Tiger Angels

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“Toothless tigers.”

It is pretty close to an article of faith that no movie starring Yukari Oshima and Cynthia Khan can ever be entirely worthless. This film, however, shakes that belief to its very foundation. Not least because despite the cover and credits, found just about everywhere (including here), it barely stars them – indeed, Khan doesn’t even show up for the finale, with absolutely no explanation provided. This is included here, mostly as a warning, and because I’m a stickler for completeness with regard to their filmographies. Though in this case, I suspect, I’m less a stickler and more the sucker.

The plotline is…obscure. There’s a gloriously fractured English synopsis here, with sentences such as “Nga Wah finds her husband fevering with a girl.” This includes some information I would never have guessed, such as Khan’s character (Sally in this synopsis, Rose in the film I watched) being the daughter of the department store owner. I figured she was just a hired bodyguard like Oshima/Butterfly (Oshima), with the general manager of the store actually being the owner’s son. So, everything which follows should be taken as less than gospel. Or as gospel, if you’re of an atheist persuasion, I guess.

The plot concerns a department store CEO who is being threatened by the son (Chow) of a former business partner, over a debt supposedly incurred by the father. Rose & Butterfly are brought in to protect him. The store’s manager is also being threatened: he has a wife who is more interested in material goods and their acquistion, than anything else. There’s also a computer salesman who is a dead-ringer for the businessman, and so is hired to take over the business for five days. At first, I thought this was going to end up tying together with the debt, and the look-alike would end up being kidnapped, with Rose & Butterfly going in to rescue him. Never happens: those two angles completely fails to go anywhere near each other.

Indeed, the film has, at most, ten minutes of action. It is, admittedly, not bad action, with both ladies delivering at the level to which we’ve become accustomed. Khan has a particularly good battle around a playground, and Oshima gets her chance to shine in the (inexplicably solo!) finale. However, the rest of the running-time is occupied by crappy attempts at comedy, with hints of romance. This likely reaches its nadir in a sped-up shopping scene, which appears to have strayed in from the reject pile of Benny Hill.

Taiwanese film has long had a bad rep for churning out poorly-made knockoffs of Hong Kong products. Previously, I’ve sometimes wondered where that came from, as I’ve seen a number of entries which, if admittedly cheap, were little if any less entertaining, e.g. The Top Lady of Sword. However, there have been cases where its poor reputation has been entirely justified – Super Cops comes to mind. Largely through being guilty of wanton, wholesale misdirection, this is likely the worst offender I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying quite a lot.

Dir: Sek Bing-Chan
Star: Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Khan, Billy Chow, Chung Kai Cheung

Super Cops

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“Less a review, more of a warning.”

supercopsNot, in any way, to be confused with Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh vehicle Super Cop, this one barely has enough action heroine content to qualify here, despite the presence of both Khan and Oshima, who must have been in Taiwan for the weekend or something, and agreed to take on roles of a local cop and a Japanese Interpol agent respectively. Despite a feisty misunderstanding when they first meet, Khan mistaking Oshima for a thief, this is much more about brother and sister Siu-Tong and Chee-Loy, who head to the big city in search of their uncle. They end up getting work in a restaurant, except this brings them into conflict with the local gangsters – fortunately, the brother is kinda good at kicking ass, and this leads to ever-increasing waves of thugs descending on the eating establishment. Really, you wonder why anyone goes there to eat, since it seems barely five minutes goes by without the need to order replacement glass-topped tables.

Meanwhile, Khan and Oshima are seeking to trap heroine dealer Billy Chow, and the two plot strands, which have been so disparate I was seriously thinking this was a pair of films edited together on Godfrey Ho’s day off, finally converge. This happens at an open-air banquet celebrating Chow’s birthday, to which all the characters are somehow invited. Hey, look! More tables through, over and into which people can be hurled! The action is okay in quality – there’s some scampering around a train at the opening which looks genuinely dangerous – yet severely deficient in quantity. Instead, a lot of the running time consists of more or less blatant padding, such as the brother dressing up in drag to ensnare his boss at the restaurant. It’ll have you yearning for the subtle comedic stylings of Benny Hill.

There’s not much point in saying more: I wasted enough time watching this, and don’t feel you should have to waste time too, as I struggle toward the usual word count. Just know that this one is for Khan and Oshima completists only, and even they will find little here worthy of their attention. There’s certainly absolutely nothing super about it.

Dir: Chiang-Bang Mao
Star: Chia-Hui Liu, Ka-Kui Ho, Cynthia Khan, Yukari Ôshima
a.k.a. Huo tou da jiang jun

The Top Lady Of Sword

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“The Yung and the VERY restless…”

topswordThis Taiwanese production focuses on a martial arts get-together, organized by the honorable Chi (Tsang), as a way for all the local artists to settle any beefs with each other. Arriving in town are brothers Au Lung and Wong Hu (Wan), who are out for revenge on Lady Yung (Wong), who had killed another of their brothers, though it was actually an honourable battle. Au Lung is content to forget their revenge, until he falls under the spell of a local inn-owner, who has a plan to seduce him, and use Au Lung as a tool to steal Chi’s martial arts manual and become the top fighter. When Chi turns up dead, Yung is blamed,  and after that is sorted out, her husband and daughter as then kidnapped by Au Lung. Yung, her sister Shao Chung (Khan) and Wong Hu set off in a desperate effort to rescue the hostages.

There’s a lot to enjoy here, and about the only thing stopping it from getting a seal of approval is that it’s very wuxia – so if you’re not fully prepared for people flying through the air and severely undercranked action, this will seem laughable. It’s one of those occasions where less could have been more. But, personally, I still found it a great deal of fun, with a well thought-out plot, engaging characters and some nice twists on the usual themes. For instance, there’s a lovely bit of role reversal, where it’s Yung’s husband who is the stay at home one, and she is running around the countryside, fighting battles against, it seems, everyone who crossed her path. Additionally, I liked the brief diversion into almost a kung-fu “whodunnit” in the middle, and on the other end of the emotional spectrum, there’s a body-count which is surprisingly high. If I don’t want to spoiler who lives and who dies, let’s just say there’s more of the latter.

The bottom line, however, is the martial arts, and these sequences are copious and well-staged, under action coordinator Alan Chan. The various performers get to showcase a broad variety of their styles, and they mesh together well. Everyone gets their moments to shine, will all three of the leading ladies looking very impressive. This one is available on Youtube with subtitles, and even if the quality of the print leaves a fair bit to be desired, it still makes for an entertaining 90 minutes, and is a case where a film’s obscurity is no reflection of its merits.

Dir: Wong Hong
Star: Wong Chau-Yin, Deric Wan, Kenneth Tsang, Cynthia Khan
a.k.a. Lady Chrysanthemum Sword

In the Line of Duty V

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“Decent, but after Part IV, definitely disappointing.”

itlod5After the magnificence of Donnie Yen and Khan in its insane predecessor, the fifth installment was always going to have a tough job living up to the same standard. On its own terms, it’s perfectly reasonable, but certainly suffers in the comparison, not least because the storyline is strikingly similar. Once again, there’s an innocent who gets caught up in murky dealings between Inspector Yang Lei-Ching (Khan) and the CIA, and finds themselves on the run from a pack of assassins, unsure who to trust – except Yang, of course. In this case, it’s her cousin, David (Wu), a marine who has returned to Hong Kong, only to find himself under suspicion for espionage. In particular, being part of a Korean group, led by a man known only as ‘The General’ (Chow), who deals in Western secrets. It’s up to David and Lei-Ching to prove otherwise – if they can stay alive long enough to do it.

This certainly starts the right way, with Khan kicking an opponent through a car windshield, before going on to battle on top of multiple vehicles [I guess rear-view mirrors are optional in Hong Kong, since the drivers all appear oblivious to the brawl going on behind them!], Thereafter, the fights are certainly regular enough to keep the viewer interested, and by no means badly-staged: it seemed to me that a lot of them took place in fairly claustrophobic locations, such as narrow corridors. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword; while enhancing the intensity, Khan’s balletic style really needs a bit more space in order to be appreciated at its best. After the opening, she doesn’t have any standout battles until the end, where she takes on the General’s secretary (blonde Australian Kim Penn), whose skills are not limited to dictation.

The rest of the running time, there’s appears to be quite a lot of chase sequences, and definitely too much of David. The former, again, aren’t badly done: it’s just that it wasn’t boat chases which made previous entries in the series such solid-gold classics of the GWG genre, even a quarter-century later. I can’t say I was ever bored: confused, certainly, since the subtitles on the copy I was watching bore only a passing resemblance to the Queen’s English. However, there’s no denying this is significantly below the standards set by the series previously, even if its own merits still leave it worth at least a one-off watch.

Dir: Chuen-Yee Cha
Star: David Wu, Cynthia Khan, Billy Chow, Lieh Lo
a.k.a. Middle Man

In the Line of Duty III

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“The harder they come…”

Firstly, in case you’re wondering, there was no In the Line of Duty 2, or even In the Line of Duty. Well, not as such… In the Line of Duty is the European title for Royal Warriors, and In the Line of Duty 2 is Yes, Madam!. Even though the latter was made first, they were released in a different order in some territories, with the success of In the Line of Duty/Royal Warriors leading to a swift re-titling for marketing purposes of Yes, Madam!. However, one presumes makers D+B Films decided to save time, simply adopting the name for the third “installment” in the – really, non-existent – series. I hope you’re paying attention at the back. This will be on the test. ;-)

There was, however, a problem. Namely, the star of the previous two films, Michelle Yeoh (at that time, better known as Michelle Khan) was unavailable – having married D+B owner, Dickson Poon. Their choice was “Cynthia Khan”, a name obtained by combining that of the two Yes, Madam! stars, Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Khan. Like her predecessor, she was not from Hong Kong, coming from Taiwan, and was also both a martial-arts novice and a former dancer whose aspirations in that direction had been limited by injury. [You can also add Moon Lee into the “former dancer” category] Despite this lack of long-term background, she slots right in, and the result is a solid action heroine flick.

The plot is largely based around revenge; the catalyst is a Japanese cop (Fujioka), whose partner is shot by a terrorist (Ong) during a jewel robbery. He reckons the jewel owner, Yamamoto, was doing an insurance scam, and follows him to Hong Kong, since there is too much influence to press charges in Japan. The terrorist and his partner (Nishiwaki) have also come to Hong Kong, seeking to buy arms with their loot, but discover the jewels are fake, and they too have been scammed, so want to take it out on Yamamoto. Meanwhile, Madam Yeung (Khan) has joined the police squad run by her uncle; he doesn’t want her to do anything risky, despite her being the most talented officer on the roster, so assigns her to babysit the Japanese cop, show him the sights and keep him out of mischief.

No prizes for guessing exactly how well that works – or for predicting that it will all lead to a brutal brawl in a warehouse between Nishiwaki, Khan and Dick Wei, as the various agendas of revenge come into conjunction. It’s rough-housing at its best, with everything save the kitchen sink (but including an industrial drill) being used as weapons. While the doubling for Khan is occasionally apparent, there are also moments you think she’s being doubled, until she swings round to show her face. Overall, for what was basically her debut, it’s pretty impressive, and credit to action directors Chris Lee, Tony Leung Siu-Hung, Brandy Yuen and Yuen Cheung-yan, as well as, of course, to Khan herself.

in-the-Line-of-Duty3-001The script is not bad. It does suffer from the usual unevenness of tone, with occasional comedic interludes that detract from an impressively dark tone, especially as the film progresses. The worst offender there is a meaningless cameo by Eric Tsang and Richard Ng (well-known HK actress Sandra Ng also shows up in an early supporting role), but there are nice moments which help give all the characters depth, and the storyline makes basic sense, which is more than can be said for some entries in the genre. Though let’s just hope, it isn’t as easy to get a bomb – complete with ticking digital counter – into the heart of a Hong Kong police station these days!

What I particularly like about the film, is the nicely-built sense of escalation. The opening scene, in which Khan handles a traffic-offender, then a robber, is light fluff, like you’d expect from the Inspector Wears Skirts series. Almost immediately, however, the body count starts to rise, not least since the terrorists’ approach involves a startlingly reckless disregard for human life. While Khan’s acting talents are, perhaps wisely, hardly tested, Nishiwaki delivers a good performance of striking intensity, and it always struck me as a shame that she didn’t get many lead roles like this one: she’s more known for her cameos, as in God of Gamblers or My Lucky Stars.

This is undeniably a fun time-passer, and a good example of the HK girls-with-guns genre that flourished in the mid-80’s and has never quite been replicated since. There’s a moment towards the end where it’s suddenly made clear that anyone could die at any moment in this film: something you’ll rarely see in a Western flick (outside the horror genre, at least). It’s perhaps a shame they didn’t do this earlier, since from that moment on, this has a reckless, unpredictable attitude which ranks with the best action movies.

Dir: Brandy Yuen and Arthur Wong
Stars: Cynthia Khan, Hiroshi Fujioka, Michiko Nishiwaki, Stuart Ong

Angel on Fire

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“Dumb but not irredeemable – never mind the quality of the action, look at the quantity!”

Supermodel-thief Mimi (Melanie Marquez) steals an artifact from a Chinese temple, then heads to the Philippines, via Hong Kong. HK and Chinese cops (Khan & Yeung) are on her tail, as is former partner Ko. This is, frankly, a mess. Yeung apparently does no detective work; Khan goes on a date to an illegal street fight; they’re supposedly partners, but only share one scene; and what is the stolen item? It’s only ever called “the precious thing” (at least in the sub version; even we wouldn’t touch the dub [right] with a ten-foot pole). I found it all amusing rather than irritating; your mileage may vary…

Actionwise, it largely explodes in the lengthy finale which occupies about thirty minutes, sprawls across what seems like most of the Philippines, and fails to make much sense either – we certainly lost track of who was doing what to who. While Yeung is hardly allowed to act, she does get a couple of good fights, but the wire-work is poor, with one especially obvious harness. On the other hand, Khan’s martial-arts abilities are underused, and she gets to spend time hanging out with that apparently rare breed, an honest taxi-driver (Ricketts). A couple of decent moments, and Khan’s usual watchability, lift this up to just about acceptable, though only if you are in a forgiving mood.

Dir: Phillip Ko
Star: Cynthia Khan, Philip Ko, Sharon Yeung, Ronnie Ricketts

Queen’s High

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“Nothing like Kill Bill at all – no, really! :-)”

It’s surprising no-one has mentioned the similarity this 1991 pic has to Kill Bill, especially given QT’s liking, both for lifting plots and Hong Kong movies. Here, Cynthia Khan plays Kwanny, the daughter in a gangster family whose wedding day is interrupted by the treacherous slaughter of her intended (and a good few others). Thus explodes a spiral of revenge and betrayal, in which she gets plenty of chance to use her martial arts and gun skills. Of course, there are differences – she is unaware of her enemy within – but the overlap is striking. No doubt Tarantino will claim not to have heard of it – any more than he’d seen City on Fire, before making Reservoir Dogs

On its own merits, Queen’s High stands up nicely, after a sluggish start. You might be wondering how to keep track of a parade of characters, but don’t worry, they won’t last long. The wedding-day slaughter on its own gets it our seal of approval, a masterpiece of slo-mo squibbing that’s in my personal top ten of action heroine sequences, and brings a new meaning to “until death do us part”. It also lets Cynthia Khan, who has her share of acting talent, transform from happy daughter to avenging angel, as during In the Line of Duty 3. The action side finally bursts into life in the final reel, Kwanny taking on a whole warehouse of bad guys, and discovering who ordered the massacre. The film certainly has weaknesses, but such strengths easily make up for them.

Dir: Chris Lee Kin Sang
Star: Cynthia Khan, Simon Yam, Newton Lai, Shum Wai

The Avenging Quartet

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“Enormous potential, largely wasted thanks to dreadful script.”

Add supporting roles for Michiko Nishiwaki and Yukari Oshima to Khan and Lee, and you should have a winner, all four being in perhaps the top half-dozen or so action heroines from Hong Kong. Yet while the fights here are grand, the film wastes far too much effort elsewhere. Khan is a Chinese cop who comes to Hong Kong and bumps into gangstress Lee while looking for former lover Waise Lee, who is a) also Lee’s love, and b) now involved with a painting that hides documentation on Japanese wartime human experiments, which Nishiwaki is trying to sell to Oshima. Like I said, far too much effort (if you want to know about those experiments, track down the grim but jaw-dropping Men Behind the Sun).

The opening act is particularly dire, consisting largely of Cynthia Khan wandering round looking pouty, while “If he only loved meeeee…” music plays, followed by female bonding with Moon – Chris started complaining of cramps around this time. We can hardly blame the actresses, who do what they can; a decent writer would have dealt with this in five minutes, and could then have spent time on Oshima, who has absolutely no character development. The good thing is, you soon learn that when she appears, a fight will shortly follow.

Things do perk up later on; after all the oestrogen, Chin Kar Lok is welcome light relief as an amusing dumb cop, and the finale is excellent, with echoes of Thelma and Louise. However, it’s too little, too late. It’s worth pointing out that while the title and artwork imply some kind of team-up, as in The Heroic Trio, the reality is unfortunately totally different, and nowhere near as interesting.

Dir: Stanley Siu Wing
Stars: Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, Waise Lee, Chin Kar Lok
a.k.a. Tomb Raiders

Madam City Hunter

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“Nice fights. Just lay off the caffeinated beverages beforehand.”

I have a headache. I want to lie down in a dark room, far from shrieking Chinese comedy harridans, incomprehensible plot twists and dialogue that loses everything in translation. And yet…have to say I liked this – especially when people are hitting each other, it’s grand fun. I’d credit producer Yuen Wo Ping (fight arranger on The Matrix films – making LCH very appropriate for coverage this week), whose group also handled the action.

Khan plays a cop, who kills one member of the Five Fingers gang, causing the other four to come after her; unfortunately, she’s been suspended from the force. Worse still, she thinks her father’s new girlfriend is an associate of the Fingers, out to kill him. Enter PI Charlie Chan, played by Anthony Wong – best known for his portrayal of lunatic psychos, here displaying unexpected comic and martial-arts talent. He and his shrill-voiced girlfriend “investigate”, and generally run interference.

There may be a time and place in which this movie makes sense, but it’s certainly not Arizona, 2003. Often, Chris and I turned to each other and simply went, “What?” – still, enough worked to keep us there, right until the utterly incomprehensible last scene (are “Blackie 7” and “White-Horse-Black” mah-jong references? Can anyone please explain?). Khan and Wong are very watchable, and the action is impressive; but under no circumstances should Western viewers expect enormous coherence.

Dir: Gong Yeuk Shing
Star: Cynthia Khan, Anthony Wong, Tommy Wong, Sheila Chan

In the Line of Duty IV

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“A thinly connected series of action set-pieces…but what set-pieces!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a HK film with more action; it seems that every five minutes, along comes another breathtaking fight or stunt sequence. Of course, when you have a master at the helm (Yuen did the fights for The Matrix), you expect a little more, but this is fabulous, even by his standards.

Donnie Yen is perhaps the most under-rated martial artist of our generation, and watching him here, it’s hard to see why he hasn’t become a major star, rather than lurking in (effective) supporting roles in Blade 2 and Highlander: Endgame. For speed, agility and skill, his fights are almost without equal, and most female co-stars would be overshadowed. Fortunately, Cynthia Khan, though occasionally clearly doubled, does more than enough to keep on the same lap – the fight atop, alongside, and dangling from the front of, a speeding ambulance is eyepoppingly extreme, while her aerial battle around a lift shaft is also worthy of mention.

The story is clearly secondary to all this, but for the record, Khan and Yen are cops, one from Hong Kong, one from America, who team up to find a witness to a murder. Double-dealing and twists abound, though most are so obvious, you suspect they were just waiting for cast members to get out of hospital. :-) Interesting to see a foreign view of American cops – even Yen is a barely-controlled psychonaut. Khan is more sympathetic, but characterisation never goes beyond the most basic. However, this is an action movie, and as such, it’s near-perfect, with invention, energy and hardcore guts to spare from all concerned.

Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping
Star: Cynthia Khan, Donnie Yen, Michael Wong, Yuen Yat Choh