Jade Leung: the last action heroine

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“The Leung and the Restless”

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. 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 fulfill 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.

  • Black Cat

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    blackcatBefore the official remake of Nikita came out, Hong Kong had already delivered its take on the matter. The film starts in New York, and a large part of this is in English, though the acting there is so woeful as to make you lean towards the Chinese dubbed version. The heroine, Erica, is made more sympathetic: while she still kills a cop, she’s not a junkie, and is “shot” while trying to escape. She wakes up under the watchful eye of Simon Yam, in the “Uncle Bob” role (though here, he’s a ‘cousin’).

    From here, the plot is similar to Nikita – missions, qualms, romance, escape attempt, etc – and interestingly, her boyfriend (Thomas Lam) is a photographer, an idea also used in the later Point. There are, however, significant differences in the details. For example, Erica has a chip implanted in her brain, supposedly, to help her achieve her full potential, but all it seems to do is give her raging headaches [admittedly, a potentially useful control mechanism]. They also skip the etiquette lessons, which seemed irrelevant to me anyway – how do good table manners help, when your mission solely involves the use of a sniper rifle?

    The specifics of her missions are also altered. The final test, rather than an assassination in a restaurant, is to kill the bride at a Jewish wedding, for reasons left unexplained – but given the heavy weaponry carried by a lot of guests, it’s perhaps no bad thing! Others involve shooting an executive of the WWF (the nature group, not the wrestling federation!), a throat-slitting at a Japanese hot spring resort, and, in the best-staged sequence, dropping a lot of metal from a great height onto the roof of her target.

    However, the movie’s main strength is Jade Leung, who fully deserved the Best Newcomer award she won at the 11th Hong Kong Film Awards. Every facet of her character is consistent and believable, certainly more so than Bridget Fonda – it’s at least the equal of Anne Parillaud, and arguably may be even better. Yam is perhaps a kinder, gentler handler: he doesn’t shoot his protege in the leg, for example, yet the relationship between them is missing the romantic spark which lurked in the original. As for Thomas Lam, he’s not Dermot Mulroney, and that alone is an improvement.

    The film is undeniably flawed, not least in a soundtrack that is often wildly inappropriate, and seems to have been pulled at random from easy-listening CDs. But its core is solid, and in a lot of ways, this is a more justifiable movie than Point of No Return. While the story remains the same, Black Cat does at least bring a bottle to the party, adding enough new twists to make it interesting (and avoid a lawsuit). Leung’s fine performance is an unexpected bonus.

    Dir: Stephen Shin
    Star: Jade Leung, Simon Yam, Thomas Lam

  • Black Cat 2: The Assassination of President Yeltsin

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    blackcat2While 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: Stephen Shin
    Stars: Robin Shou, Jade Leung, Zoltan Buday, Patrick Stark

  • Satin Steel

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    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: Tony Leung Siu-Hung
    Stars: Jade Leung, Anita Lee, Russell Wong, Kenneth Chan

  • Velvet Gloves

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    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 the Internet offers limited assistance 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.

    Dir: Billy Chan Wui-Ngai
    Stars: Jade Leung, Bobby Au, Farini Cheung, Zhang Fengyi

  • Fox Hunter

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    “For Fox’s sake…”

    foxhunterGrittily disturbing, only some misplaced and failed stabs at comedy prevent this from likely being Leung’s best work ever. She plays rookie Hong Kong cop Jenny, following in the footsteps of her late father, who takes on an undercover mission aimed at trapping gangster Tung (Fung). While it succeeds, Tung escapes, and takes vengeance on Jenny, killing her uncle in brutal fashion. This, in turn, pushes her over the edge, and she teams up with his pimp-turned-informant (Chan), who is feeling aggrieved after having not received his promised reward from the authorities. The pair head to China, where Tung is hiding out, only for Jenny to rapidly wear out her welcome with the local cops and their commander (Guang). Worse is to follow, when Tung finds out they are on his tail, he begins a campaign of terrorism, culminating in wiring an entire shopping mall with explosives. He’s very fond of explosives…

    The cover (right) is surely among the least accurate I’ve seen, depicting a frothy concoction mercifully not present – and the movie contains absolutely no pineapples at all, in case you were wondering. In particular, they really shouldn’t have tried to make Chan’s character any kind of comedic foil, because it just doesn’t work. During the early going, I was praying for his rapid, painful demise, though he does become more sympathetic in the second half. Fortunately, the other aspects outweigh the ill-considered negatives. Though this is one of only four films directed by Tung Wai (including an all time HK favorite, Magic Cop), he has a long pedigree as an action director – among his works previously covered here are Mulan, Reign of Assassins and The Assassin – and that’s where this movie shines. Particular standouts are a sequence where Tung shows up at the apartment complex where our pair are hiding out, and the final battle up and down the insides of the mall.

    It’s clear throughout that Leung is doing most, if not all, her own stunts; the sequence where she uses a sofa to escape a grenade blast is so realistic, you can virtually smell her singed eyebrows. It also helps that she isn’t portrayed as all at some kind of superwoman. Indeed, Tung is depicted as stronger, and far more brutal than the heroine, resulting in a genuine sense of peril for her – Jenny has to dig deep into her reservoir of tenacity simply in order to survive his onslaught, never mind prevailing over her nemesis. As well as the cover, the English-language title doesn’t do this justice, conjuring up a rather different set of images. While I get the sense of her going after a predator, something like Wolf Hunter might have been more appropriate, in terms of getting the hard-edged tone for which this aims.

    Dir: Stephen Tung Wai
    Star: Jade Leung, Jordan Chan, Ching Fung, Yu Rong Guang

See also: 1992 interview with Jade Leung, taken from Eastern Heroes.

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