencies are frequently resolved by a partner or “buddy.”  Authority requires objectivity, emotional self-regulation, and the absence of sexuality.  The action is characterized by individualism, competitiveness, and regard for rules or norms.  The mise-en-scene in such genre productions frequently involves prominent symbols of civil authority (e.g., police stations) or gendered symbols (machinery, cars, weapons).  The protagonists are frequently depicted in motion, creating visual excitement.  Formal power structures tend to be patriarchal and are often explicitly held by men.

Angel Terminators I
HK police procedurals have tended to adhere quite closely to these formulaic elements, irrespective of whether the leading characters are male or female.  This encompasses many of the police actioners such as the “In The Line of Duty” series as well as police “buddy” films that have sometimes placed female martial artists such as Sharon Yeung (e.g., “Angel Terminators,” 1990; “Princess Madam,” 1989) within the pair.  Such genre films can be thoroughly entertaining.  However, when conventionally physically beautiful, conspicuously costumed female performers are included, this device positions the female protagonists as objects of the male gaze within otherwise familiar male-coded narrative conventions.  It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the best-known GWG police action genre films placed former beauty contestants or dancers in such parts (Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, Joyce Godenzi).
Elaine Lui, Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima (Angel)
Carnivalesque films often involve startling (to Western viewers) reversals or modifications of role.  Examples include the exuberant, violent abandon of “Angel” in which both the heroes and villain were played by women seemingly bent on overturning as many superficial gender conventions in action film as possible.  While the female heroes (Moon Lee and Elaine Lui) mount a tongue-in-cheek paramilitary operation that involves aggressive driving, tracking devices, paramilitary fatigues and automatic weapons, they are also required to rescue the male FBI agent (Alex Fong) sent to help coordinate the operation!  The gunplay is as immoderate as any Hollywood action film, yet violates the norms of even this familiar genre by deliberately folding a man over a detonating hand grenade.  In the person of their opponent, they face a skillful, ruthless woman (played by Japanese martial artist Yukari Oshima) who is both physically and intellectually competent, as well as quite emotionally expressive – albeit in a highly deviant manner.  “Angel” arguably permits a range of negotiated readings, including patriarchal, progressive and subversive.  On balance the frame is still constructed in accordance with dominant ideology.  Both the law enforcement and criminal leaders are male; their concerns are law and order, money and power.  The patriarchal order is ultimately restored by the intervention of male authority.  But within the space of the text, Yukari Oshima opens up a possibility of seemingly unstoppable personal power that is as convincingly ferocious as it is clearly not masculine.
Widow Warriors
Recuperative elements seem less immediately apparent in the case of “Widow Warriors.”  After all, it is the women (Tien Niu, Elizabeth Lee, Kara Hui, Michiko Nishiwaki) who seize control of the crime syndicate and their own fates, following the murder of their father, brothers or husbands.  In so doing they must battle intrigue as well as direct, armed attack.  A range of skills and characteristics is displayed by these resilient individuals, some of whom are drawn as well rounded, reflective people who are able to express genuine emotional range.  But, as was the case with “Widows,” the opening sequences of the film establish that all the women had relationships with the men who actually ran the family’s criminal and legitimate businesses.  In this manner, the problematic of “femininity” raised by their subsequent actions is effectively neutralized.  Men have wanted them.  In other respects, the film fares quite well.  Patriarchal assumptions are foregrounded, but not uncritically.  After all, it is the poor judgment of the males that establishes the narrative.  Nevertheless, the narrative is still established and framed by patriarchal discourse although a comparatively broad latitude for negotiated readings is offered.
Outlaw Brothers
A further carnivalesque title may be briefly considered.  “The Outlaw Brothers” (1990) was a relatively successful film that featured some outstanding martial arts sequences involving participants of both genders.  The sheer spectacle of martial arts skill is buttressed by a number of symbolic elements.  Several elements of parody are also prominent.  The principal plot axis turns on theft of exotic sports cars.  Sub-plots concern a romance between a charming car thief (Max Mok) and a calculating nightclub hostess (Sharon Kwok), and an apparent flirtation between the car thief’s partner (Frankie Chan) and the businesslike female police officer (Yukari Oshima) who is investigating them.  The costuming and flirtatious gestures turn out to be a device.  In the climax, the bleeding but triumphant female police officer subdues her adversaries (Michiko Nishiwaki, Jeff Falcon, Mark Houghton), sidesteps the advances of her male colleague (Miu Kiu-wai) – at one point she smilingly offers him the trash can as a vase for the flowers he brings her – and arrests the car thieves.  As Chan’s character makes a final appeal to their supposed relationship, she responds “eat turd.”
Outlaw Brothers
This entire film can easily be read as a relatively subversive parody.  Both the car thieves and police are presented in ways that can challenge dominant ideological assumptions.  Their characters do not strongly invite identification, and prompt recognition of how patriarchal norms can operate.  The female police investigator proves to be stronger and more cunning than any of them.  Although her personal life remains opaque, she manages to remain professionally engaged and capable as well as (to the male gaze) appealing in her (parodic) undercover role – yet without surrendering personal power in either instance.  Playfulness with roles characterizes many GWG films, meriting in many cases more sympathetic viewing.  It can still be argued that the film is nevertheless framed by patriarchal discourse.  It is an action film that counterposes crime with law and order.  The mise-en-scene frequently involves the male-oriented contexts of sports cars and commercial locations.  And yet, in a brief scene set in a fitness club – seemingly incidental to the narrative – a young woman asks Oshima’s police officer (who is working undercover as a fitness trainer) whether her exercises are enlarging her bust line.  She is disconsolate to learn that no enlargement has occurred.  This scene is presented and acted in a manner that mocks the implied stereotype and accompanying male “look.”  Neither of the women embodies the stereotype and they enjoy a brief, ironic moment.  Such elements point to subversive reading possibilities.  However, it can be argued that the body of the female martial artist as an object for display may nevertheless be fetishized even here – although clearly not in accordance with typical attractiveness stereotypes.
Josephine Siao (Mahjong Dragon)
Female action films in personal apocalyptic mode are frequently more ideologically problematic.  A few, such as “Soul” (1986) or “Mahjong Dragon” (1997) feature middle-aged women whose lives are unexpectedly disrupted.  Narrative elements in these films cluster around communication, emotion and relationship significance rather than a primary emphasis on action.  Many assumptions of patriarchal ideology are implicitly debated, although the framing, overall, remains unaltered since it is the death of a husband or search for a husband that prompts the protagonist’s personal crisis.  Despite this obvious limitation, “Soul” explores the transformation in the life of the central female character (Deanie Yip) as a result of her marriage.  Interestingly, her resolution of current threats turns her previously accepted marital status into a problematic.
Wu Chien-lien (Beyond Hypothermia), Pat Ha (On the Run)
Other variants of the personal apocalyptic involve a victim-victimizer dialectic.  Two surface narratives are common.  In one, the principal female character performs an act that places her beyond the pale.  This may range from an unplanned crime to deliberate assassination.  Isolated by her actions, she then discovers romance with a nurturing male.  She frequently dies – as, occasionally, does her male consort – as patriarchal forces re-establish order.  Such films as “Beyond Hypothermia” first problematize woman’s independent actions, then recuperate the patriarchal order initially by romance, then by destroying her.  Further problematic elements in these texts involve nationality (frequently the female characters are identified as of Vietnamese origin) and occasionally sexual preference.  The prominence of male-gendered symbolic elements such as guns further codes these texts as representations of patriarchal ideology.

The second type of film seems modeled after the vengeance genre that originated with American films such as “I Spit On Your Grave” and “Ms. 45.”  One of the most prominent features of HK films such as “Her Vengeance” is that virtually every male character may be depicted as venal, unworthy or callous.  Each of the male assailants creates the circumstances for his own destruction by enacting vice-laden personal scripts.  In “Her Vengeance” the examining (male) gynecologist is blatantly offensive and unsympathetic.  Incidental male characters display gambling greed or public drunkenness – vomiting copiously.  Even the central female character’s one male friend (a journalist) tries to grope her crotch after hearing she has an incurable STD.  Significantly, apart from the principal female character (Pauline Wong), the only sympathetic figures belong to marginalized groups – her sister who is blind, brother-in-law who is paraplegic, and friend who is a nightclub hostess.  Unlike some films that portray the assailants as physically repulsive – hence clearly separate – “Her Vengeance” codes the behavior of all its intact male figures as collectively culpable.  Consequently, the film addresses abuse and stigma in a way that clearly brackets these with patriarchal ideology.  However, the film’s resolution enacted by Pauline Wong’s character is pure horror, involving systematic serial murders executed with sometimes marginal physical competence.  This conflates the important ideological message with conventions of the “monstrous feminine” (Note 13) to create a decidedly ambiguous figure.

Jade Leung in Satin Steel and Maggie Siu
Other vengeance titles such as “The Lady Punisher” (1994) support the dominant ideology by their relatively gratuitous depictions of assault or sexuality, and adoption of male gendered conventions of exaggerated autonomy and violence.  It is the interesting exceptions to these conventions that allow somewhat different negotiated readings.

Notes:  Ideology and Spectatorship

10. Napier, op. cit., pp. 29 – 33.
11. Napier, op. cit., pp. 30 – 31, suggests that the Festival Mode is often linked to female characters, perhaps due to relative disempowerment in the culture.  The notion of Carnivalesque is also discussed by Harry Benshoff, “The monster and the homosexual.”  In, Mark Jancovich (Ed.), Horror, the Film Reader.  London:  Routledge, 2002, pp. 91 – 102, esp. p. 98.
12. See Williams, op. cit., p. 275 and Kaplan, op. cit., p. 263 for theorized gendered preferences.  However, also note that female viewers constitute half the local audience for action films in HK (Bordwell, op. cit., p. 153).
13. Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine:  Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis.  London:  Routledge, 1993.