Her Name is Cat

Though I suppose comparing director Clarence Ford to the venerated American director George Cukor might seem fanciful, there is no doubt that both directors seem much more comfortable and interested in narrating stories filled with highly charged females. Of course Cukor never had his female characters attired in red hot pants, strutting into an office and shooting everyone in sight, cutting up a rival and boiling her in a pot or plunging a hypodermic needle into a man’s throat – but Ford has gleefully and stylishly shown women at their most dangerous and their most alluring in films such as Dragon from Russia, Naked Killer, Remains of a Woman, Cheap Killers, Her Name is Cat and Martial Angels. One senses that Ford adores women in much the same way as Cukor did  - aesthetically more than physically – he enjoys women who take control of their lives, is fascinated from a distance with their aggressive sexuality and is thrilled with their glamour factor.
In 1998 Ford created his most intriguing and stylish film since Naked Killer by once again delving into the territory of a female killer and her relationship with a man. In Ford’s world falling in love with a man often leads to a woman’s destruction – it is their Achilles heel – the chink in their armor – love brings out their sublimated maternal and self-sacrificing instincts which leaves them open to attack. Love with a man rarely leads to anything good beyond fleeting moments of passion and the penalty they eventually have to pay is high. Of course this theme is also prevalent in many HK female assassin films – Beyond Hypothermia, The Other Side of the Sea, Black Morning Glory, Black Cat being examples – to be an efficient professional killer affections must be put aside. In many of these films the female assassin is a cold killing machine who is initially rewarded after falling in love by being able to come out of their disassociated emotional shell – but Ford is slightly more perverse in his outlook – his assassins are already fully realized and empowered women who get very little from their often emotionally dysfunctional men. The men are more of a burden than an enlightenment.
Her Name is Cat has its share of fans and seemingly an equal share of detractors. It was one of the last attempts to resuscitate the "girls with guns” genre in a serious way (as opposed to recent frivolous films like Cop Shop Babes or Ford’s own Martial Angels), but its weak box office results pretty much put the final nail into the coffin of this genre – though hopefully it will be resurrected some day. In an attempt to give the genre a different feel, Ford fills the screen with gobs of almost Wong Kar Wai like splashy style (in particular ala Fallen Angels) – garish off setting colors, distorted dreamlike cinematography and quick edgy editing. Ford though brings his own sense of fetishistic style with a perverse focus on sexual fantasy, whips, handcuffs, bi-sexual pangs and Almen Wong. For some the film simply drowns in this perceived pretentious style, but it makes for some wonderfully visual scenes and gives the film an edge that the script does not. Interestingly once Almen falls in love, much of this style vanishes and the film loses its energy and becomes all too mainstream. So not only does love lead to dire consequences – even worse - it leads to dull predictability.
In a bit of brilliant casting, Ford thrust the fairly unknown (at the time) actress, Almen Wong, into a role in which the actress needs to dominate the screen with her presence for the film to work. Almen is more than equal to the task as she explodes on the screen with a combustible combination of burning sexuality and impressive physicality. The camera soaks luxuriously in these traits and fetishly narrows in on her taut body, ample cleavage, high resolute cheekbones and sweaty workouts. Ford has always been fascinated by sexually alluring and voracious performances – from Chingmy Yau, Nina Li, Carrie Ng and Kathy Chow – and he lets Almen loose on the screen like a wild majestic panther on the prowl for fresh meat. This creates a problem though for the film – the fresh meat that she finds comes in the limp form of Michael Wong and by contrast to her sizzle – he seems like a passing weightless shadow - and the chemistry that is needed to make the audience care about their fate is never created. One never understands her passion for this man and her sudden turn into a love struck woman never rings true.
The film plays out among a collage of homages to other films. There are nods to Beyond Hypothermia  - a lesbian agent all too willing to betray and a liking for the simplicity of noodles, Fallen Angels – recording your life on a video camera, Chungking Express – secret apartment invasion – and The Killer – superimposing the changing images of Almen and Michael ala Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee and protecting a small child in the midst of a gunfight. Calling it homage of course might be giving it a positive spin; others might call it a rehash of other film ideas but Ford does impose his own warped imagination on top of it all for much of the film.
In the film Almen is a killer recruited from the Mainland and she performs a series of hits on triad heads. Michael is investigating the killings and upon seeing Almen save a small child he becomes smitten and pulls himself out of his depressed state caused by the breakup with his wife, Kenix Kwok. He follows her – realizes that she is behind the assassinations – and then Almen starts following him in a perverse game of Peeping Tom. Love grows out of this like a strangled flower looking to root. Almen wants out of the killing business so she can eat noodles, watch cartoons and tie up Michael, but decides she has to take one last job. Much of the plot is in fact routine, but it is driven by its subversive style and a bravura performance from Almen Wong. If Ford hadn’t gone soft in the middle of the film it would have become a classic. The poster of Almen has become an icon of HK film – making an appearance on the book cover of Hollywood East by Stefan Hammond – but sadly this outfit never makes an appearance in the film.

My rating for this film: 7.5