1985 - 2001

“It must be exciting to be a fighter, totally free.”  (Zhang Ziyi, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)

“You can’t expect that garbage to give you happiness” (Nadeki Fujimi, “Pink Panther”)

The internationally acclaimed period martial arts fantasy “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) represents a visually stunning exposition of several themes identified in this review.  For a contemporary, non-action consideration of the symbolism of weapons, personal power and gender, fans of HK cinema might also consider “Blow Your Head Off” (1999).  The 43 titles reviewed below represent some of the best contemporary female action films, and these too have an active subtext.  They are also almost uniformly concerned with the exercise of power – whether institutional or personal – used to varying ends.

These films take aim at limits to autonomy.  In approximately half the titles male partners – suitors, boyfriends, husbands – become casualties.  Most of the remainder conspicuously lack male relationship ties at all.  Among the more potent symbols, weddings receive special attention as the setting for violent assaults in at least a half dozen of these films.  Unfettered by personal relationship ties or obligations, the female protagonists are free to rampage through the opposition.

Whether thrown off a roof (“Royal Warriors”), strung up in Madam Yeung’s dungeon (“Angel”) or perishing in a bullet-riddled car (“Beyond Hypothermia”), the message appears to be the same.  Touch this woman – or even come too close – and you will suffer.  Of course, those lesser mortals simply attempting clumsy overtures receive the shortest shrift of all, very often ending up literally underfoot.

Needing and apparently wanting no one, these sometimes achingly beautiful characters leave a trail of exquisite deprivation.  Add the knowledge of real-life lethality of the martial artists, an occasional frisson of Sapphism, and the conditions are created for irreconcilable desires.

Lists of favorite films may vary across raters, but an effort has been made to objectify this by first rating more than 200 titles of the genre, then selecting the 20% with the highest aggregate scores.  All genre films were first rated along nine separate dimensions:

 Screen Time: Female action performers have more than supporting or cameo roles = 1
 Action:  Female action performers have ample, well choreographed action = 1
 Character: Female action performers have strong, unusual or interesting roles = 1
 Production: Adequate cinematography, editing, narrative continuity and score = 1
 General Action: Male action performers have ample, well choreographed action = 1
 Plot:  Original story or departs from predictable formula = 1
 Convention: Female roles depart from formulaic conventions = 1
 Character Arc: Female action characters are developed across the narrative = 1
 Exploitation: Absence of gratuitous sexuality or irrelevant violence = 1

The films reviewed below all have composite ratings of 8 or 9.  Most fans of the genre should find their favorite titles and performers amply represented, and may be rewarded by exposure to a few titles they had not previously considered.

These 43 films span 1985 – 2001, the period of the entire review.  Their distribution according to performer roughly matches the prominence and productivity of the actors.  The majority of these titles were produced between 1987 and 1993, the period of transition from triads and Heroic Bloodshed to relaxation in censorship and Cat. III.  Viewed chronologically, they represent a distinctive sliver of film history.  Viewed collectively, they could also serve to challenge just about any gender-based stereotype.

To access the reviews, click here to go to the first page or click on the page/year that you want below.

Film Reviews
1985 - 1988
Yes Madam
Royal Warriors
Her Vengeance
In the Line of Duty III
On the Run
Angel Enforcer
Killer Angels
Princess Madam
Thunder Cops II
Angel Force
Angel Terminators
Mission of Condor
Nocturnal Demon
Outlaw Brothers
She Shoots Straight
Thats Money
Widow Warriors
Black Cat
Bury Me High
Crystal Hunt
Dreaming the Reality
Lethal Panther
Queens High
Stone Age Warriors
Beauty Investigators
Cheetah on Fire
Mighty Gambler, The
Naked Killer
Once a Black Sheep
Serious Shock, A - Yes Madam
Angel Terminators II
Drug Tiger
Madame City Hunter
Murders Made to Order
Pink Panther
Project S
1994 - 2001
Other Side of the Sea, The
Beyond Hypothermia
Velvet Gloves
Enter the Eagles
Portland Street Blues
Martial Angels