VI.  Identification and Desire

“If this is real love, it doesn’t matter it is a she or a he” (Valerie Chow, “Freaky Story”)

The Act of Viewing

Film theory invokes the related concepts of identification and desire as mechanisms whereby film viewing can be imbued with potential ideological significance.  Feminist film theory, in particular, has argued that the very forms and narratives of classical Hollywood – and, by extension, narrative cinema world wide – have tended to support prevailing patriarchal norms.  This is achieved not only via the textual construction as discussed above, but also in the act of viewing.  It is hypothesized that the audience (of either gender) is invited to identify with the principal protagonist or hero (customarily male in genre films) by the fact of their agency within the narrative.  Since most action genre films primarily foreground male figures engaging in masculine-coded actions, the presumed audience address is inherently male and patriarchal.  According to this view, the intended male audience can easily read the gender-coded conduct of the protagonist, and is invited to identify with this male figure.  The evidence (Note 1) suggests that action genres are, indeed, predominantly preferred by men.

Pauline Chan (From Beijing with Love) and Kathy Chow (Rule of the Game)
To the extent that women feature at all in low-genre action films, their role is usually ancillary to the principal narrative axis since they are acted upon, or act in response to, the principal male characters who drive the narrative.  Narrative closure is frequently achieved by the male achieving formation of a relationship.  By identifying with such male roles, male viewers may implicitly adopt and endorse the dominant patriarchal norms that are represented in this type of text.  To the extent that female viewers may identify with traditionally depicted female roles, they may be inclined toward adoption and endorsement of an implicitly submissive spectatorial position.  Although obviously varying widely across film titles, these dominant roles and identificatory patterns can be considered to support broadly patriarchal assumptions – rendering action genres relatively conservative in typical ideological perspective.  When taken to extremes in low-genre films, film theory refers to an active “sadistic” gaze versus “masochistic” identification.
License to Steal and Lady Reporter
The possibilities for desire also seem strongly coded by role.  Desire associated with the valued icon of the “star” often seems predicated on carefully cultivated aspects of gender role.  Female bodies are frequently filmed and presented in fragmented and highly stylized ways (Note 2), emphasizing appearance and display over action and skill.  The traditional male figure in film can be described as the active possessor of gaze and initiator of approach, while the female figure is “to be looked at” and acted upon/for.
Project S and Kickboxers Tears
While numerous HK and other Asian genre films certainly conform to these general patterns, GWG films superficially do not.  Instead, they privilege female action, agency and skill (and sometimes an active gaze) while occasionally de-emphasizing appearance and attire.  The possibility of male sado-masochistic identification is acknowledged in analysis of pornography (Note 3), raising the possibility that GWG films might also invite a distinctly different pattern of identification and desire from the male spectator than the traditional action genre.  It could be argued that sufficient male-coded behavioral conventions are typically present in GWG films to permit relatively effortless male identification with the nominally female protagonist who would then correspond to the ambiguous “Final Girl” figure.  An intriguing cultural observation involves the apparent difference in this regard between Hong Kong and Japanese GWG films.  Unlike HK norms, most Japanese GWG films retain conspicuously stereotypic gendering of their protagonists who are clearly not “Final Girls” but follow traditional display codes (perhaps one reason why the Japanese martial artists cited in this essay sought work abroad).
Wild Criminal
A related possibility is that some GWG films may offer masochistic identificatory opportunities in the form of submission to the female protagonist’s power.  Some notable GWG performers such as Yukari Oshima arguably embodied both conspicuous gender role ambiguity and opportunities for masochistic identification (and desire) in screen roles that are too numerous to be coincidental.  Examples include conspicuously dangled or groin level phallic weapon symbolism (“Vengeance Is Mine,” 1997) while sitting – legs akimbo – with another woman kneeling at her side, dressing in men’s clothing (“The Direct Line”), appearing as a man (“The Story of Ricky”), or even playing a sadistic torturer (“Angel,” “The Story of Ricky,” “Kickboxer’s Tears”).  In “Kickboxer’s Tears” (1992) Oshima’s reaction to Moon Lee’s kick to her groin is so unusual and prominent that it invites possible gender associations by viewers.  Oshima’s younger compatriot Miho Nomoto has played a homicidal hermaphrodite (“Fudoh:  The New Generation”) or leather-clad lesbian killer (“Awful Crime” aka “Wild Criminal”) – the latter title from 1999 representing a rare exception to Japanese GWG conventions.  Such roles as these arguably conflate sadomasochistic identificatory possibilities with both heterosexual and homoerotic desires.  Concentration of such viewer reactions onto a single screen character – rather than more traditional distribution of such reactions across the roles of several male and female co-stars – may help explain the intense sub-cultural appeal of these films.  Essentially, they excite within the realm of the transgressive.
Kickboxers Tears and Blood Rules
The potential address to female audiences of GWG films may be as problematic as other genres of excess (Note 4) that de-emphasize relationships.  Although the primary figure may be female, much of her behavior appears coded male according to action genre conventions.  While this should present few problems for males – or, for that matter, lesbian audiences who reportedly favor potent female figures in muscle dramas (Note 5) – these films seem to offer few identificatory possibilities for the traditionally aligned or liberal feminist viewer.
Jade Leung and Angie Cheung
Questions of desire can also be potentially subversive.  Who is the viewer of either gender presumed to desire in these films?  The heterosexual male viewer of action film is implicitly confronted with the potential homoerotic implications of the Final Girl (Note 6), while the female viewer who is drawn to the role might also thereby encounter the potential for homoerotic desire (Note 7).  Based on studies that report preferences for strong action roles with female performers, lesbian audiences could discover a potential goldmine among HK (but not Japanese) GWG genre films.  It is surprising that such reading possibilities have not been more widely recognized.

Many titles, however, present few difficulties for theorizing identification or desire.  The female protagonists are often presented as spectacle.  Their roles are coded for display, while the male figures either permit a measure of masochistic identification (e.g., Simon Yam’s impotent detective in “Naked Killer”) or are sufficiently distanced by their own shortcomings to not invite identification at all.

Notes:  Identification and Desire

1. Barbara Creed, “Film and psychoanalysis.”  In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., p. 81.
2. Patricia White, “Feminism and film.”  In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., p. 117.
3. See Laura Kipnis, “Pornography.”  In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., pp. 151 – 155.  See also Brown, op. cit.
4. Williams, op. cit.
5. Anneke Smelik, “Gay and lesbian criticism.”  In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., p. 140.
6. Clover, op. cit.
7. See Arons, op. cit. and Hollinger, op. cit. for a fuller discussion of possible identification and desire associated with female viewership of female action films.