Friday, 8 March 2013

The Heroic Female: Michelle Yeoh

Hey ladies! Happy International Women's Day! As it is, cinema is still more or less a boy's club in many parts of the world and both women filmmakers and films about women are still at a minority. This, of course varies from culture to culture. One of the healthiest female images in films comes from Asia, in particular the liberal (compared to mainland China) Hongkong. The Hongkong film industry has raised plenty of strong female role models, both feminine in nature and powerful, independent individuals. The biggest female movie stars include Anita Mui, Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Chung. But the biggest, best of them is Michelle Yeoh, the action goddess. But are her films actually so feminine as they appear on first glance? I take a look at her three early-90s action films to make sure.

Wing Chun (1994)
Director: Yuen Woo-ping

Yim Wing Chun is a mythical figure from China's history, a developer of the wing chun school of kung fu. So who better to tell the story of how young Wing saved her village from bandits and got married than Michelle Yeoh at her kick-assiest and the legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.

This poster from Ghana doesn't quite do justice to Yeoh's looks
Wing Chun is a respected woman in a remote small village due to her fighting skills. Yet the male-centric society annoys her since she is supposed to get married and settle down when she would rather help her father work. Thus, she tends to dress as a man to work in the mill without being pestled. When bandits attempt to raid her village, Wing Chun single-handedly defeats them and drives them back to their master.

She also takes it upon herself to protect a woman she saved from the bandits, Charmy (Catherine Hung Yan). Charmy starts to work at Wing's mill and bakery. Due to her beauty, Charmy has plenty of suitors attempting to woo her. But after a fight for her honor, one beaten suitor also sets his eyes on Wing herself. Meanwhile, the leader of the bandits, Leung Pok To (Donnie Yen) plans to arrive to conquer the village himself and beat Wing in the process.

Like wu xia films tend to be,  Wing Chun is a blend of romantic melodrama, fast-paced fight scenes, crude farce humor and a few historical, political points thrown to the mix. While Wing is a strong, independent woman that defies the society's expectations, the film does have its share of crude sexual innuendo as well. Charmy is a typical damsel-in-distress, and the dumb men of the village like nothing more but to ogle at her. The film has some homosexual tension between the tomboy and the girly girl, particularly since Wing dressed as a man is mistaken as Charmy's lover. Their friendship seems to be a bit intimate for them to fondle each others head and shoulders so.

"I'll show those chauvinist men by pulling this phallic object!"

The fights are of course beautiful, detailed and kinetic, and they utilize plenty of phallic objects such as a spear penetrating a wall. A scene featuring a crop grinder has the most sexual imagery. The dumb Chinese farce humor isn't something I'm incredibly fond of, but the things are kept relatively low-key here, so one can concentrate on the fight scenes and how lovely Michelle Yeoh is.


Once A Cop (Chao ji ji hua, 1992)
Director: Stanley Tong

This spin-off film from Jackie Chan's Supercop series is a bit more serious business than we've used to seeing. But Michelle Yeoh, returning as Jessica Yang, takes the confident lead and proves to be more than a match for euro-trash gangsters and Chinese terrorist groups. The action is kick-ass and plentiful, but the film is perhaps a bit too long.

Jessica is sent to Hong Kong as an observer with a crack unit of the police attempting to take down an international terrorist cell. Hongkongese criminals are working together with a French terrorist (Alain Guernier) to pull off a major heist in the City Bank. Since her fellow officers are weak and unorganized, Yang soon forgets her role, taking a more active stance against the ruthless criminals. She also becomes involved with detective David Chang (Rongguang Yu), bent on capturing the terrorists. But it soon turns out he has a vendetta against the group since they killed his brother. What follows is a crash course between Yang Love and Chang Vengefulness.

Yeoh is at career-best form here. In the beginning she's seen in masculine military uniforms, seeming quite butch. But once she falls for Chang she starts to mellow out and become more feminine. That doesn't stop her high-kicking terrorists, even if the boys mostly do the shooting. One interesting scene shows her grab Chang's Playboy magazine and start to read with interest. The blurry lines of Yeoh's sexuality are here again, but she'll get turned. It's sad to have such paper-thin innuendo over a character that could be used so much better.

Once again, the Achilles' heel of the film is the comedy. I like the slapstick and all, but can't stand the funny faces, farce, and in the gravest crime of all, men dressed up as women. Jackie Chan also does an embarrassing cameo in drag.


The Heroic Trio (Tong fong sam hop, 1992)
Directors: Johnny To, Ching Siu-Tung

The most unique of the three films on display here is a blend of Chinese folklore, science fiction, crime thriller and even a comic-book superhero movie. For it's a tale of three strong women who happen to have superpowers. They have the same powers as the three most famous female superheroes. Tung (Anita Mui) is The Wonder Woman, a strong, righteous and noble warrior, but with a secret identity. Chat (Maggie Chung) is Catwoman, the super-slick burglar and thief who also has incredible fight skills and can get out of tight spots. And Ching (Michelle Yeoh) is The Invisible Woman, who initially serves the evil warlock (Yen Shi-Kwan).

Bad girls get to have all the fun. Try converting her now!
The three super-heroines use their skills and powers in a very different ways. Wonder Woman attempts to stop the other two and their schemes at first, which makes the three fight each other for most of the running time. But in the end they realize that the Warlock's rising power threatends them all, and the three unite for a super team-up. The men, represented mostly by the police (Damian Lau and Paul Chun) are left to the sidelines. Their incompetence in solving baby-snatching crimes is what springs Wonder Woman into action in the first place. Their place later on is mostly to root for the good guys and to clean up after the bigger scrapes.

Presumably also to patch up her suit later on as well.
The film is thoroughly postmodern which is reflected in how the rise of the new age and the female superstars in the end defeats traditional magic in the story. The tight body-suits, blue lightning and innovative camera movements reflect comic books and anime series in a way that was copied numerous times to films ranging from Irma Vep to The Matrix to Underworld. The effects here are quite good, utilizing wires and practical effects rather than dull computer tricks its carbon copies later would do.

Maggie has nothing but contempt for Underworld, as anyone should.
The main problem with the film is that the goody-goody Mui is a bit bland while the badder girls are hotter and clearly have more fun. In the time where Hongkong was starting to drift back to mainland China, the story of building unity through a common history also rang true. It's not at all a deep film in any way, but it's quirky and fun and inventive and the three leads are as charismatic as ever. And they beat up an androgynous bastard. How's that for female empowerment!


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