V. Other Excesses
Auteur of Excess
Consideration of the coherent vision and work
product of a director offers yet another cross-sectional analysis – one
that may slice across genres, performers and specific texts. Common
elements may suggest structural connections that bind a number of narratives
to common themes or techniques, positioned within a particular cultural
Many of the conventions of HK genre action
films have been established by performers turned directors – themselves
schooled in Chinese Opera or martial arts. Well known figures include
Sammo Hung, Philip Ko, Wang Lung-wei, Corey Yuen or Jackie Chan.
But among the directors of GWG films, Wong Chun-yeung, in particular, impresses
as not only responsible for some of the most noteworthy titles, but also
for devoting a considerable portion of his directorial filmography to this
genre. While other directors such as Corey Yuen certainly created
impressive action spectacles, Benny Wong exploited the conventions of cinematic
gaze. His female protagonists are certainly bearers of the “look”
posited by feminist film theory and are also the focus of intense, close-up
interrogation by the camera in films such as “Dreaming the Reality” and
“Angel Terminators II.”
The physical remove conventionally associated
with notions of “sadistic” scopophilia (the “male” gaze of cine-psychoanalysis)
permitting women to be “looked at” is paradoxically undermined by Wong’s
close-ups since the spectator is thereby positioned in intense proximity
to the interrogatory gaze of the female protagonist. Frequently the
prelude to lethal combat, this gaze is directly challenging to the male
spectatorial position, yet the camera position also discourages simple
identification with the female protagonist. These factors create
dissonance for the spectator between elements such as the fragmentation
of the female image created by close ups and her aggressive gaze and back
story that inhibit the spectator from assuming either a dominating or identificatory
perspective (Note 9).
Other contradictory factors involve what the close-up
camerawork reveals. While the female image is occasionally fragmented,
the close up also suggests elements counter to conventions of female display.
Examples include a close view of scuffed suede ankle boots (apparently
Yukari Oshima’s own) that emphasize a pigeon-toed walk, a view of her hands
that reveals knuckle calluses acquired by hours at the punching bag, or
a sleeveless top that shows shoulder development and muscle tone.
The faces of Wong’s protagonists in these films are extremely beautiful,
yet the camera also records their physical imperfections too. Hairstyling
and costuming are striking but again distinctly counter to gender stereotypes.
In “Angel Terminators II” when Yukari Oshima is costumed in a leather jacket,
cheap jewelry and spandex pants covered with the word “Slut,” the audience
is nevertheless privy to both the on-screen and intertextual reality of
her capability and self-possession.
The camera additionally reveals abject elements
– insect bites, sweat, blood, emotional and physical pain. Even in
a lesser film such as “To Kiss is Fatal” (1998), Wong fills the screen
with Yukari Oshima’s face during a forlorn karaoke performance. Both
rejected and ridiculed, the audience is encouraged to experience her character’s
hurt. When she fights, moments later, spectator identification is
strong – despite the overall ambiguous moral positioning of her character
within the narrative.
Use of the extreme close-up to observe a character
– particularly while registering the emotional impact of events occurring
off camera – is frequently associated with the televisual style of soap
opera. Accordingly, many of Wong’s GWG films might be described as
merging the visual conventions of melodrama (conventionally a “women’s
genre”) with those of muscle drama (conventionally a “men’s genre”).
The resultant ambiguity – in look, gender role, spectator identification,
and narrative resolution – is mirrored down to relatively small details,
such as the protagonists’ frequent use of sunglasses – thereby interfering
with full spectatorial reading of their emotions.
The combination of graphic action and emotion
represents a potent mobilization of primary emotions – a combination of
cinematic excesses (Note 10).
It is perhaps noteworthy that Yukari Oshima was the producer of “1/3 Lover”
(1995), a film that added the third of Williams’ emotional excesses – pornography.
Also directed by Benny Wong, this film combined elements of melodrama and
horror-violence with pornography, primarily focusing on another Japanese
performer Rena Murakami. Even here, the female characters drive the
narrative and remain distinctly threatening figures – certainly objects
of male scopophilic pleasure, yet actively plotting the death of several
male protagonists. Oshima’s appearance in her own film is also ambiguous.
She is presented as a conventionally unattractive, prim contrast to the
other female performers whose nudity fills the screen, yet is glimpsed
engaged in what resembles usagi tobi – “bunny hops” – a vicious punishment
routine used in Japanese martial arts dojos – while proclaiming “I’m very
pretty, I’m very pretty.”
Wong’s GWG films repeatedly featured Yukari
Oshima and extensively scrutinized her face. By marshaling her “look”
and gaze in a manner that was frequently paired with primal negative emotions,
Wong shaped a distinctive screen persona that imbued the performer’s distinctive
facial expressions with the physical menace of potential lethality.
In Wong’s films Oshima has commanding screen presence, filling the screen
with visual intensity and implied threat. In many of her other parts,
she tends to be viewed primarily in a middle-foreground action context
– impressive, but emotionally detached.
The essence of Wong’s apparent formula might be
summarized as follows: (a) select a visually distinctive performer;
(b) associate her with the capacity for real or implied physical menace;
(c) detach her from social relations or relationship contexts; (d) visually
interrogate her character to simulate intimacy; (e) expose her character
to primal, negative emotion; (f) render her character ambiguous via abject
or transgressive elements; (g) sharpen contrast by provision of a “buddy”
with more typical aspirations or relations. These devices yield admittedly
low-genre films that nevertheless articulate female pleasures in vengeance,
physicality and violence that are typically repressed aspects of cultural
or social life. The “abrupt and nasty ending” (Note
11) that characterizes many of Wong’s films
marks them as embracing the frequently marginalized realm of unrecuperated
Notes: Other Excesses
9. Dyer, op. cit., p. 13, has pointed out that
the use of the claustrophobic close-up may teach women to “read” other
people in soaps and melodrama, and may contrast with masculine visual pleasure
by constructing a female point of view.
10. Williams, op. cit.
11. Suzanna Danuta Walters, “The (R)evolution
of women-in-prison films.” In, McCaughey & King, op. cit., pp.
106 – 123, p. 117.