V.  Other Excesses

Bodily Excess

Linda Williams (Note 3) has developed a typology of film genres that involve the elements of sexuality, violence and emotionality.  Her analysis identifies each as the “bodily excess” that fundamentally defines pornography, horror and melodrama, respectively.  Each is construed as an organized system of excess involving “non-linear spectacles” (Note 4), rather than traditional narratives, to provide gross display of the human body.  All may be considered, according to Williams, forms of melodrama marked by departures from realism, excesses of spectacle, and displays of primal emotion.  These include pornography’s portrayal of orgasmic pleasure, horror’s portrayal of violence and terror, and melodrama’s portrayal of weeping.  Williams suggests that investigation of the visual and narrative pleasures found in portrayal of these three types of excess raise possible questions of gender construction and gender address in relation to basic sexual fantasies.

Lily Chung and Karen Mok in Sexy and Dangerous
Williams’ presumed audience for pornography is adult males, for horror is adolescent males, and for melodrama females.  The presumed identifications are, respectively, active and sadistic (pornography), sadomasochistic (horror) and masochistic (melodrama).  More problematic is Williams’ use of cine-psychoanalysis to relate these presumed viewer positions to primal fantasies – rather than recognizing that they are essentially defined by primary emotion.  Primal emotions refer not merely to facial or verbal expressions, but families of antecedent or consequent acts and characteristic action tendencies.  Contemporary cross-cultural studies have identified at least five culturally universal expressions that correspond to primal emotions.  Although modified by culturally specific display rules, these emotions appear hard-wired and universally recognized.  They include fear, anger, disgust, sadness and enjoyment (Note 5).  Williams’ typology seems most apposite when applied to genre films that most clearly affirm patriarchal values – pornography’s depiction of female enjoyment, melodrama’s depiction of female sadness, and horror’s depiction of female fear.
Christy Chung and Elaine Lui in Red Wolf
But there are other instances in which the neat symmetry of genre and presumed perversion does not hold.  Other forms of sadomasochistic behavior or the “stripper-vengeance” sub-genre reviewed by Jeffrey Brown (Note 6) suggest more complex relations between gender, excess, power and audience identification.  Recall that Clover (Note 7) argued that perspectives of the masculine identified viewer may oscillate within the span of the film narrative between the initial passive powerlessness of the abject and terrorized female victim of horror and her later empowerment as a masculinized “Final Girl.”
Pinky Cheung (Erotic Nightmare) and Josie Ho (Horror Hotline)
These distinctions perhaps break down completely when the remaining primary emotions are considered.  Until comparatively recently, Hollywood produced relatively few action films that would foreground women’s aggressive displays of anger or disgust.  Patriarchal display rules have tended to limit these to the narrowly circumscribed retaliatory aggression of the Final Girl character.  Even the icons of Hollywood female action roles – “Ripley” in the “Alien” series or “Sarah Connor” in “Terminator II” and their successors fall into the horror genre and only resort to violence in extremis.  But there are other works that position the female protagonist as a much more malignant figure.  “I Spit on Your Grave” – while clearly establishing the horrific antecedents for avenging rage – also privileged excesses of anger and disgust displayed by the female protagonist – perhaps even enjoyment – with corresponding fear displayed by her male perpetrators/victims.  The existence of such films suggests that excess is linked to power and to the depiction of antecedents and consequences, rather than exclusively to gender.  Correlations between gender and power relations – contrary to cine-psychoanalysis – seem more dynamic and culturally determined.
Maggie Cheung, Nina Li and Carrie Ng in Dragon from Russia
HK cinema has certainly taken note.  A cinema of popular entertainment genres par excellence (Note 8), HK cinema is replete with horror, crime, vengeance, romance and pornographic genre titles that foreground primary emotions.  HK cinema has aggressively pursued the mass marketing of diverse genre films, progressively stripping away the display rules for primary emotion in the process.  One of the largest and most obvious departures has involved roles for women.  While HK cinema absolutely has its share of traditional horror, pornography and melodrama, it has also privileged female action performances that foreground anger and disgust.  “Ms. 45” seemingly inspired the HK film “Girl with a Gun” that dispensed with much of the antecedent suffering to focus on aggressive retaliation (becoming, essentially, serial homicide).  The Asian practice of martial arts in popular film also provided a context for display of aggression as a sensual bodily excess by either gender.  With over 200 contemporary action films involving leading roles for women as the agents of power and aggression – frequently directed against men – it is apparent that HK films – however much they may be characterized as recuperative rather than progressive – nevertheless often defy simple categorizations that align gender with active/passive distinctions in character or presumed viewer identification.
Girls in the Hood and Dodo Cheng in Women Prison
The fact that women are so frequently privileged in active, aggressive roles inevitably raises questions about gender construction, but it is suggested that these may be more complex than they initially appear – representing negotiated readings reflecting an interplay of the globalization of popular entertainment, evolving market strategies, intercultural discourse, as well as rapidly changing social construction of gender roles.

Notes:  Other Excesses

3. Williams, op. cit.
4. Williams, op. cit., p. 269.
5. Paul Ekman, “Basic emotions.”  In, Tim Dalgleish & Mick Power (Eds.), Handbook of Cognition and Emotion.  Chichester, Sussex, U.K.:  John Wiley, 1999, pp. 45 – 60.  Ekman, “Facial expressions.”  In, Dalgleish & Power, op. cit., pp. 301 – 320.
6. Jeffrey Brown, “If looks could kill:  Power, revenge, and stripper movies.”  In, McCaughey & King, op. cit., pp. 52 – 77.
7. Clover, op. cit., pp. 46 – 47, p. 63.
8. See Bordwell, op. cit.