Exploitation Themes

“It’s up to you, little girl.  Our Big Boss wants to see your stuff.” (“A Book of Heroes”)

Yukari’s film credits were earned within an industry grounded on exploitation.  Fast profits are taken in the prolific Asian film market that may involve theater runs of only a week.  Cost cutting and box office draw are everything.  Despite a promising start, Yukari evidently lacked local appeal in the Hong Kong market, never placed in the top league of female star earners, and consequently did not break into larger parts or bigger budget productions.  Her film career appears to be divisible into four broad phases.  In the first, her sheer physical skill had curiosity value that could enliven a production.  Captured perfectly by the above line from “A Book of Heroes” (1986) that linked her fighting skill to earnings, exploitation of Yukari’s “stuff” reached its apex in the set-piece action scenes of Frankie Chan’s movies.

 A second series of roles emphasized subordination to male leads.  Most of Yukari’s appearances with Mark Cheng, a few other films (e.g., “The Angels,” 1991, “The Direct Line,” 1992, “Love To Kill,” 1993), and all of her Philippino parts fit this mold.  Audiences apparently did not react as well to a woman who could convincingly play a transsexual (“The Story of Ricky,” 1992) or a butch (“Angel Terminators II,” 1993) entirely lacking attachment to men as they would to a gender role stereotype.  As a result, Yukari has endured on-screen criticism of her appearance and physique - some of it quite insulting - as well as being required to fawn over male leads.  In addition to exploitation of a subordinated gender role, Yukari was increasingly type-cast in shallow cop roles, exploiting a formula that was no longer fresh.

The most recent form of exploitation has been of her name.  Ironically, the fame that eluded her during the most active part of her career has slowly accrued to her name (perhaps due to the expanding home video market), resulting in Yukari’s cameo appearances (or even scenes from her earlier movies) essentially carrying cheaply made films. 

“Bastard, why stare at my breasts?” (Yukari, “The Godfather’s Daughter’s Mafia Blues”)

Exploitation cinema relies on the staples of sex and violence - often intermingled.  Even traditional martial arts movies affirmed exaggerated gender role stereotypes.  In this genre, female action stars could titillate by violating some role stereotypes - while leaving others securely intact.  Female action stars could perform their fight scenes while looking demure and cute, leaving audiences already accustomed to legendary flying swordsmen assured that, in reality, women could not act this way.  Alternatively, more convincing female martial artists could be ridiculed as “tomboys,” assailing their gender identity and social worth.  Yukari’s screen presence collided with this head-on.  Here was a woman who, in reality, could do exactly what she was doing on screen.  Additionally, she possessed some range of acting and character talent - none of which fit conventional female molds.  From her early bare-shouldered Yakuza-tattooed fighter (“Funny Family,” 1986), various incarnations in paramilitary drag (“A Book of Heroes,” 1986, “Final Run,” 1989, “Brave Young Girls,” 1990), Yukari evolved into an animal (“Devil Cat,” 1991), a transsexual (“The Story of Ricky,” 1992), and leather-jacketed, tattooed butch punk (“A Serious Shock! Yes Madam!” 1993, “Angel Terminators II,” 1993).  Capable of looking physically wretched (“Never Say Regret,” 1990, “Vengeance Is Mine,” 1997) or stunningly beautiful (“Close Escape,” 1989, “Dreaming The Reality,” 1991), Yukari successfully avoided typecasting in her best movies.

In some she even managed to appear as if she’d wandered onto the set in whatever felt comfortable - a form of instant bag-lady chic (“Beauty Investigator,” 1992, “Drugs Fighters,” 1995).  Even when Yukari changed into swimwear (“Angel,” 1987 “A Serious Shock! Yes Madam!” 1993, “Deadly Target,” 1994) the camera did not linger, permitting her to retain her austere power.

It therefore comes as something of a shock when one stumbles across a scene that treats Yukari as a sexual object.  Their small number should be a reminder of how successful she was at avoiding this type of exploitation.  Only three deserve real mention.  In “Framed” (1989) Yukari has a cameo role during which she beats up Alex Man while attired in a form-hugging, skimpy leotard.  It could be argued that this costume, plus the fact that he has to finally rescue her after she electrocutes herself by kicking out a neon sign, neutralizes the implication of her physical superiority.  The second scene (or series of scenes) involves Yukari fighting while wearing a skirt slit to the waist, and heels (“That’s Money,” 1990).  Amazingly, even though she poses with her entire leg exposed while the camera films her from underneath (!), Yukari’s power and skill completely steal the scene.  She can be admired - but not as an object.  The worst instance of objectification occurs in “His Way, Her Way, Their Ways!” (1994) a wretched combination of slapstick comedy and cut-and-paste pornography.  She has to appear clad only in a camisole and react to an oral sex sight gag with a vibrator.  From a viewer’s perspective this may have represented the nadir of her film career.  Two other revealing appearances involve form-hugging spandex in scarlet and black (“Outlaw Brothers,” 1990) or emblazoned with “Slut” in combination with bare shoulders (“Angel Terminators II,” 1993).  These celebrate Yukari’s physical form and muscular power.  Once again, she actually gains in stature.

Despite Yukari’s frequently positive portrayals free from stereotyping, she has also been exposed to a relatively high level of on-screen male sexual hostility and violence.  She has been assaulted and urinated on (“A Punch To Revenge,” 1989), threatened with rape and gagged with a sock (“The Direct Line,” 1992), had her appearance ridiculed (“The Direct Line,” 1992) and raped (“Vengeance Is Mine,” 1997) - in addition to frequently hostile invective (e.g., “Spiritually A Cop,” 1991) or intrusive propositions (e.g., “Tapang Sa Tapang,” 1997, “To Kiss Is Fatal,” 1998).  Her characters have confronted sexual violence directly - by killing sexual assailants (“Brave Young Girls,” 1990, “Devil Cat,” 1991, “Beauty Investigator,” 1992, “Angel of Vengeance,” 1993, “Vengeance Is Mine,” 1997).  Links between the Asian film industry and sexual exploitation have also surfaced in several of Yukari’s more intelligent and intense parts.  The event ultimately leading to her own destruction in “Angel Terminators II” (1993) was the drugging and rape of her friend in order to make a pornographic video.  In “Vengeance Is Mine” (1997) Yukari displays her contempt for the men who produce movies that will involve her sister-in-law in “abnormal sex.”  In the English dub of “Power Connection” (1995) she unexpectedly asks an aspiring male actor whether he had to sleep with the director!  In the Cantonese version she announces she will never do Category III films.  “Men are not good” she observes in “Tiger Angels” (1997). 

“One looks beautiful before dying, especially a man” (Yukari, “The Story of Ricky”)

Yukari’s links to cinematic violence are a little more ambiguous than might appear at first sight.  Of approximately 60 movies she is shot in 15, stabbed or impaled in 8, and crushed or burned in another 5.  Her character dies in 14 movies.  While some roles - often her better parts - involve a just death for the villain, others are a little murkier.  In “Ghost’s Love” (1993), for example, Yukari appears as the only female character who does not have sex.  She gets shot, instead.  In addition to the sheer number of times she has been the target of lethal violence, other possible indicators of an ambiguous role include frequent reminders to the audience of her Japanese identity.  These have spanned her career, and have ranged from crude epithets such as “Tempura” and “Yellow Peril” (“Funny Family,” 1986) or “damn Japanese” (“Close Escape,” 1989), banzai jokes (“Tapang Sa Tapang,” 1997) or remarks about stealing raw fish (“Devil Cat,” 1991), to more subtle indicators such as casting Yukari as a Japanese detective, tourist or expatriate, having her repeatedly dine on-screen in Japanese restaurants, or mocking Japanese greeting customs by bumping heads (“Love To Kill,” 1993).  A devalued alien character can be killed off more easily, and few other female actors have been as consistently shot or battered on the Asian screen.  It is also noteworthy that, despite being one of the few female action stars of the genre to have a legitimate, competition-level martial arts background - in contrast to others whose previous experience was on the stage, in dance or modeling - Yukari’s physical toughness and skills have received little attention, and even some criticism.

When viewing Yukari’s movies it slowly becomes apparent that her screen characters inhabit a world of pain - emotional as well as physical, received as well as inflicted.  When she fights, it is with grim, teeth-gritted determination - often to the death.  She has none of the seemingly effortless exuberance displayed by some more popular action stars.  Instead of stunt teams taking a fall, Yukari slugs it out against opponents who often pummel her.  She sweats, bleeds, grimaces, yells, makes errors, and gets knocked down.  Watching Etsuko Shiomi, and time spent at Sonny Chiba’s stunt school left visible traces in Yukari’s style, not the least of which is the Japanese cinematic emphasis on emotional viciousness.  Hate stares, facial expressions and suicidal determination are staple elements of the Japanese genre, and in consequence Yukari may have registered as more distinctively Japanese - to Asian audiences - than we may realize.  When she literally twists the knife (“Vengeance Is Mine,” 1997) or shoots someone point blank (“Never Say Regret,”1990, “The Story of the Gun,” 1992) her character crosses typical thresholds of inhibition about inflicting penetrating injuries.  Similarly, her use of neck-breaking moves (“The Story of the Gun,“ 1992, “Hard To Kill,” 1992) or the garrote (“Beauty Investigator,” 1992) involves an intensely intimate lethality.  We shudder, fascinated.