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 space.

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.”

Yukari Oshima (Dreaming the Reality) and Moon Lee (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).
Michiko Nishiwaki and Sibelle Hu in Dragon Fighter
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.
Dragon Fighter and Devil Hunters
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.

Dreaming the Reality and Holy Virgin and the Evil Dead
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.

Yukari Oshima in Dreaming the Reality and Angel Terminators II
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 female empowerment.

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.