II.  Narrative and Genre

“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” (Jean-Luc Godard, film director)

Structure and Story

The search for underlying structure may be particularly relevant to genre films since these are often highly formulaic.  Low budget action productions may seek to displace audience attention from a unified flow of events and instead diffuse interest over a larger field of characters and ensuing conflicts (Note 1).  Particularly noteworthy (and higher-budget) HK action films that maintain a singular narrative axis, such as Stanley Tong’s “Police Story III:  Supercop” (1992) are well regarded (at least by Western fans) but also tend to be the exception in this genre.  The more typical “improvisational feel” of HK films may bear some structural similarities to the strategies of television.  Television also typically lacks the resources to lavish money or time on the details of setting.  In the absence of evocative settings, both entertainment forms often displace interest from linear story construction to richness of characterization.  Budgetary constraints essentially dictate trade-offs between character, cast size and location.

Sibelle Hu (Angel's Project), Yukari Oshima (Drugs Fighters)
In common with other low budget productions of the HK film industry, many GWG films may therefore occupy a somewhat ambiguous textual space.  Although produced and generally regarded as “film,” low budget HK action features often bear closer resemblances to made for television movies or action series that to either Hollywood feature films or the work of acknowledged auteurs in the HK industry.  Structural and budgetary constraints combine to produce works with narrative and stylistic features resembling televisual products.  Further blurring of this distinction may result from the limited cinematic release of many HK action films, and extensive video marketing of the same product.
Michiko Nishiwaki (Hero Dream), Unknown (Whore and Policewoman)
These factors may partly explain seemingly universal features of how female performers are typically used in GWG films.  Essentially three narrative constituents may be discerned:  the primary flow of events, setting, and character.  It could be predicted that films rated highly on any single index might be experienced as satisfying.  Films satisfactory on all three may be outstanding.  Among the genre films considered here, vengeance and assassin films tend to focus on what has been termed the syntagmatic axis (Note 2) – the flow of events per se.  Since the setting is frequently the individual body and mind of the principal protagonist – wrestling with the aftermath of assault or grappling with the moral quandary of a heinous occupation – a competent lead actor can essentially carry the film.  It is perhaps no coincidence that some of these titles provided capable actors such as Pauline Wong (“Her Vengeance,” 1988), Rosamund Kwan and Pat Ha (“Vengeance Is Mine,” 1988) or Jacqueline Wu (“Beyond Hypothermia,” 1996) with unusually ample screen time.  In otherwise undistinguished surroundings, the dramatic narratives are enacted in the settings of their minds and bodies, and there is no reason to deviate from a linear flow of events.  Interestingly, these narratives featured interventions by male helpers whose supporting roles helped sharpen focus on the female protagonist.
Wu Chien-lien (Beyond Hypothermia), Pat Ha (Vengeance is Mine)
By contrast, physical setting appears as a critical factor in several other titles.  Low budget HK features have made use of “exotic” locations such as Thailand (e.g., “Final Run”, 1989; “Angel Force,” 1990; “Hero Dream,” 1993; “Whore and Policewoman,” 1993) to displace audience interest.  A primary emphasis on character may be discerned in films such as “Guardian Angel” (1996), “Angel of Vengeance” (1993), “Lethal Panther” (1991) or “Angel the Kickboxer” (1992) that eschewed narrative continuity in favor of multiple characters and sub-narratives.  Despite being frequently culled from edits of other films, such efforts could occasionally be effective.
Nina Li and Elaine Lui (Stone Age Warriors), Anita Mui (A Better Tomorrow III)
Certain titles managed to integrate all these elements.  “Stone Age Warriors” (1991) and “Police Story III:  Supercop” (1992), both directed by Stanley Tong, serve as examples, as does the Tsui Hark film “A Better Tomorrow III” (1989).  But the majority of GWG films have relied most heavily on characterization and action rather than narrative continuity or setting.  Consequently, consideration of genre role (Note 3) is central to analysis.
Anita Mui (A Better Tomorrow III), Michelle Yeoh (Police Story III)
HK action films in general appear to have developed a distinctively eclectic merging of the visual, narrative and thematic concerns of action and police procedural genres – conventionally represented as predominantly male discourses – with elements of comedy, horror and science fiction, as well as soap opera.  Soap opera or melodrama are conventionally represented as directed at female viewers (Note 4).  This generic amalgamation and tonal variation permits a broad range of readings of the resultant texts – part cinema, part soap.  Such maximization of the range of possible negotiated texts within the dominant frame may promote appeal to diverse viewers.

Notes:  Narrative and Genre

1. See Allen, “Audience-oriented criticism and television.”  In, Allen, op. cit., pp. 106 – 113.  Also see Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Psychoanalysis, film, and television.”  In, Allen, op. cit., pp. 203 – 246, esp. pp. 228 – 232.
2. Allen, op. cit., p. 106.  See also Ellen Seiter, “Semiotics, structuralism, and television.”  In, Allen, op. cit., pp. 31 – 66, esp. pp. 46 – 49.
3. For a discussion of the inherently conservative ideology represented by hero teams in the muscle drama genre, see Fiske, op. cit., pp. 294 – 295.
4. See Allen, op. cit. and Gillian Dyer, “Women and television:  An overview.”  In, Helen Baehr & Gillian Dyer (Eds.), Boxed In:  Women and Television.  London:  Pandora, 1987, pp. 6 – 16.  See also Feuer, op. cit., p. 140 and e. ann Kaplan, “Feminist criticism and television.”  In, Allen, op. cit., pp. 247 – 283, esp. p. 264.