Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Whatever Happened to Girls with Guns?

“Shit, a dead end”
  (Anita Yuen, “Enter The Eagles”)

For about ten years, from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, fans of Hong Kong action cinema were rewarded with a significant number of titles annually.  These included a distinctive sub-genre of women’s action films that might prove, with hindsight, to have also represented the high water mark of traditional martial arts cinema.  Physical skills and acting talent have since been increasingly supplanted by special effects and computer generated images that blur distinctions between the possible and the fantastic.

While the execution of such technical artistry by auteurs of the female action genre such as Corey Yuen is occasionally stellar, as in “So Close” (2002), other efforts may yield leaden results.  Titles such as “Naked Weapon” (2002) have digitally augmented the physical capabilities of former models, with the predictable effect of stretching suspended disbelief beyond breaking point.  In the absence of credible action performers or choreographers, the shift to digital augmentation also seems to have indirectly eviscerated contemporary low budget action films.  The female characters of the action comedy “Brush Up My Sisters” (2003), for example, are reduced to whacking their adversaries with a shovel as the action climax – falling far short of previous benchmarks.
The absence of credible martial skill among contemporary performers in the relatively few HK female action films recently produced may have the regressive effect of once again foregrounding physical appearance.  This is compounded by an apparent trend toward either saccharin antics or favoring distinctively tall, thin former models (including Asian-Americans) who perhaps seem to more closely approximate Western stereotypes of attractiveness – with all their attendant problems.  It is perhaps a fair comment that such films may no longer privilege traditional Asian body types or skills to the same degree as their “Girls With Guns” forerunners.  In the diminished HK industry of the last several years, the occasional remaining female action film seems regressed to either parody or spectacle – a sign that a genre may have run its course.
As the productivity and emphases of the HK film industry have changed, so too have those of Japanese and Korean cinema.  Japanese popular culture products now generate more export revenue than television sets.  During the last few years directors new and old have challenged the assumptions and censorship limits of Japanese cinema with bold, violent and acidly political critiques of Japan’s consumerist culture.  Several recent Japanese action films such as Kinji Fukusaku’s “Battle Royale” (2000) have garnered international recognition, and it was to Japan – rather than Hong Kong – that Quentin Tarantino took his own variant of female action film in “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003).
Long burdened by ritualized generic conventions of gender violence and pornography, recent Japanese action films have finally begun to open a space to attack patriarchal assumptions – sometimes as conventional narrative (e.g., “Wild Criminal,” 1999) and sometimes as surrealist imagery (e.g., “Pistol Opera,” 2001).  Although the female leads in this new wave of Japanese action films are undoubtedly as physically beautiful as the performers who were primarily objects of viewing pleasure in low-genre productions such as the “Zero Woman” series, this does not appear to have been the sole determinant of their casting.  They do fight, and are placed in physically demanding situations.  Moreover, as director Seijun Suzuki commented about his lead performer Makiko Esumi in “Pistol Opera” (2001), “she wasn’t sexy . . . there wasn’t much I could do about it.”
Korean films have also found increasing favor with Western fans of Asian cinema.  With the relatively recent democratization of Korean society and furious economic development, tensions of both a political and social nature have been natural grist for the cinematic mill.  This very conservative society in which many marriages are still formally arranged has struggled to adjust to astonishing transformations associated with consumerism and its attendant social developments.  Within the relatively brief time since “Shiri” (1999) alerted Western viewers to the potential of Korean action cinema, there has been a steady stream of films distinguished by remarkably high production values, cinematic sophistication and a distinctively cynical view of genre conventions.
In contemporary Korean action films, happy endings are often as elusive as the grasp on reality of the protagonists in “A Tale of Two Sisters”  (2003).  Usually taboo subjects of gender role, homosexuality or even transgender roles find quiet expression in the unusual settings of action comedy (e.g., “My Wife is a Gangster,” 2001), horror (e.g., the “Whispering Corridors” series) or action (e.g., “Yellow Hair 2,” 2001).  Korean films are often intensely concerned with the place and fate of the individual (e.g., “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” 2002), and some titles therefore inevitably engage the important social topic of violence that involves women.
This essay attempts to identify those contemporary Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean female action films that continue to embody both the martial spirit and aggressively subversive stance of the “Girls With Guns” genre films made during the heyday of HK action cinema.  It is perhaps only reasonable to expect that such films will be limited in respect of both time and place.  As essentially “liminal” or boundary-violating works, they are perhaps most likely to be produced during times of significant social transition.
It does not seem coincidental that GWG films enjoyed prominence in HK cinema during a period of rapid social emancipation as well as immediately preceding the relaxation of film censorship.  Similarly, Korean cinema reflects – and perhaps anticipates – tensions within a rapidly changing society that is also emerging from political and social controls.  Contemporary Japanese cinema, too, grapples with increasingly existential questions posed by prevailing social and economic challenges.  Japanese film also draws on manga and anime – arenas of popular culture that aggressively examine gender.  Anime, in particular, conveys not only “kawaii” or “cuteness” but often also the imagined exercise of power by women or girls who are generally not privileged in this manner within patriarchal culture.