The Machine Girl

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“If the Black Knight scene in Holy Grail was just too restrained in its use of arterial spray…”

nullIf you enjoyed Planet Terror, you’ll likely get a kick out of this, which also combines elements of The Evil Dead, Kill Bill and Tetsuo the Iron Man into what has got to be the bloodiest movie of 2008. The life of Ami (Yashiro) is turned upside down when her brother and his friend are killed by school bullies under the control of a local gangster’s son (Nishihara). Ami sets out for revenge on all those responsible for the killings. But the Yakuza don’t take kindly to this and Ami finds herself with a count of functioning limbs that ends at three. Does that stop her? Of course not. Teaming up with the late friend’s mother Miki (Asami), whose husband happens to be an ace mechanic, Ami gets fitted with a machine-gun and the pair of vengeful vixens head off for a return match.

Right from the opening scene, this makes no bones about its point: to spray as much of the red stuff over everything in sight, be that characters, the walls or even the camera itself. I never realised high blood-pressure was such an epidemic in Japan, but almost the slightest nicks here result in fountains of gore that continue far beyond what a normal circulatory system should generally produce. There’s no doubt that it’s all complete nonsense, and is intended as such, with the heroines having to fend off attacks from the Super Mourner Gang and the Junior High Shuriken Gang. And that’s before they get to the Drill Bra. That said, you will either find all of this ridiculous and stupid, or gleefully embrace this as highly entertaining excess. No prizes for guessing into which camp we fall.

Yashiro’s background is in…well, what could politely be described as ‘bikini videos’, not action movies, but her performance here is respectable enough. Probably more impressive are Asami, and Honoka, who plays the wife of the Yakuza boss. They both, too, come from the adult industry, possessing an impressive feral intensity which reminded me of Brigitte Lahaie in Fascination, and is entirely in keeping with the grindhouse feel of the entire enterprise. You could argue that the trailer contains everything you need to see, in a more concentrated form, and I wouldn’t argue with that, or if you said this was no more than a porn variant, where nothing matters except the money shots of body fluids getting sprayed everywhere. Still, we had a blast, and the film fully lives up to the sleeve description, delivering the “One-Armed Ballistic Assault Heroine” it promises, in spades.

Dir: Noboru Iguchi
Star: Minase Yashiro, Asami, Nobuhiro Nishihara, Honoka

The Brave One

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Death Wish with female angst.”

Erica (Foster) has a very comfortable life: nice job as a radio host, imminent marriage to a doctor. This is suddenly destroyed in minutes, when she and her fiance (Andrews) are brutally attacked: he is killed, and she is left a nervous wreck, who sees a threat in every shadow on the city streets. A move to Kansas, while probably better for all concerned, would not be so cinematically or narratively interesting: instead, she buys a black-market gun for protection. A chance encounter on the subway unleashes her inner Bernhard Goetz and before you know it, she’s sweeping the scum off the streets, up to and including the crime lord whom even Detective Mercer (Howard) cannot touch, while simultaneously documenting the city’s reaction to her exploits on the airwaves. This brings her into contact with Mercer, since he is also investigating the vigilante slayings; his suspicions in this area gradually turn towards his new friend.

There’s obviously, more than an element of Death Wish here, though the heroine here is motivated, at least in part, by more than revenge. Foster is solid, as you’d expect – her character is an interesting parallel [or, in some ways contrast] to those she played in Silence of the Lambs and The Accused, and is hardly Charles Bronson. Jordan cranks up the psychological instability with more dutch angles than any film since Battlefield Earth, but the film is generally restrained, avoiding the more lurid angles, though it possesses a more than pessimistic opinion of the justice system. One does sense more could have been done with the media aspects: the resultant feeding frenzy, with the killer becoming a heroic figure to some, is only brushed against, and nothing much is made of the fact that her attackers videotape their crime. However, it’s still a credible slice of urban paranoia and disfunctionality. In many ways, its closest cousin is, perhaps surprisingly, The Dark Knight: to obtain closure, Erica has to decide, just like Bruce Wayne, how far into the abyss she is prepared to descend…

Dir: Neil Jordan
Star: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveeen Andrews, Mary Steenburgen

Juncture

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“Dead woman walking.”

Let’s start off by giving us a heroine who is dying, thanks to an inoperable brain tumour. Way to bring me down, Juncture: what do you think this is? DamesWithDiseases.com? The Hallmark channel is tha…oh, hang on. She’s following a child-porn purchaser back to his house, and guns him down? Hmmm. This is clearly not your everyday Illness of the Week flick. For Anna Carter (Blackport) has decided to go out with a bang: several of them, in fact. Realising she only has a short time to live, she decides to extend her day-job as the co-ordinator for a charitable foundation, and correct the failings of a justice system: neglectful mothers, drunk drivers, selfish CEOs, they’re all likely to meet impeccably-dressed vengeance.

While not exactly action-packed – it’s more about the philosophy of violence than the actual execution – and for the most part, thoroughly depressing, it’s a very intriguing and largely successful work. It’s main strength is Blackport, perfectly cast for the role, at first looking like a china doll, emotionless and placid. It’s only gradually that we see the seething mess of contrasting (and largely conflicting) emotions that are inside, since her decision is not something that has come out of thin air. There are some spotty bits of plotting here, noticed by Chris with her laser-guided Script Deficiency Spotter 3000TM. For example, why go after someone buying kiddie-porn, when you could go after someone making it? Some of the other choices of targets seem a little odd, and Anna also makes little effort to cover her tracks: even if she’s dying, she would still presumably want to continue her mission for as long as possible.

Still, there’s a great deal to admire here, with every penny being squeezed out of the budget. Particular kudos to cinematographer Richard Lerner and composer Neal Acree, whose efforts enhance proceedings significantly – the results look to be the product of a significantly-higher budget, than the rumoured million dollars. It leaves you questioning what you would do in the same situation: follow Queen Latifah off on a Last Holiday, or head for the dark side, as Anna does here, with a mission for what you perceive as the ‘greater good’? Certainly more thought-provoking than usual, it’s intended as the first part on a trilogy, though stands fairly well on its own, I would be very interested to see how things proceed from here, as Anna heads towards closure, both personal and medical.

[The film was released on August 12 by MTI Home Video. It comes in widescreen, with a director’s commentary and behind-the-scenes footage. More information can be found at MTI’s website, and the film’s official site.]

Dir: James Seale
Star: Kristine Blackport, Jeff Nicholson, Diana Dresser, Andrew Porter

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

Rise: Blood Hunter

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“Sadly disappointing and largely toothless.”

The main obstacle to this even reaching average is probably a first-half structure that is, for no readily apparent season, entirely fractured. Scenes appear entirely out of order, with no explanation: why is our heroine now waking up in a morgue? And the problem is, what the film has to offer is so pedestrian, you can’t be bothered to start putting the pieces together. Liu plays Sadie Blake, a journalist investigating the shady underground side of goth culture, who ends up finding a clan of vampires are on top of the food chain, just before becoming one of their victims. However, instead of taking her undeath lying down, she vows revenge and, accompanied by a rogue cop (Chiklis, you’ll not be surprised to learn), begins working her way up said food-chain.

Despite the combination of two potentially incendiary grindhouse themes, in vampires and revenge, the gore and nudity feel more reigned back than they should be. And the vampires here, under leader D’Arcy, are a bunch of wimps whom certain slayers would have disposed of between commercial breaks, with a merry quip. Sadly, Blake is no Buffy, despite her crossbow, and even the action sequences appear to be choreographed by a sloth. It’s aiming to be post-modern in its approach to vampirism; they have few special powers, and I don’t think anyone actually used the V-word. However, part of the reason the monster has survived so long is because of the alluring facets of the mythos, and the film doesn’t come with anything as interesting, to replace what it excised.

The prurient will likely be drawn in by the prospect of Lucy Liu getting her kit off, and they’ll likely enjoy the sequence where she’s hung upside-down, topless. You’ll also get Marilyn Manson and Mr. Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, formerly of 98 Degrees: I leave it up to the reader to decide whether these cameos are a discouragement or incentive to watch. The “unrated, undead” DVD includes about 25 minutes excised from the theatrical version, which also ran a good bit more chronologically – for once, I’m left longing for the rated version, since what we have here is an overlong mess.

Dir: Sebastian Gutierrez
Star: Lucy Liu, Michael Chiklis, James D’Arcy, Carla Gugino

Hard Candy

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“More threatening than girls with guns: teenage girls with scalpels. Gentlemen: cross your legs.”

This is almost unbearably creepy, in two different directions: however, it’s almost impossible to discuss this film in any meaningful way without spoilers, so you have been warned. The danger of online predators is well-known, and when fourteen-year old Hayley (Page) agrees to meet photographer Jeff (Wilson), who is in his thirties, alarm bells are ringing. They reach a piercing level after she goes to his house, starts drinking vodka and flirting outrageously. However, the tables are abruptly turned: she’s spiked Jeff’s drink, and he wakes to find himself tied-up, and entirely at Hayley’s mercy. He soon finds out that’s a quality she is very definitely not inclined to provide.

So, who do we sympathize with? The paedophile? Or the psychopath? Pick your poison, and it’s the kind of bravely ambivalent film I love, for Jeff is far from the usual cliched portrayal of a child-molester: rather than a sleazy old man in a dirty mac, he’s charming, well-spoken and educated. Which makes him far more dangerous, of course. Though he meets his match in Hayley, and it’s a brilliant performance by Page. We have absolutely no idea whether any of what she says is true, regarding herself (is she 14, or is that part of her act?), her family or even the apparently-damning evidence she finds of Jeff’s paedophile tendencies. The last is perhaps an error on the film’s part, since it’s at its best when we’re less certain as to whether Jeff deserves the horrible fate Hayley has in store.

Oh, yes: horrible. Armed only with a medical textbook, a bag of ice and some sharp objects, she prepares to make sure that Jeff will not bother any other little girls again. Cue the film’s second, and most critical, mis-step, as it pulls a punch which would have made this an instant evil classic – you sense Takashi Miike, whose Audition this most closely resembles, might not have backed off. From here, the film does stray into implausible territory, with Jeff spurning several chances to escape, or overpower Hayley [who looks about 95 pounds]. However, that doesn’t really diminish from a film that has the guts to ask a lot of questions which seem to have easy answers, and then confront us with a reality that makes things more complex than we’d wish.

Dir: David Slade
Star: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson

Lady Vengeance

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“Revenge is a bitch…”

This film may need two viewings. First time up, I was irritated by an apparent lack of coherence – which was particularly annoying, since the non-linear storyline seemed almost completely superfluous. Second time round, it bothered me less though remained, perhaps deliberately, disorienting, and I still doubt the need for it. But the re-view left me better able to appreciate the great central idea, a chilling meditation on justice, revenge, the thin line between the two, and the effects on those who become involved. The final part of Park’s loose trilogy (after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) is the story of “kind-hearted Geum-ja” (Lee), who spends 13 years in prison, for the heinous murder of a young child. Except, she isn’t guilty, and spends the time forging alliances which will help with her new goal: revenge on the real perpetrator (Choi).

The pace is stately, rather than adrenalin-driven, yet there’s no denying its place here. Much credit to Lee for a great performance in a complex character, capable of huge sacrifice in her quest for redemption: she cuts off a finger in front of the victim’s parents, and has to be physically restrained from removing more. Yet it seems that her charity and good deeds, such as donating a kidney to a fellow prisoner, may be part of her vengeance. And then, when her goal is within grasp…she steps back to allow others, perhaps better-motivated, to take her place. Or is the opportunity that she offers a poisoned chalice? The questions asked have no easy answers; neither proponents of capital punishment, nor those opposed to it, will find it comfortable viewing. By the end, there are no victims left; everyone is guilty – to use the old Sex Pistols line, no-one is innocent.

he DVD was released by Tartan Video USA on September 26th, and includes an interview with Park, a ‘making of’ documentary, and no less than three commentaries. Nice job! For more information, visit the Tartan Video USA site.
a.k.a. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Dir: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Si-Hu, Nam Il-Woo

La Guerrera Vengadora 2

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“Schoolmistress by day…crawls through impressively large air-ducts by night.”

Chagoyan is perhaps the nearest thing Mexico has to offer to an action heroine. She best known for her role in Lola la Trailera (‘Lola the Trucker’), in which, she played the daughter of a haulier – she takes over his business and goes out for vengeance, after he’s gunned down for refusing to assist a drug-cartel. Almost a decade later, that director’s son would helm this, in which Chagoyan plays a teacher who moonlights as a crime-fighting vigilante. Not having seen part one isn’t much of a problem; presumably it explains her origins, and perhaps how she gets to spend so much time away from her job. All we see here is one class, before she and her midget sidekick take on a gang who kill one of her pupils (with a surprising amount of blood, it has to be said). Then, when she’s blamed for kidnapping the daughter of the police chief, she has to find the real culprits and clear her name.

This swings wildly from surprisingly decent to laughable, as far as action goes. The explosions and stuntwork are credible. However, to call Chagoyan “unconvincing” is putting it mildly, not least the opening sequence where she rides into a hostage situation on her motorbike and saves the day – see Heroic Trio for how it should be done. But there are occasional moments (the crossbow bolt through the hand) that made us sit up and take notice, tiding us over the dumb comedic interludes. [Though any film with a flour-covered midget will always find a special place in our hearts.] There’s a lengthy finale in an underground labyrinth, pitting our heroine and her explosive-tipped crossbow bolts against evil minions with flamethrowers, before coming back above ground to answer the age-old question, which is better: a helicopter or a rocket-launcher? If that has ever kept you up nights, this is the film for you.

Dir: Raul Fernandez Jr.
Star: Rosa Gloria Chagoyan, Rolando Fernandez, Edna Bolkan, Jorge Vargas

Thriller: A Cruel Picture

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“Lives entirely up to its Swedish title: Thriller: en grym film.”

Right from the first scene, depicting the molestation of a young girl, this is remarkably unrelenting stuff. 15 years later, the heroine (Lindberg), turned mute by her ordeal is kidnapped, turned into a junkie and forced in prostitution. Oh, and had an eye destroyed by her pimp (Hopf) – in loving, close-up, slow-motion that is rumoured to have involved a real corpse – after clawing the face of her first client.

Finally, it becomes too much, and she starts – with striking methodicalness – to prepare her revenge. She learns shooting, martial-arts and driving skills, and loads up with a sawn-off shotgun, as well as a handgun hidden in her hair, and goes around blowing away everyone she deems unworthy [Though how does she know where to find them? I imagine it’s not as if they hand out their home addresses…], before challenging her pimp to a duel in the bleak yet beautiful Swedish countryside.

The impact on Kill Bill, both in storyline and style (Elle Driver, in particular), is obvious – not to mention Ms. 45 – but Vibenius has a far less frenetic approach. Indeed, his style is so deliberate, you may be forgiven for dozing off, even during the fight scene, which uses such slo-mo as to become almost surreal. It’s a refreshing antidote to the MTV-style editing beloved by the likes of Alias. Less successful is the hard-core sex; while it certainly has an impact, it’s a double-edged sword, and is hardly necessary. Lindberg, clad in a long trenchcoat and colour-coordinated eye-patch is grand, and this is certainly unique. Fun? No. It’s hardly even entertaining, and must have freaked out the drive-in crowd during its mid-70’s run. But memorable? Sure. And ripe for a remake starring Christina Ricci? Hell, yes.

Dir: Bo A. Vibenius
Star: Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf
a.k.a. They Call Her One-Eye + Hooker’s Revenge

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