Kaiju Shakedown: Girls with Guns
Want to see a 25-year-old moppet roller-skate across the hood of a car and clock a maniac in the chin with her wheels? How about watching a blonde from Delaware disable four thugs with a wooden chair and a pair of handcuffs? Or witnessing a recovering addict take on a gang of dog-kicking rapists on a dock in Vancouver while she’s stark naked?
Welcome to Hong Kong’s greatest forgotten film genre: Girls with Guns.
Women have always kicked ass in Chinese movies. The first major movie star in China was Chin Tsi-ang, a 16-year-old athlete (and, eventually, Sammo Hung’s grandmother) who shot to fame as a sword packing, horse-riding action mama way back in 1925. In the Sixties, Connie Chan (usually cross-dressing as the male hero) and Josephine Siao (usually playing the heroine) co-starred in numerous wuxia flicks, and Shaw Brothers gave us sword-slingers like Cheng Pei-pei and bare-knuckled beauties like Kara Hui.
But we’re not talking about women in wuxia movies—even though there are plenty of them. We’re talking about a strain of moves that started with director Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam (85) and pretty much ended with Corey Yuen’s down ’n’ dirty sleazefest Women on the Run (93). Girls with Guns movies featured international casts, exotic locations, lots of Uzis, a jackhammer pace, at least one fight on a construction site, some of the most synth-tastic scores of the Eighties, and many, many questionable hairstyles.
Girls with Guns movies didn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, they destroyed it. The men’s roles were limited to treacherous pimps, lazy boyfriends, unsupportive husbands, or silky boy-toys, and the focus was on sisterhood served with a side of hot lead. In Dreaming the Reality (91), Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima play blood-sisters, raised from birth to blow away scum. At one point, Moon Lee is feeling a little blue after barbecuing a bus full of singing school kids. “Sister,” she asks. “What will you do if I die?” Yukari Oshima doesn’t even bat an eyelash. “Die with you,” she says. That’s Beaches, Hong Kong style.
As sleazy as they sound, Girls with Guns movies are never about sex. Wong Jing made a whole series of salacious Girls with Guns movies (Naked Killer, 92; Naked Weapon, 02; Naked Soldier, 12) and, once the genre was pretty much dead, Her Name Is Cat (98). Each one is full of leering shots of bare breasts, sweaty abs, kittenish lesbian cuddles, and soft focus lovemaking. But those flicks stand outside the genre. Real Girls with Guns movies don’t have an ounce of prurient interest in them: the heroines are chaste, love scenes happen offscreen, romance consists of little more than flirtatious glances, and the heroines are usually bundled up in ankle-length skirts, high-waisted mom jeans, long jackets, and loose T-shirts.
When they weren’t talking about sisterhood, Girls with Guns movies chronicled the war between the sexes. Women were passed over for promotion, not given serious cases, sold into prostitution, threatened with rape, obliged to go undercover as hookers, and called “bitch” with metronomic regularity. In hand-to-hand combat, their opponents, who were more accustomed to battling men, sometimes kicked them in the crotch only to realize that wouldn’t get them anywhere, and then punched them in the breasts instead. Matched up against larger male combatants the women made use of their every feminine advantages, constantly shooting, stabbing, kicking, and punching men in the balls. In Blonde Fury (89), after superkicker Billy Chow tears through the male members of the cast, Cynthia Rothrock takes him on in what seems like a doomed battle, until she shreds his thigh muscles with her stiletto heels. Later, when she goes up against the much bigger Vincent Lyn, she simply retreats into a series of narrow corridors where his longer reach is useless, yielding him nothing but busted knuckles and bruised shins.
Two tributaries flowed into the ocean of estrogen-fueled mayhem that was the Girls with Guns genre: Yes, Madam (85) and Angel (87). Yes, Madam represented the bigger-budgeted branch of Girls with Guns, produced by mega-billionaire Dickson Poon’s D&B Films, a company he founded with Sammo Hung. In Yes, Madam, the genre hadn’t found its formula yet, so it’s mostly a comedy focused on a gang of hapless buffoons (played by D&B co-founder John Shum, action director and actor Mang Hoi, and blockbuster director Tsui Hark) that sparks to life whenever its two female co-stars, playing rival cops, hit the screen.
Yes, Madam introduced the world to three huge Girls with Guns talents: action-choreographer-turned-director Corey Yuen (his second film); Michelle Khan (aka Michelle Yeoh), who served her apprenticeship in Girls with Guns movies before moving on to bigger and better things; and Cynthia Rothrock, who would make a bunch of B-list Hong Kong movies, date Mang Hoi, and become one of the only Caucasian actors to become a legitimate Hong Kong star.
D&B followed up on the success of Yes, Madam with two more vehicles for Michelle Khan. The first was the bodacious Royal Warriors (86) where she teams up with the totally useless Michael Wong and the badass Sonny Chiba protégé Hiroyuki Sanada to take down three psychotic hit men. The movie basically consists of Michael Wong acting like an idiot, then Khan and Sanada cleaning up his messes by kicking all the asses. Set in Japan and Hong Kong, it treats audiences to such magnificent sights as Michelle Khan arriving at a gunfight in a miniature tank and Michael Wong being tortured and thrown off a building. Next came the big budget Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off, Magnificent Warriors (87), also starring Khan. She followed that up by marrying company boss Dickson Poon, and promptly retired. To replace her, Poon found Yang Li-tsing, renamed her Cynthia Khan (a combination of Cynthia Rothrock’s and Michelle Khan’s names), and dropped her into the full metal fury flicks In the Line of Duty III (88) and In the Line of Duty IV (89).
When Cynthia Khan moved on to greener pastures, D&B bet the farm on Jade Leung. Her first film for them was Black Cat (91), a rip-off/riff-on of La Femme Nikita, followed by Black Cat II: Assassination of President Yeltsin (92). While Black Cat is leaden, Black Cat II feels like D&B’s attempt to kick-start a Jane Bond franchise, with a cybernetically enhanced Jade stalking irradiated Russian hit men who want to kill Boris Yeltsin (played by a Yeltsin lookalike who is at least Caucasian, but otherwise isn’t exactly a dead ringer). It’s a big slice of cheese, but it comes roaring off the screen with rabid ferocity, including a jaw-dropping moment when Jade, pursuing the Russian killers from their radiation trails, whips out her Desert Eagle in a shopping mall and plants a slug right between a grandma’s eyes, her blood splashing a screaming clown in the face. Turns out, grandma wasn’t a hired killer—she just got back from chemo. It was the final film for D&B, and afterwards Jade was left to the mercy of low budget producers who put her in subpar fare like Satin Steel (94) and Enemy Shadow (95), during which she was badly burned when a stunt went wrong.
The other touchstone of Girls with Guns movies was Iron Angels aka Angel (87), credited to one of the genre’s only women behind the camera: Teresa Woo. Whereas the D&B movies had Corey Yuen, Michelle Khan, Cynthia Rothrock, Cynthia Khan, and Jade Leung, the Angel movies added Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima to the pantheon. Lee had been a blandly perky teen in Sammo Hung’s stable for some time before this film turned her into an action icon and Oshima, a Japanese martial artist and athlete, would go on to become one of the mainstays of Girls with Guns (later adapting the delightfully ridiculous stage name Cynthia Luster).
Iron Angels is an enthusiastically berserk version of those late night cable movies, drunk on bullets and addicted to explosions. What might account for its lowbrow style is the fact that those who worked on the film say that the directing duties were actually handled by Ivan Lai, one of Hong Kong’s C-list geniuses, whose low-budget oeuvre is worthy of a dissertation all its own. In Iron Angels, a Charlie’s Angels–like team of Moon Lee and Elaine Lui are hired to take down a drug cartel headed by Yukari Oshima. Things climax in a construction site battle with Korean super-kicker Hwang Jang-Lee, followed almost immediately by a warehouse battle between all three female leads, thereby establishing the number one Girls with Guns action locations: construction sites and warehouses.
Far more brutal than D&B’s movies, the Angel cycle of Girls with Guns movies used the Philippines and Thailand as exotic locations rather than Canada and Japan, had a tendency to go full-auto far more frequently, and stayed resolutely low budget. Nevertheless, its machine-gun-heavy, hairspray-and-parachute-pants aesthetic owned the early Nineties, inspiring a trend in titles: Angel Enforcers (89), Midnight Angel (90), Angel Mission (90), and Angel Force (91). None of those movies was related to the original franchise, and the Angel name would later be co-opted by Wong Jing for his rape-revenge franchise, Raped by an Angel (93), with six installments and counting.
From about 1989 to 1992, Girls with Guns was unstoppable. There was Stone Age Warriors (91) with Elaine Lui taking on Komodo dragons in the jungle, The Godfather's Daughter Mafia Blues (91) in which Yukari Oshima plays a spoiled Chinese brat whose only joy derives from kicking people in the back of the head. Moon Lee appeared in Nocturnal Demon (90), which combined lighthearted fish-out-of-water comedy with a necrophiliac serial killer brutally murdering women. Sammo Hung joined the machine gun party with She Shoots Straight (90), another Corey Yuen joint that let Hong Kong’s A-list actors have a lowbrow Girls with Guns flick of their very own. Even Jackie Chan got in on the action with Police Story 3: Supercop (92). A comeback vehicle for Michelle Khan (now Michelle Yeoh after her divorce from Dickson Poon), it’s Chan’s take on a Girls with Guns movie featuring a big fight in a jungle drug compound. He followed it up by producing Michelle Yeoh’s very own Girls with Guns solo show, Project S (93).
The Godfather's Daughter Mafia Blues
By 1993, the trend was already waning. The ultra-depressing “everyone dies” Girls with Guns flick Angel Terminators (92) had sat on the shelf since 1990 because the market was glutted, and Corey Yuen kind of rolled things up and turned out the lights with Women on the Run (93). Cheap and sleazy, it still featured some high-flying action, and even the nude fights (which were the movie’s marketing gimmick) didn’t feel prurient. Much. Nevertheless, its grim tone and dismal box office performance was proof that the party was over.
But there were still two final twitches left in the genre’s corpse.
In 1995, D&B refugee Jade Leung finally got the vehicle she deserved with Fox Hunter. A stripped-down, barebones movie, it makes up for its low budget with terrific character work. Leung plays Jenny Yeung, a traffic warden passed over for promotion again and again. Her superiors promise her some career juice if she goes undercover as a karaoke prostitute in order to nab the ruthless Brother Tung, who has been set up by the motor-mouthed pimp, Chan Hong (played by Jordan Chan). Turns out that the cops suck at their jobs and everything goes to hell, and only Yeung’s quick thinking saves the day. Brother Tung keeps this in mind when he breaks out of police custody later that night, murders her beloved uncle, and then rapes her before fleeing to Mainland China.
Instead of carrying a mattress around campus, Yeung decides she’s going to China to feed Brother Tung some bullet pie, so she abducts Chan Hong to guide her, and their odd couple pairing—she’s the grim avenger, he just doesn’t want to die—keeps the movie bouncing from one tight action setpiece to the next. Never stretching believability beyond the breaking point, it was a box office flop that was never even released on DVD, but it stands as a classic of the genre.
If that was the Angel-flavored requiem for Girls with Guns movies, Corey Yuen directed the D&B-themed funeral services. Completely bonkers, and totally lovable, So Close (02) teamed up major stars Shu Qi and Vicki Zhao Wei as two assassin sisters (in shades of Dreaming the Reality), pitted them against a tough cop (Karen Mok), and gave them a huge budget from Columbia Pictures to pay for hordes of sword-fighting assassins, swanky white outfits, sunglasses that sprayed poison gas, and violent demonstrations of sister-love. The movie is a fun-loving blast, but it didn’t matter. Audiences in Hong Kong were done with Girls with Guns, so it flopped too.
Girls with Guns is dead, but between 1985 and 1993, women with machine guns ruled the Hong Kong box office. Whether it was the nail-polished fists of the D&B movies, or the wild Uzi duels of the Angel-imitators, it was a period when you didn’t have to explain why the grinning, chipmunk-cheeked girl in a raincoat with a Hello Kitty backpack kicked ass. She was a woman. That was enough.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Journey to the Shore
…The big news this month is that Cannes is over and you can stop reading the endless tweets from people humblebragging about how exhausted they are. To those fallen heroes, we salute you. Earning an actual, not facetious, salute is Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose wuxia, The Assassin, won the Golden Lion for Best Director. And Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who’s been out of the headlines for a few years, took home Best Director at the Un Certain Regard portion of the festival for his ghost movie Journey to the Shore.
…Speaking of film festivals, the New York Asian Film Festival (June 26 – July 11) has announced its lineup. Taking place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and then the SVA Theater during its final weekend, there will be a retrospective of macho movies starring Bunta Sugawara and Takakura Ken, both of whom passed away last year. Hong Kong’s Ringo Lam will be there to receive a lifetime achievement award, and two of his best movies, City on Fire and the neglected masterpiece Full Alert, are screening. There will also be a special focus on women working in Korean film with producer Shim Jae-Myung, directors Yim Soon-Rye (The Whistleblower) and Boo Ji-Young (Cart) in attendance.
…On June 5, Jackie Chan’s latest movie, Police Story: Lockdown, will be released in American theaters and on VOD. Directed by Ding Sheng (who directed the underrated Jackie Chan flick, Little Big Soldier), it’s the latest installment in Jackie’s Police Story series that has been running since 1985. This one’s a reboot (also known as Police Story 2013) where Chan plays a Mainland police officer trying to rescue his daughter from a hostage situation in a nightclub.
Happiness of the Katakuris
…Coming out on DVD/Blu-ray this week is a packed Arrow Video combo-disc set of Happiness of the Katakuris. Arrow is doing right by Takashi Miike’s murderous musical, complete with Claymation exploding volcanoes, and performances by two pop stars, Kenji Sawada and Kiyoshiro Imawano (now deceased). It’s packed with extras, a booklet full of essays (including one by Stuart Galbraith IV on how having Sawada and Imawano in one movie is like getting David Bowie and Mick Jagger onscreen together, and one from me on Kim Jee-Woon’s The Quiet Family and how it relates to Happiness).
…Finally, Disney is at long last making Miyazaki fans happy with the much-awaited DVD/Blu-ray release of two Studio Ghibli films on June 16. Spirited Away is a title folks have been waiting to see for what seems like ages, and The Cat Returns is a Ghibli rarity from director Hiroyuki Morita. Specs for both discs are here.