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The Leung and the Restless
Jade Leung - The Last Action Heroine
The 1980's were the Golden Era for action heroines in Hong Kong cinema. Names like Cynthia Khan (a.k.a. Cynthia Yeoh), Michelle Khan, Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Rothrock and Moon Lee all came to prominence in the decade. Just sliding in before the bubble burst was Jade Leung, who came out of nowhere to win Best Newcomer at the Hong Kong Film Awards for her performance in 1991's Black Cat (reviewed elsewhere).
Jade was born in the then-British colony, November 23rd 1969, but spent four of her later teenage years in Switzerland, where she studied fashion and learned French. In 1990, she returned to Hong Kong and was one of 200+ actresses to audition for Steven Shin, director of Black Cat. She won out, despite her lack of experience, and underwent a rigorous training program to get in shape for the movie.
Its success, particularly in international markets (when shown as part of a series at the National Film Theatre in London, it pulled a bigger crowd than Drunken Master 2) lead to her being signed to a long-term deal by D&B Films. Unfortunately, the studio wasn't around long enough to fulfil its end of the bargain, and Jade has been bouncing around, in search of adequate roles ever since. She hasn't always been successful, saying of Fox Hunter, "There is no sense whatsoever to the movie's content... It was also the most arduous, most painful movie I have done."
Mind you, unbiased observers would likely point to Enemy Shadow in that category - during the filming of that one, Jade was badly burnt when a stunt went wrong. "When I opened my eyes, I was enveloped by blistering flames. During that moment, many questions that I had never thought of before flashed across my mind, there was a thin fine line between life and death. Afterwards, remembering that the camera was rolling in front of me, they were waiting for me to dart out to conclude the day's work, I ignored everything and made a dash." The near-fatal accident can still be seen in the movie.
While most of her contemporaries have since left the industry - for example, Moon Lee now runs a well-respected dance studio - Jade Leung continues to make films. She has also appeared in TV dramas, such as Battle Against Evil, and written a diet book, though as titles like 2000's Black Cat in Jail or last year's Black Cat Agent Files suggest, she has to some extent never escaped her most famous role.
Jade has never achieved the international renown of Michelle Yeoh, and remains little known outside her native land. As we'll see, this is perhaps unsurprising, because her filmography struggles to get past mediocre, and she has largely dead-ended in low-budget quickies. Yet, as one of the few remaining active action heroines working in Hong Kong, she probably deserves more respect and coverage than she has so far received. Here's a look at some of the post-Black Cat entries in her filmography.
See also this 1992 interview with Jade Leung from Eastern Heroes magazine.
Black Cat 2: Assassination of President Yeltsin
Dir: Stephen Shin
Stars: Robin Shou, Jade Leung, Zoltan Buday, Patrick Stark
While neither Nikita nor The Assassin ever resulted in a sequel, the success of Black Cat lead, immediately to a follow-up. This is both good, in that it forced D&B Films into coming up with some new concepts, and bad, because what they came up with is a barely coherent mess. They take Leung - who had won the 'Best Newcomer' award - and give her a role where she gets to speak twice. The real star is Robin Shou, well before his Mortal Kombat days, and with a much better haircut too.
He plays a CIA operative - the laserdisk subs say this stands for Central Intelligent Agency, clearly dating this before 9/11 - who is investigating a group out to assassinate President Yeltsin. Their chosen hitman has been beefed up with some kind of ill-explained technological wizardry, but luckily, one person can detect the radiation he gives off: Black Cat, who now has a chip in her head (to match the one on her shoulder, hohoho). This leads to an amusing sequence where Black Cat heads off on her own, charges into a mall, and shoots an old lady because - wouldn't you know it? - the senior citizen just happens to be giving off the same kind of radiation, courtesy of her medical treatment. Well, I found it amusing, anyway; there's something about a head-shot which spatters the face of a nearby clown with copious amounts of blood. Er, just me, then? :-)
Okay, the movie may never be dull, and is certainly not short on action. Yet it doesn't make any sense. Why would the CIA send operatives into Russia to save their president? And what are they doing operating in America? Isn't that illegal? Oh, I forgot - it's the CIA we're talking about here. Leung's robotic performance - even though entirely appropriate, since she now comes with an remote-control off switch - also feels like a terrible waste of her talents. There's a lot of wire-work in the action sequences, but it's not badly done; the highlight is probably a fight in a steel-works where both Robin and Jade have to take on large numbers of adversaries. The final battle, when Black Cat fights the assassin around the wreckage of a crashed plane, is cool too, with the two antagonists bouncing off the debris.
However, the overall impact is bitty and sporadic. While there are some nice ideas, they are poorly thought-out and developed, and the script doesn't meld them into any kind of satisfactory structure. The action sequences feel equally bolted-on, though I did like the use of a President Yeltsin lookalike (at least, one presumes it was a lookalike, though I recall the real ex-President Gorbachev did appear in a Wim Wenders film). After the critical acclaim that greeted her debut, Jade Leung could have turned her skills in any direction; unfortunately, this disappointing follow-up is largely symptomatic of the poor choices that seem to have dogged her subsequent career.
Dir: Tony Leung Siu-Hung
Stars: Jade Leung, Anita Lee, Russell Wong, Kenneth Chan
This fast, furious, largely daft movie was Jade's immediate follow up to the two Black Cat films. If they were based on Nikita, the inspiration here is clearly Lethal Weapon, with Leung as a headstrong cop (also named Jade Leung!) who believes in shooting first and asking questions...oh, somewhere between eventually and never. With her sensible partner (Lee), she chases evil weapons broker Mr. Fowler and his gang from Singapore to Indonesia. It eventually ends above a volcano, with Jade clinging desperately to a helicopter.
The elements here are hugely variable: Leung and Lee have great chemistry, but Lee's boyfriend Paul (Chan) may be the most irritating bastard in cinema history - his every appearance provoked a strong desire to throw things at the TV, and we cheered loudly when he was gunned down, particularly since it shut him up for a bit. In contrast Russell Wong is more sympathetic as Fowler's naive lawyer, though since we know what happened to Jade's first husband, this relationship might as well be wearing a sweatshirt marked 'Doomed'. One also wonders why an international arms dealer would employ a troupe of native dancers as henchmen.
While the plot and characterisation leaves a little to be desired in originality and execution, the action is plentiful and energetic. Of particular note is the previously-mentioned helicopter sequence - at first, we suspected heavy stunt doubling, but later on, there are a couple of shots which give pause for thought, and Jade deserves greater credit. It's just a shame it ends so abruptly. Jade's battle against the dancers is also pretty cool, and Lee has a good fight at a train station, culminating with a leap in front of an oncoming engine that merited an immediate rewind and rewatch.
There is, however, something obviously cheap and apparently rushed about the whole endeavour, and it feels like one of the later entries in Cynthia Khan's filmography - particularly, Angel on Fire, which also had two policewomen from different lands, travelling to a third (and presumably, cheaper to film in!) country to find the villains. One suspects Jade was under pressure to make another movie while her star was still rising, regardless of the end product's quality.
Dir: Billy Chan Wui-Ngai
Stars: Jade Leung, Bobby Au, Farini Cheung, Zhang Fengyi
This film is a 90-minute explanation of why Jade Leung's star never took off. While some decisions Michelle Yeoh made might have been questionable, at least her films were rarely boring, and never down to the level of this piece of tedious dreck. It depicts the struggles of a class of policewomen (including Jade), to become part of the elite. The idea certainly has potential - the Inspector Wears Skirts series has a similar premise - but here, there is almost no character given to any of the girls; they all blur into each other, like a dozen GI Jane-wannabes.
The director - whoever they may be, since the credits were all in Chinese, and nowhere on the Internet seems to know either - also seems to believe that if two minutes of the ladies taking on an assault course is good, ten minutes must be better. Another example is the seven-day forced march, which feels like it was filmed in real time, and screws up the most obvious opportunity for tension. It does lead to a somewhat interesting sequence, where three of the women have to last two minutes fighting martial-arts instructors, to avoid getting kicked out. But there is no flow to the plot at all - it lurches from set-piece to set-piece without cohesion or progression. All of which would be tolerable if the action elements weren't handled in such a lacklustre fashion, but there's nothing here to write home about, except in a "PS. Obvious stunt doubling" kind of way.
For some strange reason, this film appears to be unavailable on DVD - should you want to see it (and if you do, I've clearly failed in my mission here), you'll have to see the VCD, with its illegible subtitles and a plot synopsis which shakes hands and parts company with the truth after the first sentence. It opts to visit the land of Wild Fabrication instead, continuing: "Before graduation, the team is called to handle a hostage situation in a jewelry expo. Afterwards the girls are assigned to as the bodyguard of the first lady of a small country. But the first lady's own rebellious guard kidnaps her and executes one of the girls..." There's not a single word of truth there: the movie finishes - abruptly - on graduation day, after yet another training mission.
But if you know what film that synopsis actually describes, do let me know, because it's almost certainly far more interesting and entertaining than this one. It may not be the worst action heroine film I've ever seen, but it's probably the worst ever to come out of Hong Kong, which usually does such things with a certain degree of invention, enthusiasm and energy. None of these are visible here, in any amount.
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