Girls With Guns in Hong Kong: Beyond Michelle Yeoh & Cynthia Rothrock
I’ve touched on this before in my retrospective on Cynthia Rothrock back in February, but the "Girls With Guns" sub-genre was an absolute phenomenon in Hong Kong between the '80s and '90s. The movement was kick started by Corey Yuen’s Yes Madam, which introduced us not just to Cynthia Rothrock but also Michelle Khan, who would later make a name for herself as Michelle Yeoh in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It didn’t quite nail the balance of broad comedy and world-class action choreography quite yet, but it was enough to sell audiences on the abilities of these lady ass-kickers. For a solid decade the climate for female empowerment in a male-dominated genre reigned supreme – a genre not just male-dominated, but also inherently exploitative. Yet for the most part these ladies weren’t being exploited for their looks, instead it was for their physical prowess, demanding screen presence, and their ability to serve up a mighty fine can of whoopass.
Graduation came early when Cynthia Rothrock decided to further her career in the States and Michelle Khan/Yeoh prematurely put acting on hold after marrying producer Dickson Poon (not an alias). It was now time for the next generation to step up to the plate. A young dancer by the name of Yang Li-tsing was given the stage name “Cynthia Khan” (an amalgamation of Cynthia Rothrock & Michelle Khan). Khan was introduced to audiences as the next best thing in the third installment of the In the Line of Duty series, in which Yes Madam and Royal Warriors (starring Michelle Khan & Henry Sanada) had already proven to be moneymakers. While both In the Line of Duty 3 and especially 4 are genuinely worth your time, you can tell budgets were gradually getting slashed. Ultimately, Cynthia Khan wasn’t able to pull in the same numbers as her predecessors, a fact made evident by her being paired up with Donnie Yen in the fourth film. The series would continue for a while still, but none of them would ever be more than a speck in the history of Hong Kong action cinema.
While there was still an audience for these types of movies, its market would gradually shift to low-budget straight-to-VCD trash. And if you know me, I’m saying that in the most loving way possible. I imagine audiences at the time went through a similar experience of steadily making your way through the classics, realizing you’re still hungry for more, and then slightly adjusting your scope in order to find a goldmine of forgotten, bargain basement potboilers. One of the shiniest nuggets I’ve come across in doing so is 1987’s Iron Angels (aka Fighting Madam aka Fighting Angels aka Midnight Angels aka plain old Angel), directed by Teresa Woo-san, one of the only female action directors active in Hong Kong at the time.
Iron Angels pits a trio of Charlie’s Angels-esque crime-fighters against a drug-smuggling ring, lead by the wonderful Yukari Oshima. What makes Iron Angels stand out so much is that it is unabashedly a Friday night, synth-drenched, no holds barred DTV action extravaganza in the most gratuitous way. Not a scene goes by where there isn’t either a life-threatening conflict, or an all-out brawl between people trained by martial artists or just those martial artists themselves. This trailer I've embedded is a bit spoilery, so maybe don't watch it to the end, but it is a perfect encapsulation of why this movie is so awesome.
This uncompromising never-before and never-again seen approach to film-making is just guaranteed to throw your senses into a tizzy. Yukari Oshima, along with Moon Lee one of the queens of lo-fi girls-with-guns trash, is someone with a similar background to Cynthia Rothrock in that they both came from a martial arts environment where full-contact wasn’t common practice at all on a set. Born in Fukuoka, on the northern shore of Japanese island Kyushu, she abandoned her trajectory of becoming a PE teacher when she caught Jackie Chan’s The Young Master on the big screen. She made it her life's dream to break through in Hong Kong and co-star alongside Yuen Biao, who she had become enamored by after seeing Young Master.
Yukari Oshima didn’t necessarily feel a calling to become an actress – she’s quoted saying "I don't like to pretend to get hit" – so she dabbled around as a stuntwoman for a year or two before landing her first role in Sammo Hung's Millionaire’s Express as a ninja sword master, alongside... Yuen Biao. It's amusing seeing the joy on her face when she recalls being told not only was she allowed, but encouraged to actually hit her co-stars as hard as she could. Now, this might make her sound like a crazy person, but you need to realize that these were all staged fights between trained professionals, all of whom were fully aware of how much something would hurt, and possessed a heightened sense of distance. In the end it was up to you, and you alone, to be smart enough to know what was acceptable, and what wasn't. If you thought you were gonna get severely injured, you shouldn't be doing the scene.
It shouldn't come as a surprise then that, for obvious reasons, these kind of movies don’t get made anymore. One such incident that almost proved to be fatal, and serves as an argument against these guerilla-style practices, happened during the very final scene of Tony Liu Chun-Ku's Devil Hunters (1989). In this scene, the three main characters, among which Moon Lee and Sibelle Hu, jump out of a second story window as an explosion is about to take place. However, the pyro-technics team blew their wad a little early which resulted in Moon and Sibelle ending up in the hospital with several third degree burns. And I know this because the movie literally ends with an explanation plastered over the screen as they are in the midst of their jump, and the world's most depressing freeze frame. That’s exploitation cinema for ya, fuckin' bonkers. Moon Lee herself says the shift to Hollywood for action movies has been good for safety reasons, but nonetheless feels like nothing will ever top the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. I’m with you one hundo, Moon.
To bring things full circle I just want to emphasize again how gosh dang cool all these ladies are, you guys. They defied the odds in the harshest of environments, and somehow somewhere someone needs to wipe the mold off these movies to start a resurgence of this subgenre of beautiful trash. Cheap, nourishing, beautiful trash.
"Girls With Guns" movies that I feel are worth tracking down: Iron Angels 1-3 (1987-1989), Dreaming the Reality (1991), So Close (2002), She Shoots Straight (1990), Royal Warriors (1986), Killer Angels (1989), Devil Hunters (1989), Madam City Hunter (1993), Angel Terminators 1-2 (1992-1993), Fox Hunter (1995), and I’m sure many more I’ve yet to discover. (Also, since a lot of these aren't available to stream and/or purchase I made a playlist on YouTube.)