Cynthia Rothrock: The Blonde Fury of Hong Kong
Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme. These are just some of the names that come to mind when you think of famous martial artists. There’s one common factor to them, though, and it’s situated between their legs. There’s no two ways about it: martial arts was, and still is dominated by men. But what if I told you there was a woman who rose to the challenge and became known as The Blonde Fury of Hong Kong? Two-and-a-half decades before Charlize Theron's and Uma Thurman's stars had risen, there was a little girl from Delaware who, with a little perseverance and a whole lot of talent, took Hong Kong by storm. And that girl grew up to be... Cynthia Rothrock.
Still saddled with the legacy Bruce Lee had left behind, production company Golden Harvest journeyed stateside in the early 80's to find the next big thing in martial arts. Sure enough Jackie Chan had already begun making a name for himself, but his style was too uniquely different from Lee’s. Concurrently, Rothrock had already proven herself a bit of a pioneer by becoming the first female martial artist to be featured on the cover of Black Belt Magazine. She had been competing in, winning, and defending her title in men’s competitions for several years in a row, as there was no women’s division at the time. Much to the chagrin of her male competitors, Golden Harvest decided to sign her upon witnessing her impressive form and mastery of weapons. After her appearance alongside Michelle Yeoh in Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam! they decided to signed her on a three-movie deal. Cynthia ultimately ended up staying in Hong Kong for seven more pictures, before moving on to a moderately successful B-movie career back in the States. She even served as inspiration for Sonya Blade, a video game character in the popular Mortal Kombat franchise.
Cynthia Rothrock is one of the only Western performers who made it big in the breakneck, demanding world of Hong Kong action cinema, long before making a name for herself in her home country. Lauded for her work ethic, she was the first American woman to star in a Hong Kong movie, and it didn’t take long for the Chinese to consider her one of theirs, and was even given her very own Chinese name: 羅芙洛 (Foo Lok Law). In fact when Cynthia’s character suffers a rather gnarly death in Corey Yuen's Righting Wrongs, she was called in for reshoots because audiences were not reacting well to seeing their favourite character get killed.
Despite injuries which forced her fighting style away from her dominant side and 12+ hour day shoots that lasted for months in order to get single scenes right, all the while having to travel back and forth to compete in stateside tournaments, Rothrock bit the bullet and persevered. I often sing the praises of golden age Hong Kong action cinema, but it’s the insight you get from people like her who were originally outsiders that makes you truly realise its singularity. In a world where attraction is emphasised over narrative, said attraction needs to feel as tangible as possible to the viewer to make an impact – something that can only be achieved through unfiltered skill & commitment. The majority of these movies were made on a shoestring budget, and there was neither money nor the means to inject any special effects. If they told you you needed to run away from the sparks, you had better do it or end up in the hospital because shit was gonna blow. If you wanted to know what your next line was you’d better hope the screenwriter was on set or flap your gums and hope for the best during ADR. It's not like these guys couldn't tell a story, but they wanted to make the action feel real more than anything else.
While Yes, Madam! may have kickstarted an entire series of popular ‘ladies-with-guns’ movies alternatively titled In the Line of Duty, I feel Righting Wrongs is the perfect embodiment of a group of world-class stuntmen teaming up to make the most bone-crunching, hard boiled cinematic experience imaginable. Originally Rothrock’s contract was going to see her first pair up with Jackie Chan in Armour of God, but when its production got postponed due to Jackie’s injury, she found herself starring opposite of Yuen Biao and reunited with director Corey Yuen, both former classmates of Jackie at the Peking Opera School where they had all learned their trade. Rothrock considers Biao the most impressive fighter she’s ever worked with, and despite the language barrier, felt an instant rapport with him. I’m sure the feeling was mutual as their scenes together are electrifying in their precision and timing.
Righting Wrongs is also notable for featuring a fight between long-time friends Rothrock and Karen Sheperd, which Rothrock refers to as “the best fight between two women ever to be put on a screen.” Corey Yuen seemed to have a real knack for putting the spotlight on female fighters; from 1990's She Shoots Straight (aka Lethal Lady), which culminates in another outstanding piece of choreography between lead actress Joyce Godenzi (who to my immense surprise had no previous martial arts training) and American born Filipina Agnes Aurelio, to So Close (2002) starring Shu Qi, and finally D.O.A. (2006). The latter of which features a cast dominated by lady ass kickers, and is a fun enough time if you go in with the right expectations (read: none).
I’m not going to pretend Hong Kong cinema wasn’t without its problems. Casual homophobia and rape jokes were a dime a dozen, and safety was nothing if not an afterthought. But it did give people like Cynthia Rothrock a shot to pave the way for non-sexualised, strong female leads in an age when the rest of the world was largely dismissive and apathetic. One look at her stateside filmography and it becomes apparent that studios far too often felt the need to pair her up with a male co-star, as if her physical prowess and screen presence hadn't already evoked enough confidence as selling points. Feels to me like most American directors were just at a loss at how to properly utilize her physical qualities. Though I will say I am a fan of her collaborations with her BFF and fellow martial artist Richard Norton. Rage & Honor (1992) in particular is a delightfully odd entry in the world of DTV action shlock, with far more care for characterisation in a sub-genre where that isn’t a prerequisite.
Alas, as the '90s came to their end, and the robots took over, the climate for low to mid-budget action movies dissipated. Sure we've still got our Furiosas, Gal Gadots and Danai Guriras, and – don't get me wrong – I love them all. But let’s take a moment to remember the debt they owe to the original Blonde Fury, who literally stared death in the eyes and said “I’ll try anything.” If you're interested in checking out some of Cynthia's work, I do believe Righting Wrongs was released on DVD in America as Above the Law, so that's a good a place as any to get hooked.