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Naked and Unashamed

Naked Killer
Dir: Clarence Fok
Stars: Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Kelly Yao (Wai Yiu), Carrie Ng

Take a large helping of Basic Instinct, toss in some Nikita, and just a pinch of obscurer works such as Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. Toss into the blender, and crank up to 11. The story concerns Kitty (Yau); when she goes to take revenge on the gangsters who killed her family, she crosses paths with Sister Cindy (Yao), a hitwoman who only takes out male scum. She saves Kitty and trains her as a new apprentice, despite the close attentions of cop Tinam (Yam), besotted with Kitty. He has a murky past, and throws up every time he holds a gun, since he accidentally shot his brother. Which isn't good, especially when Cindy's last apprentice, Princess (Ng) and her sidekick Baby (Svenvara Madoka) come back for tea and revenge...

It's a script by Wong Jing, about whom opinion is sharply split. Some HK cinema fans regard him as a talentless hack, leaping on trends and churning out dreck purely for the money - the IMDB currently gives him 85 directorial credits. However, he's had a hand in more of my favourites than any other film-maker: God of Gamblers, City Hunter, The Magic Crystal, Tricky Brains, New Legend of Shaolin, so I'm a big fan. Here, though not officially in the chair, I sense his hand was not limited to a writing role, not least because, at the time he was, ah, "seeing" Chingmy Yau.

Whoever the auteur, the result is one of the more delirious and mad entries in the girls-with-guns genre: much as Suspiria nails a dreamlike quality in the horror field, so does Killer for action heroines. It's a nightmarish version of the war between the sexes: murder isn't enough for our assassinettes, castration also seems to be required, while Cindy keeps a basement full of drooling rapists for training purposes and, I sense, doesn't really feel the rest of mankind are much better. Much the same depth (or lack thereof) applies to all the characters: the women are largely man-hating lesbians; the men, bumbling idiots.

But it all looks superbly stylish, thanks in part to cinematography by Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger) - though no-one seems certain whether he shot the movie, or just the supercool trailer, which has a whole bunch of stuff that never appears in the actual film. But regardless, the action (even though the starlets lacked much of a martial arts background, they're pretty impressive), costumes, dialogue, characters and storyline all mesh elegantly into a whole that is undeniably exploitation cinema at its finest.

Ng, in particular, nails her part with a relish that's just fabulous, but Kelly Yao also does surprisingly well - her role is perhaps the most pivotal in the plot, and she's required to do more than look pretty, which she does with a maturity and confident poise that borders on the balletic. Yau is about the closest to a sympathetic character the film has, being largely the victim of unfortunate circumstances, while Yam has pretty much made a career out of playing the troubled cop, and could do this kind of job with his eyes shut. Indeed, given the vomiting required, he largely does.

But in this film, there's no doubt: this is a women's world, and any men in it are barely tolerated, as long as they behave themselves and cause no trouble. You could debate the gender politics on view here almost endlessly, but one seriously doubts Wong Jing had the slightest interest in this angle, any more than the late Russ Meyer viewed Faster Pussycat as a stirring tale of female empowerment. The viewer is, naturally, free to take whatever party favours away they want; just don't seek to impose such high moral thoughts on those of us who are simply after a head-spinning dose of dubious entertainment.

This one is best enjoyed - indeed, perhaps only truly enjoyable - after a 16-oz steak and several alcoholic drinks of choice. Sprawl on the couch with your head gently spinning, and enjoy the heady excesses as they unspool. The term "Cat. III cinema" (the HK version of an R-rating) means many things, and covers much territory, both good and bad; this is firmly at the upper end of the spectrum, and combines sex and violence in a giddy way rarely seen in Western cinema.

[A couple of caveats: be careful of the version you buy: the Fortune Star version released in the US through Fox is heavily cut, both for sex and violence. Oddly though, some parts that have been removed (such as bits from Baby's pool assassination) turn up as background in the interviews. Go figure. It's hard to work out why they were removed, especially when they left in the "hilarious" scene in which a severed penis is mistaken for an undercooked sausage. The Region 2 DVD from Hong Kong Legends is probably the best way to go, if you have a multi-region DVD player. Also avoid any dubbed version; even by the usual low standards of such things, the English track is awful.

And don't get reeled in by the sequels in name only, which redefine suck to almost unexplored depths. You'd think that with a title like Naked Killer 2: Raped by an Angel and a cover like this, you could hardly go wrong. You will learn, very quickly, exactly how it's possible: in my other incarnation, I wrote, "I can forgive many things in a Cat. III film; but boredom is not one of them," which should be sufficient warning to stay well clear.]

Naked Weapon
Dir: Ching Siu-Tung
Stars: Maggie Q, Anya, David Wu, Almen Wong

After a decade of "sequels" that weren't worth the video-tape they were apparently filmed on, Wong Jing finally went back to the well in 2002 for what is, in truth, a surprisingly-tame movie. Given the names of the lead actresses ("Maggie Q", "Anya") sounded more like porn starlets than anything, I was expecting loadsa sleazy fun, but they're model names, and this is probably closer to Heroic Trio - also directed by Ching - than the original.

In fact, the nipple-count here barely reaches two, mostly right at the start when Madam M's (Wong) assassinettes go on the job, only to be killed by a rocket-propelled grenade. Her boss clearly takes the long-term view, kidnapping forty thirteen-year olds girls, and whisking them off to a remote island for a six-year version of Survivor. At the end, they are down to three in number: Charlene (Q), Katt (Anya) and Jill (Jewel Lee, who is a genuine Wu Shu expert, and also doubled for the other stars when necessary). However, dogged CIA agent Jack (Wu) is still on the trail of Madam M, falls in love with Charlene during an encounter in the back of an ice-cream truck - which must have been fun, given Wu was Q's ex-boyfriend - and vows to save her from a life of meaningless murder.

The action sequences are great: director Ching is noted for his wire-work in films like A Chinese Ghost Story and Hero - it's used to great effect here, just don't expect "realistic" fighting skills. The editing is weird in that it's not coherent, but still works - it's almost like highlights, in that consecutive shots clearly don't connect, but still are effective, and give a good sense of how the fight is progressing. The editors on shows like Alias could learn a lot from this. Speaking of which, the film has much the same feel as a feature-length version of the series, back when it was still good fun, and before the whining and angst took over. Exotic locations, high-fashion, plenty of ass-kicking - on that level, this film certainly delivers. It's also a nice bonus to see Cheng Pei-Pei (Jade Fox from Crouching Tiger) as Charlene's mother, though I kept expecting her to bust out a few moves on the bad guys.

Instead, there's a laughable scene after an assassination attempt on her by Jill, at the behest of Madam M, who realises she could lose Charlene back to her mother. Jack ends up carrying the wounded parent to the hospital, but keeps stopping to converse with Charlene, which had us screaming, "The hospital! It's over there! She's bleeding profusely!" at the TV set. And in general, I'm unconvinced by the story, which suddenly shifts angles in the third act. Up until then, it's been angling towards a confrontation between the girls and Madam M; that's suddenly discarded, in favour of a villain we'd not seen before.

Despite possessing more holes than a golf resort, Wong Jing's script is pretty restrained; even the lesbian aspects are more implied than shown, and mercifully, the dumb comedy beloved by Wong is almost entirely absent. However, there is a rather nasty rape scene to end the training; while I can see the point, it does go on past what's necessary and doesn't fit with the generally slick tone. For even when the film is gunning down pre-pubescent girls for attempting to leave Madam M's fantasy island, it does so in a...well, "tasteful manner" isn't perhaps the phrase, but you know what I mean.

For in general, this is fast-paced, mindless entertainment, not to be taken the least bit seriously. At least, that's my view: reading others, it's clear opinions differ sharply on this one: "In a year of relatively disappointing Asian films, it's one of the worst around," says filmsasia.net, but hkfilm.net calls it, "The best movie of 2002." Weirder still, one person described this as "boredom-inducing", which had me checking to see whether they were discussing the same film. If you're bored here, you probably need to lay off the caffeinated beverages for a few days: those of us with normal metabolisms should be more than entertained by this fluff.

Is it better than Naked Killer? A difficult call, and one that likely depends on your state of mind - as well as whether the word "good" could ever be applied to Killer, a lurid blast that really could come from Hong Kong, and probably only from before the Chinese takeaway of the colony. Weapon is certainly better-crafted and has more crossover appeal: our son was going to pick it up in Blockbuster, till we informed him it was already part of our unwatched pile. On the whole, I think Weapon is the one more likely to be watched again in future - if only because Killer would require the room to be carefully swept for lurking minors and maiden aunts first.

[The sidenote of importance here for the DVD is: watch your language. As usual with Hong Kong movies, we opted to see it in Chinese with English subtitles. It wasn't until the making-of documentary that we realised it had been shot mostly in English (Wu + Q do, others, such as Cheng, don't), and we'd actually been watching a dubbed version. Oops. ;-) However, upon further viewing (hey, it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it!), it doesn't really make that much difference. The main benefit of the English track is, at least on the DVD we were watching, it's available in DTS, which definitely enhances things.]

[November 2005]

Naked Soldier
Dir: Marco Mak
Stars: Jennifer Tse, Sammo Hung, Andy On, Ankie Beilke

Ten years after Maggie Q got her career as an action heroine kickstarted with Weapon, and twenty after Killer rampaged its way into cult status, Jennifer Tse takes over - bearing more than a passing resemblance to her predecessor, I think. I think it's kinda cool how the series gets revisited every decade, regular as clockwork: maybe famed producer Wong Jing has a house payment to make or something? Admittedly, there's not much more than a tangential connection between the entries; three different directors, three different stars, and not much overlap in terms of plot. However, they still share a common approach, fetishising the female form and the act of assassination, with no shortage of style, and are the longest-running (in terms of years) GWG series around.

The story of this third installment opens with a prologue from 15 years ago, when Interpol agent CK Long (Sammo Hung) intercepts a $35 million shipment of drugs. As punishment, its owners unleash Madam Rosa and her killers on him, as he enjoys a nice family Christmas in Florida: most of his relations are killed, Long barely escapes with his life as his house is blown up, but watches as his daugher is whisked away by Rosa, to be brainwashed and trained as one of her army of assassins. Back in the present, Rosa is now sending our her minions to kill the five leaders of a proposed international drugs cartel. Long is assigned to the cases, because of his familiarity with the way Rosa operates, and is startled, to say the least, when DNA testing shows one of the killers appears to be his long-lost daughter. Not as startled as he will be, when she turns up in his apartment, with murder in mind. Naturally, his investigating partner (On) meets Phoenix in her undercover role as a student, and falls in love with her, at a speed only ever seen in movies more concerned about action than relationships.

There's a lot to enjoy here, not least the presence of Hung, who has always been an under-rated talent in my eyes. He's pretty damn sprightly for a 60-year old: a step slower perhaps, but there are still moments to treasure here, such as the chopstick duel with his other daughter. He served another important purpose here: for my wife, his early presence legitimized watching a film called Naked Soldier, which I suspect might otherwise have led to some dripping sarcasm - even though she remembered and enjoyed Weapon, and as in its immediate predecessor, the actual nudity in this is confined to the title. There's another veteran of HK cinema who shows up at the end. While I'll avoid spoilers, it was someone whom we were equally delighted to see - even though he was single-handedly responsible for putting Chris off Chinese food for a year!

However, these are supporting roles and here, we're more interested in how Tse and the other ladies acquit themselves. And there are a number on both sides, even if, early on, things do move relatively slowly into gear. Despite token male killer, Black Dragon, Madam Rosa still has her admirable fondness for female assassins, and we see them in action early on as Ivy, Selina (Beilke) and Phoenix carry out their missions in a Vegas hotel, boxing gym and at a funeral respectively. [Selina's viciousness is quite belied by her final haircut, which appears to have come straight from a Flock of Seagulls fan convention!] One of their targets is an ass-kicking Thai gangsteress, who teams up with a gay Dutch guy against one of the assassins, in a nice handicap brawl at a boutique.

It's mostly the end, when Long, his daughter and Phoenix head off to Madam Rosa's island, that things really kick in, as it turns out that betrayal is a two-headed beast. There, we get an excellent series of battles: one-on-one, two-on-one, many-on-one, that mor than make up for the relatively relaxed pace over the first hour or so, and feel like a throwback (not least becauge of Hung's presence). Corey Yuen does the action: his track record speaks for itself, with solid action heroine entries such as So Close and D.O.A. on his resume, and this would be another. There's plenty of variety and invention on view, up to and including the climactic battle between Phoenix and her nemesis, on one of the lethal training apparatus in Rosa's lair.

There are some negatives, not least Long's daughter, who serves little or no purpose beyond unfunny comedy, and appears to be played by an actress significantly older than she needs to be. And certainly, aspects of this don't make much sense. For instance, why did Rosa's efforts at revenge take a sabbatical for 15 years, after having killed everyone but her intended target? Or why are proceedings supposedly set in 1995, when it obviously isn't 1995, for example, the tech everyone uses? However, there's nothing a genre fan won't be able to overlook, and plenty they'll be able to appreciate, making this a worthy entry in the series: I wouldn't mind if they skipped the 10-year waiting period for the next entry. Failing that: roll on, 2022!

[September 2012]

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