Ms. 45

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“Dark Angel.”

Abel Ferrara is one of the most interesting of American film-makers, with an uncompromising vision that has seen him almost entirely shut out of mainstream cinema: the closest he’s come to a Hollywood movie was his Invasion of the Body-Snatchers remake, which was a failure on just about every level. Instead, he’s been on the outside, looking in, with films that range from the brilliant to the near-unwatchable. You never know what you’re going to get. It can be something raw and amazing, like Bad Lieutenant, or it can be a garbled, self-indulgent mess, such as his attempt to adapt William Gibson’s New Rose Hotel.

Ms. 45 falls firmly into the first category, held together by an amazing, luminescent performance from the then 17-year old Zoe Tamerlis [a.k.a. Zoe Lund], whose character Thana is entirely mute – except for one word, whispered in the final scene. She works in a garment factory, run by sleazy owner Albert (Sinkys): one day, she is raped on the way home. Worse follows, as when she stumbles in to her apartment, another intruder is there, and violates her again. However, with the aid of a convenient domestic appliance, she kills him – and now possesses his gun, with which she can take on, single-handed, the men she now perceives as threats.

As Thana’s mental state disintegrates, however, her action gradually shift away from justified. While the viewer initially sympathizes with her, and cheers her on, it slowly becomes apparent that she has become entirely unhinged, paranoid and delusional. She goes from reaction to pro-action, dressing up and going out with the specific intent of luring men in and killing them. In many ways, Thana ends up worse than those who triggered her rage, spiralling down into what are basically random acts of violence: Tamerlis had, allegedly, been a victim of rape the previous year by a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and did not report it. As Ferrara put it, “Women are brought up in a male dominated society. You’re being raped every day, one way or another. That is the metaphor of the film.”

Hmm. While I can acknowledge the political subtext in Thana’s muteness [especially since it appears largely to be psychological, going by the last scene], I’m not quite sure how seriously I take this claim overall, given Ferrara actually plays one of the rapists, and a large percentage of the time is spent objectifying and fetishizing his lead actress, to the extent where Chris felt she looked like a supporting actress in a Robert Palmer video. Perhaps the most memorably instance of this is Thana, dressing up as a nun – but one that also wears stocking and suspenders – before heading out to a Halloween party. With her blood-red lipstick, she kisses each of the bullets before loading them into her gun, a sequence which tells us much about Ferrara’s repressed Catholicism [also apparently rampant in Lieutenant, where both Ferrara and Lund worked on the script], as well as paying homage to the other great New York street-sweeper, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.

Certainly, Tamerlis’s reading of the film is rather different. [Spoiler alert] “No, Ms. 45 is not about women’s liberation, any more than it is about mutes’ liberation, or garment workers’ liberation, or your liberation, or my own. Notice that her climactic victim is not a rapist in the clinical sense. He is her boss. The real rapist. Our real rapist… Ms. 45 presents a humble, yet well-crafted metaphor for rebellion of the any-sexed oppressed. But the gun was put in a woman’s hand. A woman carried that universal message, and so it was all the more powerful. It made us shiver. Male and female. Different timbres and temperatures of shiver, but shiver all round.”

Running counter to that, or perhaps lending it an additional depth, is that the one who stops Thana, in effect betraying her, is one of her own. It’s a woman and a fellow garment worker, her former friend Laurie (Stuto), who stabs her in the back, literally – a metaphor that I’m certain was not accidental, any more than the phallic positioning of the knife at Laurie’s crotch. [End spoilers] The subtext there seems to be that the oppressed can not be trusted to stick together in their battle against the oppressor, even though Laurie is a strong-enough personality in her own way. She certainly has no problem responding in kind to the barrage of verbal harrassment she and Thana suffer as they walk home from work. Our heroine, meanwhile, has ‘victim’ written all over her in the early stages of the film, though the strength she eventually finds and displays, is clearly in a radically different and anti-social direction.

There are certainly holes in the plot logic. Where is Thana getting all the bullets from, and why is she such a crack-shot, despite presumably having never having handled a gun before? Yet these are in step with the pitch-black tongue-in-cheek humour the film contains: witness the long, rambling monologue inflicted on Thana by a guy she meets in a bar [her muteness making her the ultimate good listener]. I laughed like a drain at the sequence where Thana tries to get her landlady’s dog run over in traffic, as its nosiness concerning the severed body-parts round her appartment poses a threat. And when disposing of said parts, there’s surely nothing that you want to hear less, than for someone to shout after you, “Hey, lady! You dropped your bag!”

Chris, who lived in the Big Apple during the early-80’s, can also attest to the attitudes and dialogue as being authentic Noo Yawk, and the film does an excellent job of portraying the city as a predatory jungle, with a threat lurking behind every corner, especially for someone as attractive as Thana. Of course, “threat” is relative, and by the end, our heroine is the biggest threat – albeit only to those with a Y-chromosome, and the question of whether they deserve it or not is, to some degree, debatable. Still, in the words of the great philosophers, Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Ronny Biggs, “No-one is innocent.” Particularly in these days of movies produced by bean-counters, it’s refreshing to see a film that eschews a black-and-white approach in favor of an arc that takes us with a character as they journey into somewhere very dark and unpleasant, without needing to resolve things in a manner best described as, “…and they all lived happily ever after.”

[The pics and quotes here largely come from zoelund.com, a tribute site apparently run by Zoe’s ex-husband.]

Random notes

  • Tamerlis used to show up to some screenings of the film [above, outside the Nuart theater in Los Angeles] and discuss the social and political implications of the movie afterwards with the audience.
  • Which must have been interesting, as even the grindhouse theaters that were the movie’s natural home found it difficult viewing. In Cult Movies 2, Danny Peary says of the film, “Never has a 42nd Street theater been so quiet and disciplined as when Thana went through her rounds and murdered every offensive male who crossed her path… Unexpectedly, the men who had whooped all through Amin and the obscenely gory previews of Dr. Butcher, whimpered worrisomely “Oh, my God” and slumped in their seats and shut up.”
  • It’s still unavailable in the United Kingdom except in a version where the rape scenes are cut by one minute, 42 seconds. Even the 2000 US DVD was re-edited: the cuts include changes to the first rape featuring Ferrara’s cameo, which is split by an insert shot from a later scene, the second rape omits a line “This oughta make you talk, huh?” and the climatic shoot-out removes an on-screen murder, which now occurs off-screen.
  • The film inspired a song by L7, with the same title: “She’s got a gun, just make her day: don’t fuck with her, she’ll blow you away. She walks the streets at night and they think she is a whore. She’s gotta deal with you – she’s gonna even out the score.” The less well-known Dandi Wind also wrote a song called Ms. 45: “Today I bought a gun, Now I’m dressed just like a nun.”
  • “According to Tamerlis, her performance in Angel of Vengeance provoked a sniper attack on her in New York, wounding her.” — 1983 Virgin Film Yearbook
  • While Tamerlis experienced some success as a screenwriter and actress [Larry Cohen’s Special Effects is certainly worth checking out], she was a long-time drug user first of heroin and then cocaine. This contributed to her death of heart failure in Paris, in 1999.

Dir: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Zoe Tamerlis, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto, Helen McGara
a.k.a. Angel of Vengeance

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

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“The Smell of Female”

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Violence. The word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains – sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy. It creates and moulds as well. Let’s examine closely then this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained within the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakeable smell of female. the surface shiny and silken. The body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution: handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs. Operating at any level, at any time, anywhere and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club!

Made more than forty years ago, Faster was decades ahead of its time – which may explain why it was such a resounding flop on initial release. But in his autobiography, John Waters called it, “The best movie ever made, and possibly better than any movie that will ever be made,” and helped resurrect it: Rob Zombie is another big fan, and introduced its recent screening on – of all places! – Turner Classic Movies. For this is the kind of film, hell, the kind of title, Quentin Tarantino wishes in his wet dreams he could create. And yet, it’s also an interesting example of censorship as artistically productive: probably the tamest of Meyer’s films: subsequently (and, often, before) they would contain a great deal more explicit nudity. But very rarely did he ever come close to the same artistic heights.

It tells the story of three girls: go-go dancers, hot-rod racers and outlaws, led by Varla (Satana). One afternoon, their chilling in the desert is rudely interrupted by Tommy and Linda (Bernard, who’d become a Playboy centerfold in 1966), a “square” couple who also have a car. After racing against them, Tommy and Varla get into a fight, which ends with Varla snapping his back. The trio kidnap Linda, and drive off. Stopping to get gas, they hear from the attendant about a crippled old man, who lives with his two sons, and is rumoured to have a fortune as the result of an accident. The girls decide to pay him a visit, and relieve him of his money – only to find out that he may be even more twisted and sadistic than they are…

Where to start? What about with the dialogue, which is prime, ripe and firm as last year’s Gouda, even if Satana has a slightly-irritating tendency to belt out every line at the top of her lungs. But as Rosie (Haji) says, “Honey, we don’t like nothin’ soft! Everything we touch is hard!” – these broads are “like a velvet glove, cast in iron,” as another memorable line reports. Or, as Varla puts it, “I never try anything. I just do it.” Almost every line has a sneer attached to it, and while none of the actresses went on to do anything else of real significance, they are all perfect here. They’re obviously playing characters, but their characters are also playing characters, so it all ties together with either remarkable happenstance, or artistic genius.

Often neglected are the male contributors, in particular Stuart Lancaster as the target of their scheme. Though confined to a wheelchair, he rules his twisted clan with a rod of iron; in many ways, this is an ancestor of the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with ‘the vegetable’ – as even his own father refers to him – a kinder, gentler version of Leatherface. Seeing the old man slobbering over Linda certainly shifts the audience, and helps to turn the murderous Varla and the other girls from villains into heroines, even as they progress their plan of robbery, because you sense their fate could end up being worse than death.

Rarely have all the aspects of a film come together with such perfection: it’s like throwing a dozen die and watching them all come up sixes. The editing; the script; the casting; the performances; the theme-tune alone is one of the best of the decade, and all the music helps drive the film along at a relentless pace. You could argue that it’s all idiotically unrealistic, and I would be hard-pushed to disagree. But I would, however, counter that this is much of the film’s appeal: it takes place in an alternate universe ruled by large-breasted, leather-clad, superwomen. Speaking personally, that may not be somewhere I’d want to live, but boy, it sounds like a fun place to visit. :-)

A militant feminist a decade before feminism was popular, Varla is also among the first openly bisexual women in cinema history, and the film is remarkably unjudgemental about the sexuality of any of the women. This helps explain why the movie’s cult appeal crosses so many boundaries, from the gay community to hardcore punk. And though they’re nothing to raise eyebrows today, Satana also used martial arts when they were almost unheard of in Hollywood. It’s sardonic, trailer-trash chic from an era that had yet to grasp fully the entertainment value of such irony. Others would aim at the same targets subsequently, mixing sex with violence in various ratios (Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, The Perils of Gwendoline), but even now, few have come closer to capturing the heady, hyper-kinetic approach of Meyer’s finest work.

Dir: Russ Meyer
Stars: Tura Satana, Lori Williams, Haji, Sue Bernard

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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“Broads with swords.”

crouching2Not many subtitled movies can claim to have inspired commercials (Jean de Florette being the only other that comes to mind), but seeing the Mountain Dew advert obviously based on this movie makes you realise just how deeply this film has permeated into the American pop psyche. But while this contains the most spectacularly kick-ass action ever seen in Western multiplexes (note the qualifier), at heart, it’s a set of exquisitely tragic love stories, spun into a web which simultaneously confounds expectations and fails to live up to them.

 It’s clear from the start that Lee is not following the traditional approach to martial arts movies, which usually start with a thump to get the audience’s attention. He is happy to set the scene and introduce the characters for the first quarter of an hour in a stately and mannered way that belies what is to come. Similarly, the action climax happens twenty minutes before the end.

The other major variation from standard practice is that the acting is fabulous – often in HK action movies, this is an afterthought, and the likes of Jackie “two expressions” Chan and Jet “that’s one more than me” Li are never going to win Oscars. I would previously have put Yeoh in the same category, but Lee coaxes a performance of great depth from her – having Chow Yun-Fat, possibly the best, and certainly the most charismatic Asian star, to work against does no harm either. This is what lifts the film up to undreamt of heights: have Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme ever brought tears to anyone’s eye? [Except perhaps the poor schmuck who paid for a cinema ticket!]

Yet if the acting sets a new standard, the action surprisingly doesn’t, at least not to anyone familiar with Hong Kong movies. This kind of thing has been done, to the point where it can even be mercilessly lampooned by the likes of Flying Dagger, which has its own treetop battle. This perhaps explains why its record-setting box-office in the United States (doubling the take of any previous subtitled movie) was conspicuously absent in the Far East. While Zhang YiYi’s restaurant demolition job is memorable, for me the highlight pitted Yeoh against Zhang in Yeoh’s home, a balletic battle which worked particularly well because it largely rejected the fly-by-wirework running through the rest of the movie. I’m a traditionalist in such things, and always prefer genuine physical ability to special effects.

The plot unfolds with a stately elegance, showing little regard for normal chronology. The easiest way to describe it is to break it down into smaller components – any one of which would provide sufficient content for your average kung-fu film – each running through the movie like the strands in a rope:

  • The powerful but undeclared love between two swordsmen, Li (Chow) and Yu (Yeoh).
  • The struggle for control over the legendary Green Destiny sword.
  • Jen (Zhang) and her long lost love, the bandit Lo (Chang) – who returns just in time for her impending arranged marriage.
  • Jen’s apprenticeship to the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng), who will not let her go at any cost.
  • Li’s quest for revenge against Jade Fox, who killed his master.

crouching3The sisterly relationship between Yu and Jen is particularly impressive, with the older woman trying to guide the willful youth and prevent her from making the same mistakes she did. But when (even in ancient China!) has anyone been able to tell a teenager anything? Special praise also to veteran Cheng, whose Jade Fox is a fabulous character, worthy of more screen time than she gets here – I’d love to see a prequel, setting up the story between her and Li. In comparison, the men are somewhat ill-defined, particularly Lo: you never get much sense of why Jen fell for the man who kidnapped her, and I can only really blame it on Stockholm Syndrome. Despite being reduced to a supporting role, Chow Yun-Fat is as good as ever, though I’ve heard tell that his Mandarin accent leaves a little to be desired, since he’s a Cantonese speaker naturally!

Regardless: what you have here are three of the strongest and finest female characters of the past decade, excellent acting and amazing action. The result is as close to perfect as anyone could reasonably expect.

Dir: Ang Lee
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang ZiYi, Chow Yun-Fat, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei Pei

Run Lola Run

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“She’s got legs… And she knows how to use them.”

The term “action heroine” moves into a whole new dimension with this movie: no gun-battles, no fight-scenes, no explosions, but it still maintains a breathless pace for almost the entire 81 minutes. Lola (Potente) needs to find DM100,000 in 20 minutes, after her boyfriend Manni (Bleibtreu) loses a bag of money he was supposes to deliver to a highly dubious character. All this is set up in about five minutes, and then Lola is off, sprinting to try and get the cash.

The key twist is the film depicting three parallel stories; all start with her leaving her apartment, but they gradually diverge, and end in three radically different conclusions. One of the film’s myriad delights is seeing how they interweave, with the differing fates of the various characters, and how tiny changes in the decisions we make can have massive consequences.

Right from the start, when Lola lobs a phone in the air and it lands spot-on the cradle, we know she has unusual powers. Her screams can shatter glass, and there’s one moment, in the casino, when she turns to the manager and looks at him. “Just one more game”, she says, and as portrayed by Potente (an amazing performance, with “future star” written through it), her gaze comes across as a force of nature more powerful than a typhoon. Lola is someone absolutely determined to have what she wants – “love conquers all”, if you like – and she even seems capable of rewinding time through sheer will, when the results go against her.

Yet, curiously, certain experiences appear to carry forward: in run #1, she is shown how to use a gun, in run #2, she needs no such tuition. A security guard we see clutching his heart in #2, is met in an ambulance in #3. Tykwer sees no need to explain any of this (is it merely being played out in Lola’s mind?), yet spotting these things are part of what makes the film so incredibly rewatchable. Even after half-a-dozen viewings, I’m still finding new facets e.g. the number she bets on in the casino, 20, is also the number of minutes she has to save Manni, since there’s simply so much crammed in.

lola2Special mention needs to be made of the soundtrack, a pumping mix of techno co-created by Tykwer, which helps drive the film along at a blistering pace, and is one of the few soundtracks I will listen to on their own. Yet there are also tender moments (probably essential to prevent the audience from hyperventilating and going into shock), which Tykwer handles with skill and aplomb. Lola is something of an aberration in his filmography, stylistically: his other work such as Winter Sleepers are much more languidly-paced, but do cover similar themes of randomness and its effects. The end result is a film which manages to be shallowly entertaining and deeply satisfying at the same time. You can enjoy it purely on a “what happens next?” level, or appreciate it as something with so much depth that it can even be viewed as a retelling of the myth of Orpheus (the evidence pointing to such an interpretation is too lengthy to go into here). Truly a film with something for everyone, and for some, like myself, it has everything.

Dir: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nena Petri

Aliens


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“Queen of outer space”

Few sequels are as good as the original, never mind surpass it. The Godfather II. Evil Dead 2. Mad Max II. But perhaps the finest of them all is Aliens, which did something obvious with the premise, yet executed it with breathtaking audacity to make what remains, even almost two decades later, one of the finest          films of all-time.

Yep, a blank, which you can fill in a number of ways. Science-fiction, certainly; horror, too. But I personally rate Aliens as one of the finest action movies of all time – whether it beats Die Hard depends almost entirely on which one I’ve seen more recently – and if you were to argue that it’s a classic war movie too, you wouldn’t hear loud complaints from me.

For in many ways, this is a Vietnam allegory. A technologically superior, arrogant military force lands in foreign territory…and gets its butt kicked by a ferocious enemy with no moral qualms, while the non-combatants are happy to plot their demise in pursuit of some other cause. It is likely also significant that Cameron worked on First Blood, Part II, which is perhaps why some reviewers e.g. the Philadelphia Daily News, referred to Aliens as “Rambo in space”.

That over-simplifies thing enormously; the script here works on a far more efficient level, both emotionally and logically. The tricky question of how to get Ripley out to face the aliens once more is dealt with smoothly – she wants to go, in order to exorcise the ghosts of her first encounter. Physically, she may have won that battle, but mentally, she has to fight it again every time she goes to sleep, and it’s killing her, one nightmare at a time. The audience might not do the same thing, but they understand why she does it.

The story also gives Ripley another reason to fight, in the persona of Newt, a young girl found in the airducts of the otherwise inhospitable base – her survival for several weeks there surely has enough material for a movie by itself. This resonates with particular force in the director’s cut, which includes a scene where Ripley learns of her daughter’s death, turning Newt into a surrogate child. This makes the final face-off between Ripley and the alien queen into a conflict of mothers, both intent on defending their offspring at any cost, even their own lives. It’s a terrific concept, almost unique in the genre up to that point, and still rare even today.

The other issue was how to make the monster as terrifying as it was originally. This wasn’t the first time Cameron had been brought in to direct a genre sequel, though I suspect he might not thank me for mentioning Piranha II: Flying Killers in this context. But here, as there, he re-invented the basic concept, albeit in this case with a good deal more logic and coherence. If one alien is terrifying, how about a hundred?

alien4In addition, he imbued them with movement, something almost lacking first time round, where the monster lurked, came out, grabbed you, then vanished into the shadows again. Here, they’re in your face – or if not, are coming towards it at high speed. With cinematic smoke and mirrors, Cameron created the illusion of dozens of creatures, but in reality only had six actual suits – if you watch the film, you’ll never see more than this number of aliens in any shot.

It does take its own sweet time getting there, with the first adult alien not being seen until over 70 minutes into the extended version of the movie. You can certainly see why some cuts were made for the theatrical version, such as the discovery of the aliens by the colonists [though someone could do an Alien 1.5, covering the gap between that discovery and the arrival of the Marines here]. But the subsidiary characters are such great fun to be around, that this delay isn’t a chore. Hudson, Hicks, Vasquez (left – Jenette Goldstein is perhaps the best supporting action heroine in cinema history), Apone, and the rest of the marines are fabulous, entire personalities being generated in just a few words, and what could come off as unjustified arrogance is actually endearing.

Add in Paul Reiser’s corporate slime, Carter Burke, and Bishop the android (Henriksen), who confounds Ripley’s expectations of how an “artificial person” should act, and all of these help make Aliens one of the most eminently-quotable films of recent years. Let’s pause for a moment and enjoy, once again, some of those classic lines…

The Ten Best Aliens quotes

  • 10. Hudson: We’re on an express elevator to hell – going down!
  • 9. Ripley: These people are here to protect you. They’re soldiers.
    Newt: It won’t make any difference.
  • 8. Vasquez: Look, man! I only need to know one thing – where…they…are.
  • 7. Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. That’s the only way to be sure.
  • 6. Frost: What the hell are we supposed to use, man? Harsh language?
  • 5. Hudson: Hey, Vasquez – have you ever been mistaken for a man?
    Vasquez: No. Have you?
  • 4. Hudson: Is this going to be a standup fight, sir, or another bug-hunt?
  • 3. Newt: My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.
  • 2. Hudson: That’s it, man – game over, man! Game over!
  • 1. Ripley: Get away from her, you bitch!

You can see why the Aliens patch for the computer-game, Doom, became an essential item. The two were made for each other, and I spent many hours, blasting away at face-huggers, warriors and queens with my pulse rifle, while samples such as the ones above, or accompanying this page, blared semi-randomly. Ah, happy days… Er, where was I?

On the action level, Aliens is almost flawless (I admit that a couple of effects shots during the descent haven’t stood the test of time). The first encounter between marines and the aliens in the film should be required viewing for every director interested in staging a scene more energetic than two people talking, shot in close-up. And from that point on, there’s hardly a slack second, as things go from bad to worse to this-place-is-going-to-explode-real-soon.

Ripley is more pro-active in this film than Alien, where she became the heroine almost by default, being the only person left. In the sequel, she is the first to realise that the search for the colonists has gone horribly wrong, and effectively hijacks the APC on a rescue mission. After that, she is no longer an outsider, whose opinion is an irrelevance to the professionals. She is the instigator, the innovator and also the anchor, who keeps despair from becoming as deadly an enemy as the aliens. And who can doubt her bravery when, with escape in her grasp, she turns and voluntarily goes back into the ticking nuclear-bomb of the base, in order to rescue a child she met only a few hours previously.

It’s moments like that which elevate Aliens to a special place in my heart, and the hearts of many – voters at the Internet Movie Database rank it in the top 100 films of all time. Regardless of any debate over the genre to which it belongs, this is a classic, make no mistake about it.

Dir: James Cameron
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton

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Heroic Trio

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I usually start watching this in a sense of disbelief, since it’s certainly not the most immediately convincing of movies. However, there’s a point near the middle which has in quick succession an amazing action sequence and two revelations, one touching, one tragic, and I realise that I am, yet again, utterly buying into the characters, storyline and setting. Disbelief simply ceases to be an option, and by the end, I know why this is among my all-time favourites, not just in the action heroine genre, but among all cinema.

While you can’t pin this down into any genre, it’s probably the intensity which carries the film. No-one does anything in half measures, be it love, hate, kidnap babies or eat their own severed fingers. The film captures the comic-book at its most primordial: good vs. evil, told in bold strokes and capital letters. SHAZAMM! “Evil”, in this case, is a demonic eunuch – looks male, sounds female – who is collecting baby boys whose horoscopes have them destined to be emperors, in order to rule and, er…the usual bad guy stuff. He is assisted by Invisible Girl (Yeoh), whom he has brainwashed into stealing an invisibility cloak from her inventor husband. It doesn’t work in sunlight, however, which is the only thing stopping our villain from executing his plan.

For the forces of good, we have Wonder Woman (Mui), a policeman’s wife with a secret identity, and Thief Catcher (Cheung), a bounty-huntress who gets involved after she accidentally kills a baby while trying to lure the kidnapper out. She and Invisible Girl were childhood pals, and also knows that the three must join forces to have a chance of stopping the Big Bad. The casting is perfect: Cheung the perky optimist, Yeoh the tormented control victim, and Mui the calm and quiet wife with a secret. [There are suggestions the three represent China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – which is which, I leave up to you] Credit is also due to the rest of the cast, notably Wong as the wordless evil henchman, with a taste for self-cannibalism, small birds and a fatal flying guillotine.

The action, choreographed by Chinese Ghost Story director Ching Siu-Tung is also spot on, though one suspect doubles were used for chunks. Particularly at the finale, there are times when the effects do over-reach themselves, and a little less ambition might have been wise. But the fact that everyone takes it completely seriously helps a great deal, though there are still question-marks over the plot: are the baby hostages safely rescued or not? At one point, Thief Catcher chucks a few sticks of dynamite into the villain’s nursery, saying the infants are hopelessly corrupt – not something you’ll see in any Hollywood movie! But at the end, the TV shows parents who look rather happier than you’d expect if they were being handed a plastic bag full of bits.

Still, it’s not often a film manages to run the entire gamut of emotions. Inside 87 minutes, you get laughter, tears, moments both “awww” and “eugh – gross!” (that’ll be Anthony Wong), thrills, chills and enough flamboyant style to power several graphic novels. It wasn’t that big a hit at home, taking less than HK$10 million at the box-office (in comparison, the biggest Hong Kong film of 1993, Stephen Chow’s Flirting Scholar, took over HK$40m), but its cult status in the West is entirely justified. Be sure to avoid the horrific dubbed version though – indeed, be sure to avoid the horrific trailer too.

Dir: Johnnie To
Stars: Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Wong