I.  HK GWG Genre Films and Film Theory

(photo by Quang-Tuan Luong/terragalleria.com)

“Hong Kong has always been a very special city.  Its international style is influenced by the east and west.” (Josie Ho, “Horror Hotline...Big Head Monster”)

Intercultural Entertainment

Hong Kong genre films enjoy enduring popularity with diverse audiences, as evidenced by the fact that retail editions of many titles produced since the mid-1980s have remained in print.  Developments in digital media and Internet retailing also contribute to the distribution of an increasingly “intercultural” (Note 1) entertainment form, serving not only the home markets of South China, neighboring Asian states and globally dispersed Chinese-speaking populations, but increasingly also a sub-culture of non-Asian consumers.  Serendipity has also played a part.  Pre-1997 British administrative regulations imposed relatively uniform requirements for English subtitling on HK cinematic products, rendering them accessible to English-speaking viewers.  Additionally, the 1997 transfer of administrative responsibility for HK to China precipitated an appreciable migration of industry talent – especially to the United States – bringing auteurs and actors to the attention of new audiences.

Yukari Oshima and Joyce Godenzi
Contemporary HK action film is itself a blend of Hollywood, European and Japanese crime or police genre conventions merged with more culture-specific social or moral referents and artistic traditions.  By adopting the Hollywood continuity style of filmmaking (Note 2) to the traditions of Chinese Opera and martial arts (Note 3), while harnessing the star system (Note 4) to narratives driven by primary emotions such as romance or revenge (Note 5) in postmodern urban contexts (Note 6), HK action films have attained an intercultural status.  Their increasingly diversified cultural references and origins address postmodern consumers of globalized cultural products as well as the audience groups with whom the films may be most closely aligned.
Anita Yuen in A Taste of Killing and Romance and Carrie Ng in Black Panther Warrior
In recent years there has been a number of readily accessible English-language publications providing interested Western fans and students of this cinema with an introduction to its origins and techniques (Note 7), personalities (Note 8), polemic (Note 9), and products (Note 10).  Action and related genre films have been the focus of several popular fan texts (Note 11) as well as numerous periodicals.  All these texts strive for breadth and inclusiveness, but in seeking to preserve the conventions of reviewing “national cinema” they inevitably force widely differing genre films together into the same space.  It is implicitly assumed that “made in Hong Kong” accounts for a greater portion of the common variance than, say, genre (Note 12).  This seems a dubious proposition – as if a romantic comedy and police procedural have more in common with each other by virtue of being HK films than each might have with comparable genre films of other national cinemas.
In the Line of Duty and Satin Steel
While there are, clearly, common cultural themes that may resonate across genres, the narrative and filmic elements that form genre conventions may be substantially intercultural.  One need only consider similarities between HK and Hollywood law enforcement dramas (Note 13) to determine that readings of each film narrative could be aligned according to a matrix of perspectives comprising both genre and culture.  Whether consideration of the one over the other should predominate largely depends on the analytic purpose.  National cinemas inevitably become associated with predominant, successful or unique products, and it is easy to forego genre analysis of films that seem so characteristic of a particular national cinema.  This is particularly applicable to the present discussion of “Girls With Guns” (Note 14) genre films, since HK cinema of the last two decades of the 20th Century was perhaps unique in the frequency with which it has privileged female protagonists and foregrounded female violence.
Almen Wong and Cynthia Khan
These HK GWG films have only recently been explicitly joined to Western genre films in a common analysis framed by universal questions of gender roles, power and interpersonal relations (Note 15), rather than solely discussed within a particular national- or culture-specific discourse.  The current essay attempts to expand such application of film theory to an examination of subjectivity.  What might Western film theory suggest about why and to whom these films appeal?  Discussion will focus primarily on film theory and spectatorship, rather than on detailed consideration of the film narratives themselves (Note 16).  Particular emphasis is given to the roles of certain Japanese performers in HK GWG films since these tend to embody extremes illustrating certain key themes that are pertinent to genre analysis.

Notes:  HK GWG Genre Films and Film Theory

1. See Susan Napier’s discussion of anime and global cultural identity for a consideration of borrowing of popular culture texts.  Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke:  Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation.  New York:  Palgrave, 2001, pp. 22 – 27.
2. David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong:  Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 161 – 170, pp. 210 – 217.
3. Bordwell, op. cit., pp. 191 – 196.
4. Bordwell, op. cit., pp. 156 – 160.
5. See Bordwell, op. cit., pp. 194 – 196 for a discussion of revenge plots.
6. For a discussion of postmodernism in HK cinema, see Stephen Tao, Hong Kong Cinema:  The Extra Dimensions.  London:  British Film Institute, 1997, pp. 243 – 255.
7. Bordwell, op. cit.
8. Frederic Dannen & Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon:  An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East.  New York:  Miramax, 1997.
9. Lisa Oldham Stokes & Michael Hoover, City on Fire:  Hong Kong Cinema.  London:  Verso, 1999.
10. Rick Baker & Toby Russell, The Essential Guide to Hong Kong Movies.  London:  Eastern Heroes, 1994.  Thomas Weisser, Asian Cult Cinema.  New York:  Boulevard Books, 1997.  Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies:  600 Reviews from 1988 till the Handover.  Hong Kong:  Film Biweekly Publishing House, 1998.  John Charles, The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977 – 1997:  A Complete Reference to 1,100 Films Produced by British Hong Kong Studios.  Jefferson, N.C.:  McFarland & Company, 2000.
11. Bey Logan, Hong Kong Action Cinema. Woodstock:  The Overlook Press, 1996.  Stefan Hammond & Mike Williams, Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head:  The Essential Guide to Hong Kong’s Mind-Bending Films.  New York:  Fireside, 1996.    Stefan Hammond, Hollywood East:  Hong Kong Movies and the People Who Make Them.  Chicago:  Contemporary Books, 2000.
12. See Bordwell, op. cit., pp. 149 – 156 for a discussion of genre in HK films and, for a broader overview of genre, Jane Feuer, “Genre study and television.”  In, Robert Allen (Ed.), Channels of Discourse, Reassembled.  London:  Routledge, 1992, pp. 138 - 160.
13. Bordwell, op. cit., pp. 19 – 25 argues that the HK film “Gun Men” (1988) was directly inspired by De Palma’s “The Untouchables.”  “First Shot” (1993) is another HK film reportedly modeled on this title (Weisser, op. cit., p. 75).
14. According to Weisser, op. cit., p. 51, “Deadly Angels” (1984) was the first of a style of HK contemporary female action films that has since been referred to as “Girls With Guns” (GWG) in English language fan writing.  A similar case could be made for “Girl with a Gun” (1984) that appears directly inspired by the American revenge film “Ms. 45.”  Accordingly, the fusion of camp with viciousness that that seems to define GWG might plausibly be traced to “Charlie’s Angels” and “Ms. 45,” respectively.  The principal performers in GWG films and their associated filmographies are reviewed in Rick Baker & Toby Russell, The Essential Guide to Deadly China Dolls.  London:  Eastern Heroes, 1996.
15. See Wendy Arons, “If her stunning beauty doesn’t bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will.”  In, Martha McCaughey & Neal King (Eds.), Reel Knockouts:  Violent Women in the Movies.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2001, pp. 27 – 51.
16. For an overview of narrative theory, see Sarah Kozloff, “Narrative theory and television.”  In, Allen, op. cit., pp. 67 – 100.