Violent Women in the Hong Kong Kung Fu Film

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Wendy Arons

The quote in the title of this chapter appears in the promotional blurb for the videotape of Wing Chun (1994), which stars one of Hong Kong's most popular actresses, Michelle Yeoh.1 Like virtually all recent kung fu films featuring female martial artists, Wing Chun presents its audience with a satisfying image of a powerful woman. The eponymous heroine is a skilled, aggressive, and effective fighter, who dispatches crowds of thugs with grace, style, and humor, and defends not only herself but also her female friends from the advances of lecherous men. But like many of these recent films, Wing Chun also problematizes the (ir)reconcilability of "femininity" and fighting: the heroine's "masculine" martial arts skills are at odds with her yearning to be accepted in her community as a desirable woman. The promotional blurb reduces to a simple either/or equation the thorny constellation of issues that arises when women are the subjects of violence in the kung fu film, as these films continually invoke and undermine stereotypes about the compatibility of beauty and power, femininity and violence, and desire and desirability. For even as such films depict women as strong, independent, and capable fighters, they continue to embed such images of women within a context that defines femininity in terms of physical beauty and sexual attractiveness to men, and that draws on traditional misogynist stereotypes that reduce femininity to a figure of "fascinating and threatening alterity." 2

Because the kung fu genre as a whole is rather conservative (the films are formulaic, and more like each other than they are different), it tends to represent violent women in patterned ways. Many of these films, like Wing Chun,

FIGURE 4. Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh) in her final battle with the bandit king reconciles the yin of feminine beauty with the yang of skilled martial artistry.

question the compatibility of femininity and violence. Some do this by sending mixed messages about the "attractiveness" of the fighting woman, framing her as a plain but earnest sidekick in contrast to the male hero's beautiful but helpless love interest. This reduces the threat posed by the violent woman by displacing her erotic power onto a more traditionally "feminine" figure. Other films, in contrast, explicitly turn the fighting woman into a sex object and use martial artistry to exploit the female body. While in some cases this results in a positive integration of female sexuality and power, in others the violent woman conforms obediently to the misogynist image of the "Dragon Lady" or femme fatale. The fantasy-action subgenre subverts gender norms by positing a mythical world in which gender is fluid and women can accrue supernatural powers. These films often use the instability of gender allegorically to express a political uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Hong Kong's status in light of its reversion to China in 1997. And finally, the kung fu comedy genre frequently draws its humor from reversing stereotypical gender roles or playing with established norms of behavior between the sexes. For example, a standard comic moment involves a hero who comes to the rescue of a woman he thinks helpless, only to watch as she capably defends herself. Although such reversals celebrate women's power and self-sufficiency, the comedy derives from the film's positioning of the gender reversal as "unnatural," and as a result normative gender stereotypes are often paradoxically reinforced. The Hong Kong film industry revels in these contradictory depictions of women—as Bey Logan has observed: "[N]o film industry has done so much to define women as sex objects nor so much to define them as superbeings with far greater powers than their male counterparts." 3 Thus although women frequently appear as stunningly powerful fighters, this positive image is often neutralized by the conventional depiction of women in the genre in general.

My purpose here, however, is not to generalize broadly about the depiction of violent women in kung fu films but rather to look closely at a number of recent films that I feel highlight the issues raised in the preceding paragraphs. This article is not intended to be exhaustive: given the huge number of films produced in Hong Kong each year, such a task would border on the absurd. Rather, I have focused on films that were (a) good, (b) exemplary, and (c)—a practical consideration—readily available.4

Before I look more closely at specific films, however, I think it is necessary to address two issues that pertain to the whole genre: first, the problem of cross-cultural analysis and, second, the nature of violence in the kung fu film. As E. Ann Kaplan argues, cross-cultural analysis is "fraught with danger" because "we are forced to read works produced by the other through the constraints of our own frameworks/theories/ideologies."5 As a U.S. feminist critic who has never even been to Hong Kong, I am fully aware of the gulf that separates my own frameworks from those of the film's creators and primary audience, and in this paper I make no attempt to bridge that gulf. This is not to say that I ignore cultural difference or dismiss the danger that such an analysis might be "a new form of cultural imperialism, when . . . institutionalized in various college courses on Asian cinema."6 The Hong Kong kung fu genre, however, is a strange animal: although produced primarily for consumption in the Asian market, it is also marketed heavily—and generally quite successfully—in the West. Because these films are aimed (even if secondarily) at a Western audience, I feel it is appropriate and justifiable to focus here on issues that are raised by their Western consumption. In addition, this article has as its primary audience the Western critic who will bring similar concerns to her viewing of these films. Thus I content myself to write from what Chris Berry would undoubtedly label "an unabashedly Western feminist point of view." 7 That said, gender in the kung fu film continues to beg a cross-cultural analysis that makes visible "the Hong

Kong way of thinking," and I hope this essay takes a step toward opening up a dialogue with critics who might be interested in tackling such an analysis.8

The second general issue that needs to be addressed is the nature of violence in these films. Kung fu films are primarily vehicles for the virtuoso display of choreographed violence. Like musicals, they put forth formulaic plots that serve mainly to allow performers to show off their physical skills.9 King Hu, one of the genre's early masters, connected the kung fu fight scene to the tradition of dance in the musical:

I've always taken the action part of my films as dancing rather than fighting. . . . A lot of people have misunderstood me, and have remarked that my action scenes are sometimes "authentic," sometimes not. In point of fact, they're always keyed to the notion of dance.10

The pleasures of both the kung fu and musical genres derive from watching skilled performers execute difficult moves with incredible precision and timing. As a result, although the violence in kung fu films is often graphic and disgusting (an early scene in Swordsman II shows the bones of a man's forearm pop through the skin at his elbow, for example), it is stylized and framed in a way that mutes its impact. The kung fu film rarely ambushes the viewer with its violence: fight scenes are virtually always anticipated by a moment of acknowledgment establishing the combatants so that viewers know when a fight is about to begin and can enjoy the spectacle. In addition, both hero/ines and villains have superhuman capacities and can give and take an enormous number of blows without showing pain. This, along with the sheer length and complexity of the fight choreography, tends to reinforce the impression that the violence is "unrealistic." 11 And because fight scenes tend to involve equally matched combatants (two superhumans or a single superhero versus a slew of mere mortals), the violence seems less sadistic and cruel than in other genres; kung fu films do not generally indulge in scenes of brutality inflicted on totally powerless victims (for obvious reasons: it takes at least two to make an entertaining fight).12

Thus, to speak of violent women in the kung fu film requires a definition of a "violent" woman that has less to do with aggressivity, sadism, or villainy and more to do with the skill and the will to defend life or honor, and usually only when provoked. For the most part, the women warriors of the kung fu genre are the film's heroes rather than villains (although there are many interesting exceptions), and their violent behavior is framed as self-defense rather than aggression. The genre dwells lightly (if at all) on the heroine's violence as socially transgressive; her male colleagues or attackers might register surprise at her ability to fight, but once she establishes her martial arts skills they treat her like one of the guys. This is due in part to China's long tradition of female martial artistry, both in historical legend and in performance. For example, the legend of the male martial artist Fong Sai Yuk reports that he was trained by his mother in kung fu; Yim Wing Chun, the historical figure on which the film Wing Chun is based, purportedly learned her kung fu from the Buddhist nun who developed the style.13 The Peking Opera (which was an early source for the kung fu film) had a rich tradition of fighting female characters, in latter days often played by actresses who trained in the martial arts in order to display them in a performance context. The woman warrior in the kung fu film is thus by no means a new phenomenon, and from its very beginning the genre has featured women in heroic fighting roles (one of the earliest martial arts films was Ren Pengnian's Li Feifei [The Heroine] of 1925).14 As a result, the appearance of a woman who can and will use violence is already an accepted convention in the genre. Yet it is a telling comment on the continued power of gender stereotypes that more often than not the kung fu film will exploit the revelation of a woman's martial artistry for comic effect.

In addition, where violent women do appear as villains their gender often marks them as more evil than their male accomplices: a good example is the film Midnight Angel (aka Angel/Iron Angels 1988), in which Yukari Oshima plays the sadistic leader of a drug ring who takes pleasure in torturing her victims.15 In some films female villains bear the added stigma of sexual deviancy or lesbianism (see my discussion of Naked Killer below). In other words, the genre continues to resurrect the traditional figure of the cruel and sexy "Dragon Lady," whose violence is framed as deviant and always punished. The violent behavior of heroines, on the other hand, usually conforms to generic conventions for heroes, and is both socially acceptable (within the film's narrative) and visually pleasurable (for the spectator).

These generalizations about violence, heroism, and women's roles are meant to establish a basic understanding of generic conventions and expectations rather than set any hard-and-fast rules about violent women in the kung fu film. I turn now to a more specific analysis of the ways women are framed in the genre. I start with two films that feature women as their heroes; I then look at violent women in the fantasy-action subgenre; and finally I discuss the appearance of women as the comic/action sidekick in films featuring male heroes.

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Martial Arts An Introduction

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