Fant Asia Swordsman II The East Is Red and The Heroic Trio

The fantasy-action subgenre sets itself apart from other kung fu films by its extreme stylization and its use of special effects to evoke a world of supernatural powers, magical weapons, and mysterious, mystical forces and energies. The majority of these films occur in mythical rather than geographically real space, and thus lend themselves more readily to allegorical interpretations than more "realistic" kung fu films. Many of these films are remarkable in the way they redefine gender expectations and embrace a definition of gender as fluid and unfixed. In this section I look at three films—Swordsman II (1992), its sequel The East Is Red (1993), which for the purposes of analysis I will treat as a series, and The Heroic Trio (1992). I think these films point to some interesting ways the violent woman is positioned in the fantasy-action subgenre.

Swordsman II and The East Is Red draw their tension and mystery from the rise to power of a central figure, Asia, whose ambiguous gender is the key to his/her power. Although the films locate the action in "Ming China," the plot unfolds within the symbolic space of the "Martial Arts World," which is defined at the beginning of The East Is Red as a world existing alongside of and parallel to the real, historical world. The Martial Arts World is "a symbolic space which is used to portray political struggle in the human world,"21 and in which allegiance to martial arts forms is substituted for national identity in factional and political conflicts over power. The plot of the series centers on the struggle for possession of the Sacred Scroll, which promises access to the most powerful form of kung fu.

In Swordsman II, Asia, played by the actress Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, has taken possession of the scroll and used it to become "invincible." Ironically, the secret encoded in the Sacred Scroll is that mastery of its skills involves castration: Asia must render himself sexually impotent in order to become physically and politically potent. Furthermore, his castration has the magical effect of transforming him into a woman. Thus the figurative political meaning of emasculation (as weakness or debilitation) is parodically undermined by his access to power through "infemination" (my coinage). "His" transformation into a woman gives "him" a supernatural ability to defeat the enemy. The film thereby makes a move to gender violence and power female, and represents the violent woman as a transformed man. But Asia is not completely a woman. The price s/he pays for power is a total loss of sexual identity: Asia is not only impotent as a man, but also as a woman. S/he is in love with the swordsman Ling, but is physically incapable of consummating that love, and in the end s/he is defeated by "her" all too human passion for Ling and doomed to forgo power and exist on the margins of the Martial Arts World as myth. The violent woman is, in the end, a noncreature who is both man and woman—and neither.22

Director Tsui Hark's man-woman Asia does not emerge as an unequivocally monstrous figure, but rather as a sad and conflicted reflection of an ambiguously amoral world.23 The complete dismantling of the easy dichotomy between man/woman and power/powerlessness in the figure of Asia is mirrored in the series' chaotic and recurrent realignment of the forces of good and evil. The two films cynically insist on the meaninglessness and evil of the urge to power, and refuse to buy into the conventional split between good and evil. The disturbing ending of Swordsman II—in which, after defeating Asia, the ostensibly "good" Master Wu begins to purge his troops of "traitors"—points to a parodic and subversive critique of the flow of history as an endless repetition of the same corrupt drive for power. In this way, as Leo Ou-Fan Lee notes in relation to a different Hark film, the series may reflect the cynicism with which Hong Kong residents see their history and their future: Asia's ambiguous and fluid gender and the ultimate futility of her power in both the personal and political sphere can be read as a trope for the ambivalent political situation in geographic Asia.24 Toward the end of Swordsman II, Asia leaps off a cliff to avoid having to kill Ling, the man s/he loves. While it may be true that "[l]ike those in the colony swept up by the Tiananmen Square effect, a manic condition that had people looking for any exit, Asia's suicide symbolizes her desire to get out no matter what the price,"25 the fact that Asia is driven to this "escape" by seemingly contradictory desires (for both a traditionally "masculine" power to rule through force and a traditionally "feminine" power derived from sexual attractiveness), coupled with the fact that s/he doesn't actually die from the fall, suggests Hong Kong's conflicted attitude toward its future status in the region. The figure of Asia thus operates as a metaphor for Hong Kong's strangely bi-"gendered" status as both (masculinized) financial powerhouse and (feminized) object of desire for China, and Asia's survival to fight on in The East Is Red may offer a hopeful prognosis for the former colony's future.26

In contrast to the asexualized nature of the violent woman in Swordsman II and The East Is Red, Heroic Trio presents a comic book version of ultrasexy and ultrafeminine superheroines. Heroic Trio pits its three heroines (played by Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung) against an ultrapowerful Eunuch who has been kidnapping babies in a nefarious plot to find the next Emperor of the Underworld. The women all possess supernatural powers: Mui plays a masked Wonder Woman who can walk across power lines; Yeoh is Invisible Girl; and Cheung, the gun-toting Thief Catcher, can ride her motorcycle through the air. The plot is rather formulaic and predictable. Yeoh's Invisible Girl lives in servitude to the evil Eunuch and helps him steal the babies: she has a change of heart when confronted by the two other women and joins them to defeat the villain. In its depiction of violent women as heroines the film cleaves tightly to the conventions of the kung fu genre, showing them as righteous and powerful defenders of right against wrong and good against evil. What makes this film interesting is the lengths to which it goes to mitigate and neutralize the threat of female power by framing the women as sex objects and by putting their vulnerability (as women) on display.

In an on-line article for Boxoffice Magazine entitled "Those Wild Women of Fant-Asia," Craig Reed observes that "[i]n Hong Kong's male-dominated society, where women are considered to be submissive, meal-preparing, child-bearing sexual objects, Fant-Asia film ironically depicts the female as fearless, overbearing, and unpredictable" and comments that the violent women of this genre are "coyly" portrayed "with just enough vulnerability so that they don't threaten the very fabric of their chauvinistic Chinese society."27 Heroic Trio bears out the truth of this observation in many ways. The three women wear supertight, low-cut bodysuits and minidresses that fetishize their bodies in a blatant overdetermination of their femininity. The focus on the women as sex objects is reflected not only in their costumes, but also in the way the film is marketed. The promotional trailer confidently proclaims them "the world's most beautiful crimefighters" and emphasizes the actresses' circulation as objects of desire outside the world of the film, announcing the stars as "Anita Mui, the Madonna of Asia; Michelle Yeoh, Asia's top action actress; and Maggie Cheung, former Miss Hong Kong." Clearly, the film producers recognize that the combination of beautiful, sexy women and thrilling action sells tickets, particularly to young male viewers who are the primary consumers of the genre. But the hy-persexualization of the heroines serves a double and somewhat contradictory function. On the one hand, it mutes the impact of their display of violence by reminding the viewer of their (primary) status as sex objects. The threat posed by the active, violent woman is thus contained by her confinement as a passive object of spectators' desire. On the other hand, it also provides a gratifying and satisfying image of the powerful woman as erotic and heroic, in stark contrast to the convention of the "Dragon Lady"/femme fatale. Whereas in Naked Killer female eroticism is posited as the site of origin of a threatening, subversive, and chaotic eruption of female power, Heroic Trio oscillates between a patronizing objectification of the female body and a breathless celebration of its power, without settling at one pole or the other. But the focus on the body as a female body—as a body in ostentatious display of breasts, legs, and buttocks—does mitigate the threat the women pose to "the very fabric of. . . society" by reassuring the (male) viewer of his privileged position as the possessor of the objectifying gaze.

Furthermore, the film goes overboard to show the women as vulnerable and weak despite their superhuman abilities, and it specifically links their vulnerability to their gender. For example, both Wonder Woman and Thief Catcher are shown to have a "natural" maternal instinct toward the babies: Wonder Woman lets a few surreptitious tears fall when the baby she has tried to rescue dies in her arms, and Thief Catcher automatically reaches out to catch a doll she thinks is a baby. In addition, the three women are shown to be physically vulnerable in ways that code them as conventionally feminine: for example, after the Eunuch has knocked Thief Catcher and Wonder Woman to the ground in the final fight scene, Thief Catcher touches her beautiful face in panic and asks, "Is it okay?"

Moreover, in contrast to the classic moment in the kung fu film when the hero tastes his own blood and is spurred on to greater acts of vengeance and violence, the women in Heroic Trio need a moment of recovery time when their blood is drawn. Because these displays of vulnerability are grounded in expectations of "feminine" behavior, they do more than merely humanize the superheroines— they establish and reconfirm the reassuring and inescapable "fact" of their womanhood.

The emphasis on the women's beauty and sexuality and the attention paid to their vulnerability may distract from the power they put on display, but it cannot negate it. All in all, Heroic Trio is a spectacular confirmation of female resourcefulness, intelligence, skill, and power, and the image of the violent woman it conveys is overwhelmingly a positive one. Indeed, the focus on the heroines' femininity does not only (or even necessarily or primarily) serve a derogatory function; it also renders them sympathetic and adds depth to their characters.

FIGURE 5. Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung) strolls away from the havoc she has helped create in Heroic Trio.

Moreover, in the end the film seems fully aware of its own construction and perpetuation of traditional codes of the feminine, and it winks complicitly at its own dependence on and manipulation of those codes. In a gesture that is clearly meant as an ironic comment on what a woman "should be," the film closes with a cozy domestic scene of Wonder Woman sitting in her pajamas on the couch with her husband, watching a television broadcast describing her courageous exploits in saving the babies—and knitting a little white sweater.

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