III.  Ideology and Spectatorship

The “Look”

Laura Mulvey’s critical analysis of woman as “image” and man as “bearer of the look” (Note 14) describes the traditional role of the heroine as defined by reference to what she provokes or inspires in the male hero who controls the narrative.  The woman herself is viewed as otherwise having little intrinsic importance.  In this role women are displayed and looked at as erotic objects.  Within the action genre, conventional male “buddy” movies may dispense with this female role altogether, replacing it with a “homoerotic” counterpart (according to cine-psychoanalysis) that does not disrupt the action narrative.

Kathy Chow (Cheap Killers)
Both elements are readily discerned in HK action films from the positioning of competent female performers in male-dominated action narratives (e.g., Maggie Cheung in the Jackie Chan vehicle “Police Story III:  Supercop” or Cherie Chung in Frankie Chan’s actioner “ The Good, the Bad & the Beauty,” 1988 – a film that offers support for Mulvey’s contention through its English language title).  Likewise, HK male buddy films frequently involve bonding that appears to serve a comparable narrative function (e.g., “Cheap Killers,” 1998).  One such title, starring Chow Yun-fat (“Flaming Brothers,” 1987), invites ironic commentary by its English title and offers strong support to Mulvey’s thesis.  When one of the characters is informed of whispered rumors that the partners’ bond seems unusually close this prompts him to engage in exploitative sexual activity that further marginalizes the already vestigial role of women in the film.
Inspectors Wear Skirts and Pink Panthers
Yet where is the GWG film positioned with respect to Mulvey’s thesis?  Generally, at least in most HK (as distinct from Japanese) GWG films, the female protagonists are not superficially displayed as sexual objects.  Clothing styles are often functional – and may occasionally parody erotic codes.  The figures of the central female characters seem far removed from conventional erotic display.  Some of the female performers in these films are competent martial artists able, in reality, to physically subdue their screen counterparts.  Close-ups are typically used to convey action (striding independently, aggression, courage) rather than inspection of the body or its accoutrements per se.  In summary, the main controlling figure appears to be a woman.
Yukari Oshima (Angel Terminators II), Moon Lee (Dreaming the Reality)
But when consideration is turned away from the character and toward the narrative, a number of recuperative elements may again be discerned in many of these films.  Particularly subversive female figures may be killed, or re-integrated into the patriarchal order by relationships with men.  This formula describes many crime, police and assassin genre films.  Only a few do not conform to such conventional narrative resolutions.  In both “Dreaming the Reality” (1991) and “Angel Terminators II” (1993), although Yukari Oshima’s character is killed, this seeming reassertion of the patriarchal order is itself almost immediately negated by the vengeance of other women.  The potential challenge to patriarchal power depicted in the finale of “Angel Terminators II” is multi-faceted.  “Bullet’s” father and male admirer fail to save her.  Her female friend “Chitty” (Moon Lee) and a female police officer “Big Aunt” (Sibelle Hu) – acting under suspension and against the orders of her male superior – defeat the male triads.  Chitty’s male partner is killed.  After Chitty is imprisoned, Big Aunt rejects the police force and invites Chitty to join her in running a mahjong parlor on release from prison.  In the film’s final frame both women join in a gesture of defiance toward the prison and the patriarchal power system it represents – leaving the spectator with a final image of female power and solidarity.
Sibelle Hu and Yukari Oshima (Angel Terminators II)
Mulvey’s argument ultimately rests on the cine-psychoanalytic theory of castration anxiety supposedly evoked by the sexual difference of women.  According to this theory, the male spectator can avoid this anxiety in two ways:  by investigating, deconstructing or subjugating the female character; or turning the female figure into the valued icon of the “star.”  The first is associated with asserting control over the female character – in filmic terms an expression of voyeuristic pleasure verging on the sadistic in its objectification and subjugation of women to a male dominated narrative.  The second approach involves fragmentation of the female body by close-ups and fetishization of the image – the physical beauty of the female performer yielding “scopophilia” or “pleasure-in-looking” for the male spectatorial position.  During the film narrative, the powerful look of the male protagonist may bring the female image looked at into direct erotic rapport (Note 15) with the spectator.
Black Angel and Wild Criminal
Such pleasure-in-looking at another person as a possible erotic object (woman as spectacle) significantly disrupts the narrative – a phenomenon notably characteristic of pornographic films.  When the film narrative centers on an active female figure with whom the spectator might identify, a corresponding de-emphasis on appearance may be expected.  This correspondence is clearly visible in the contrast between many HK GWG films in which the female protagonists are frequently attired in a practical manner, versus the highly fetishized costuming of many Japanese GWG films (e.g., the “Zero Woman” or “Metropolitan Police Branch” series).
Diana Pang Dan (The Saint of Gamblers), Almen Wong (Shanghai Grand)
If female protagonists are to be “bearers of the look” in action film, it may be predicted that their characters will combine three attributes essential to a continuous rather than disrupted action narrative:  a determining, active gaze, attenuated elements of spectacle and heightened physical exhibitionism.  The first two elements advance the narrative, while the third may provide a sublimated, androgynous eroticism.  Just as the male “buddy film” eliminates the need for women, perhaps the female action film eliminates the need for men.  Power can be acquired in two ways:  by martial arts, involving rare, exhilarating talent and by the appropriation of phallic symbols – especially guns.  Under the terms of cine-psychoanalysis, GWG films make castration fear blatant rather than symbolic.  The female image is seldom fetishized, and there are relatively few conventional stars.  The audience look is not frozen on these elements and is instead forced to contemplate the possibility of masochistic desire that is arguably positioned within the domain of horror.

Notes:  Ideology and Spectatorship

14. Mulvey, op. cit., pp. 62 – 63.
15. Mulvey, ibid.