III. Ideology and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Notes: Ideology and Spectatorship
14. Mulvey, op. cit., pp. 62 – 63.
15. Mulvey, ibid.