In this section I focus on two films that could not be more dissimilar: Wing Chun and Naked Killer (1992). Both films feature women who move in a world of female potency and male impotency, but the resemblances end there. Where Wing Chun presents a positive image of a heroine attempting to understand, negotiate, and finally mitigate the threat that her martial artistry poses to the male community (without giving up or renouncing her power), Naked Killer depicts female eroticism and violence as a menace to men that can only be resolved through the annihilation of the women. My discussion of these two films reveals the very different ways in which the genre can link femininity, female sexuality, and women's violence.
Wing Chun deserves extended discussion for the way it both frames and resolves the problem of reconciling the yin of the heroine's desire with the yang of her violent fighting skills. As I noted above, Wing Chun is a comedy loosely based on the historical legend of Yim Wing Chun, who as a young girl learned martial arts from a Buddhist nun in order to defend herself against marriage to a villainous suitor. In the film this particular event is in the past, and Wing Chun has established herself as the most effective kung fu fighter in her village. But her skill comes with a price: as a strong, independent, and decidedly masculinized woman, she poses a threat to men, and has had to resign herself to what she believes will be her fate—a life without love and marriage. This seems to be cemented when her childhood sweetheart and fiancé, Pok To, returns after a ten-year absence and, mistaking her beautiful friend Charmy for her, woos Charmy in her stead. The film's plot revolves around Wing Chun's heroism in saving Charmy from the hands of a band of thieves. Wing Chun eventually comes up against the bandits' leader, who makes her fight not for her friend's liberty, but once again for her own autonomy: if she loses, she will have to become his wife. A stunning fight scene ensues, Wing Chun wins almost effortlessly, and the film ends with her marriage to Pok To.
Much of the film's humor (and pleasure) turns on the reversal of expectations about gender. In the opening scene, a wealthy scholar arrives with a plan to marry Wing Chun so that she will protect him from the local bandits (he reasons that hiring her for protection would be too expensive, but if he married her he would only have to feed her!); as the bandits attack, Wing Chun stands behind the scholar and comically manipulates his body so that "he" fights off the villains. In the film's third fight scene Wing Chun's opponent brags that "when it comes to martial arts, men are always better than women" and tells Wing Chun that after he beats her, she should "go home and bear children." Wing Chun doesn't even break a sweat as she trounces him, scoring a decisive victory for women in what the film has already framed as a battle of the sexes. Much of Wing Chun's action depends on the villains' continued expectations that a woman cannot defeat them and on their humiliation when she does. For example, in one scene Wing Chun disables a member of the gang by burning off his "pecker," a move interpreted as the ultimate insult by the gang's leader. Thus the film derives humor from setting up and then undermining conventional sexist expectations of a woman's behavior and ability, and it clearly positions the villains' assumptions about Wing Chun (and women in general) as the "wrong" point of view.
But this comedy of reversal only thinly masks the dark side of Wing Chun's appropriation of the "masculine" skill of fighting. Contrary to the promise of the promotional blurb, Wing Chun is presented as a woman who has traded her "stunning beauty" for her "deadly drop kick." Before learning kung fu, Wing Chun had been the village "Tofu Beauty," but at the start of the narrative she is already an embarrassment to her family because she is unmarriageable: she dresses and acts like a man, and her androgyny makes her the laughingstock of the community. When her friend Charmy puts on Wing Chun's old clothes and becomes the new "Tofu Beauty," Wing Chun shows palpable regret at the loss of her former, feminine self. At the same time, she is philosophically resigned to her fate: the price she had to pay for her autonomy (in refusing to marry a villain) and her fighting skill was her acceptance of the fact that she "would scare other men away as well."
Thus on one level, the film insists on the incompatibility of beauty with skilled martial artistry: until the penultimate scene of the film, Wing Chun is represented as an extremely plain woman. (Yeoh wears no makeup or jewelry and keeps her hair tied back in an unglamorous braid.) It is Charmy who brings men to their knees with her beauty. The film explicitly evokes the erotic power of female beauty: the sight of Charmy turns the male population of the village into fawning idiots and makes Pok To forget all thought of marrying Wing Chun. But this power is, of course, derivative and illusory: Charmy cannot defend herself against the bandits who kidnap her, and it is clear that Wing Chun has the privileged form of power in her kung fu. Yet Charmy can easily obtain with her beauty what Wing Chun believes she can never obtain with her kung fu: Pok To's affection. Consequently, the film opposes beauty (and its associations with "femininity," passive power, dependence, and above all, romantic fulfillment) and martial artistry (with its links to masculinity, active power, autonomy, and loneliness).
On another level, however, the film situates the incompatibility of beauty and martial artistry not in any biological facts but rather in social expectations about gender, and in particular in Wing Chun's own belief that she has irreversibly traversed a gender boundary by devoting herself to mastering her martial arts. Wing Chun refuses to reveal her identity to Pok To because she has internalized the notion that as a powerful woman, she cannot be desirable to men; she believes that what he wants is the "Tofu Beauty" he left behind. When Pok To finally realizes his mistake, however, he is overjoyed to have found "his" Wing Chun, and surprisingly unthreatened by the fact that her kung fu is superior to his (even though he had spent six years training in kung fu in order to be able to protect her!). As a result, the film negates its original dichotomy by confirming Wing Chun's desirability as a love object. But running alongside her yearning to be desired by Pok To is her own sense of her independence and autonomy. Kung fu has given Wing Chun the power to control her own destiny, and it is clear that she cannot go back to being the woman she was before. Wing Chun retreats to her teacher, who obliquely advises her that the time has come for her to synthesize her martial artistry with her femininity and tells her to go and marry. Wing Chun sends for Pok To (it is noteworthy that she asks him to marry her!), and after a night of romance she emerges, transformed into a beauty, to fight the villain one final time. Having enhanced her kung fu with her rediscovered femininity and newly awakened sexuality, Wing Chun easily defeats the villain, and is finally free to marry the man of her choice.
Many feminist critics might object that her marriage recements the heroine into the patriarchal order, or that the film reinforces negative stereotypes about women who don't marry (i.e., spinsterhood). However, in comparison to other films in the genre, Wing Chun is unusual in that it reconciles the heroine's appropriation of kung fu with her desire for her childhood sweetheart by allowing her to have both.16 At the end of the film, she has won the villains' respect (they call her "mom") and regained Pok To: she has not had to compromise her power for love. The film's final moment renders this abundantly clear: as Wing Chun leaps acrobatically onto the horse that she'll ride to her wedding, Pok To whispers to her, "You're a lady, remember?" She smiles in agreement—but the viewer knows that she's much more than that.
Where Wing Chun ends with an affirmation of the violent woman and depicts her acceptance and integration into the social order, Naked Killer condemns the violent woman as chaotic, dangerous, and subversive. Naked Killer features Chingmy Yau as Kitty, a beautiful young woman conscripted into a network of professional female assassins after she kills the man who killed her father. These women assassinate men only, and they are both ingenious and brutal in their methods. The story of the film also involves Tinam, a policeman assigned to the murders who loves Kitty but does not know that she has joined the assassins; and two lesbian assassins, Princess and Baby, who are ordered to kill Kitty and her mentor, Sister Cindy. The film ends with the destruction of all involved: Princess and Baby kill Sister Cindy, Kitty kills Princess and Baby, and finally Kitty and Tinam commit suicide together.
In the world of Naked Killer the war between the sexes seems to have reached a new peak. The film's opening ironically establishes and then reverses the expected scene of male victimizer/female victim. A woman runs from an unidentified man, enters an apartment building, opens the door to an apartment, takes off her clothes, and climbs into the shower. Intercut with these scenes are shots of another man with a gun entering the apartment and stalking toward the bathroom. He opens the shower door; she turns with a gasp. He asks, "What are you doing in my house?"—to which she answers, "I love cleaning my body before doing my job." She then whips out a gun and brutally kills him, finishing the job by shooting off his penis. No narrative connection is ever made between the man who pursued her on the street and the man she kills, but this opening scene establishes a theme that is repeatedly invoked in the film: the everyday threat that male sexuality poses for women in general has, in turn, provoked (and justified) female violence against men.
Paradoxically, the film also suggests that female violence is the horrific consequence of male impotence. Tinam, the sympathetic policeman, has been rendered doubly impotent by the trauma of having accidentally killed his brother; he can neither shoot a gun nor achieve an erection. The female violence toward men erupts in the vacuum left by his impotence, and subsides only after he has regained his potency (in both ways) through Kitty, the only woman who can give him an erection. Tinam stands for the pervasive lack of masculine potency in the world of the film: the male police cannot stop the murders, and Princess and Baby hold sway over a small army of men who are completely cowed by their power (at one point one of the men dutifully admits "Yes, I eat shit" at Baby's command). In light of Chiao Hsiung-Ping's observation that many Hong Kong films of the eighties and nineties reflect "the fear of chaos that hovers over the critical juncture of 1997,"17 we can read male impotence in Naked Killer as an expression of Hong Kong's anxiety over its imminent reversion to mainland China. The film depicts a world in crisis that has been invaded and emasculated by a seductive and powerful force (the violent women) that it can neither resist nor control—a situation that encapsulates many of the fears dominating the "political unconscious" of Hong Kong in the years before its reversion to the mainland.18 Naked Killer displaces these fears onto the femme fatale and thereby makes the violent woman a stand-in for the fascinating and threatening other that is China.19
This allegorical reading aside, the representation of the violent woman in Naked Killer is tightly linked to the question of the connections between violence, power, and desire. While all of the women resemble femmes fatales (to borrow Elizabeth Bronfen's definition: "the fascinating but sexually withholding, powerful but lethal woman . . ."),20 a subtle hierarchy of violence aligns the viewer with Kitty and Sister Cindy and against the lesbian lovers, Princess and Baby. The rape-revenge theme operates exclusively to justify the violence of Kitty and Cindy, and is wholly absent for Princess and Baby. Kitty and Cindy only kill men in self-defense, and the men they kill have already been framed as "guilty": Kitty first kills the man who killed her father and several of his henchmen, and then later we see her kill a rapist in Cindy's basement. Cindy also defends herself against the henchman and then later kills two rapists in the basement. In addition, the assassinations these two later carry out are cleverly covered with a cinematic trick: the film cuts away to show the "actual" violence being perpetrated on a male mannequin. As a result, we do not perceive Kitty and Cindy as malicious: their violence appears as a justifiable response to the pervasive threat of victimization. At one point Kitty asks Cindy why she is a killer, and Cindy replies, "To make big money. After that, you can control things yourself. You know, [one] who is powerful can give orders." The movie thus equates
Kitty and Cindy's usurpation of power (in the form of killing for money) with revenge for women's powerlessness at the hands of society's male "wolves."
Furthermore, the film represents Kitty as a desirable heterosexual woman whose erotic power is uniquely benign: only she can restore Tinam's potency. Yet when Kitty acts on her love for Tinam, Cindy tells her she must give up being a professional assassin, because her integration into a heterosexual love relationship will render her ineffectual as a killer and block her access to the female killer's power. Unlike Wing Chun, Kitty must trade power for love—however, this is a trade that the film's logic does not allow. For although the film works overtime to turn the violent women into sex objects (in a manner clearly aimed at the heterosexual male viewer), it also establishes violent women and heterosexual sex as mutually incompatible, and as a result, Kitty can never be reintegrated into a restored social order: she chooses death rather than punishment at the hands of the reempowered patriarchy. Thus, unlike Wing Chun, which finds a positive resolution to the question of the (ir)reconcilability of female sexuality and violence, Naked Killer insists that the link between female eroticism and women's violence poses a danger that can only be contained and controlled by eliminating the violent woman.
The threat Kitty poses as a violent woman is extinguished through her relationship with Tinam: once she has enabled and then submitted to male heterosexual desire, she is realigned with the social order and against the monstrosity of female violence represented by the lesbian lovers. As I noted above, unlike Kitty and Cindy, Princess and Baby have no motivation for their killing other than sexual hatred and a desire to render men impotent. They appear as man-hating and (literally) castrating bitches, whose connection to violence has irrevocably masculinized them (Sister Cindy warns Kitty that Princess might "rape" her, and in fact Princess does arrange to have Cindy raped before she kills her). Perpetuating a solidly established cliché, the film demonizes lesbianism as the ultimate threat to stability and to the proper social order; as women who usurp the male prerogative not only to violence and power but also to sex with women, the lesbians represent female violence at its most negative and pathological. At the same time, the film does not waste the opportunity that lesbian eroticism provides for exploiting female sexuality and the female body for visual and erotic pleasure. This film falls as much into the soft porn category as it does into the kung fu genre: not only do all four of the women wear fetishizing and revealing costumes, but there are also two highly charged scenes of Princess and Baby having sex, and part of the film's plot revolves around Princess's desire for Kitty. But where Kitty's heterosexual eroticism is benign, the erotic love between Princess and Baby appears deviant and dangerous. The first time we see them together they are making love in a pool slowly filling with the blood of Baby's latest male victim. The film thus problematically links transgressive (i.e., nonheterosexual) female sexuality and the expression of autonomous female desire directly with—that is, on the same visual plane as—malicious and sadistic violence against men. In other words, Naked Killer exploits a demon-ization of lesbianism in order to depict a world in which autonomous female desire is equated with violence against men, and which can be righted only by annihilating all traces of transgression of the heterosexual, patriarchal norm. That Tinam must die along with the women at the end of the film further bears this out: the man who depends on a woman for his potency is clearly a weak link in the system.
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