She Shoots Straight

On the rare occasions when I get chance to revisit some old Hong Kong action movies, I’m transported back to my late teenage years, when I was freer to indulge in the guilty pleasures of this stuff. Watching Cory Yuen’s She Shoots Straight (1990), I was reminded of the times when Hong Kong provided me with a route into a range of cinemas from around the world. I had been a pretty conservative film viewer, preferring my movies to be fast, slick and immediate, but I did make an effort to check out some films which I was always told were classics: I seem to remember Bergman, Tati, Hitchcock, Godard and Kurosawa being a few of my starting points. Once I discovered Hong Kong action films, I found their frenetic eclecticism startling enough to set off a domino cascade of explorations in international film, leading into more interesting, challenging and esoteric quarters. But even if I don’t get chance to bathe in its craziness very often, I’ve never lost a residual affection for Hong Kong action cinema’s golden age and the way it shook me out of a complacent viewing position. We often think that “world cinema” (a phrase I’m far from being keen on – it evokes an ethnographic fascination with foreign things and, when used in the UK, ignores the fact that Hollywood movies are also “world cinema”) gives us a window into faraway lands and cultures. That may be partly true, but it is a view that is obscured by the cultural specificities of the industry from whence it came, and the audiences for whom it was designed. So, while She Shoots Straight is a formulaic addition to the action movie genre, it goes about its business in a manner that may be disorientating for viewers unfamiliar with the way they used to do things in Hong Kong (of course, you’d never guess it from the packaging and marketing that tends to elide these differences wherever possible).

Joyce Godenzi, a former Miss Hong Kong winner (1984) and wife of Sammo Hung, stars as Mina, a police officer who works alongside her new husband (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), much to the annoyance of his sisters, who are also jostling for position and recognition in the same force. Beginning with the wedding, followed immediately by a dramatic intervention in the attempted kidnapping of a princess, the film bolts together inseparably the twin imperatives of family drama and action adventure. There are plenty of sequences of bodies stretched to their acrobatic limits, and just as muscle and sinew are at full-stretch, so are the emotions.

At the core of the film is a twenty-five minute section in which Mina’s husband is viciously slaughtered by a criminal gang, followed by an excruciating birthday party for his mother, throughout which Mina tries desperately to put on a brave face and keep his mother from finding out the true reason for his absence. Next comes the funeral, which the gang attacks by placing a bomb in the coffin, leaving Mina requiring surgery, which she has to endure without anaesthetic because, as she learns for the first time, she is pregnant with her late husband’s child. Finally, her insensitive boss arrives to crack jokes and shrug off the tragedy. This cavalcade of torment clearly serves to set up the final section of righteous vengeance, as Mina hunts down and crushes the gang. But if the husband’s death is just a narrative device to provide a motivation for some combat scenes, does it have to be laid on so thick, with screaming and crying and wallowing, synthesised music?

Well, this film, along with many others like it, offers a synthesis of body and emotion. Bodies are put to the test, held taut and poised, faces fixed in grimaces or ferocious determination, while an outpouring of emotion accompanies the physical release of punishing combat. This intertwining of physical and emotional tensions is most starkly expressed in the actual pains endured by stunt performers (usually the stars themselves for added authenticity), lingered over with slow motion or repeated shots. Fighting here is a cathartic explosion of rage, but it is firmly established as a powerfully felt spectacle rather than one that can be observed with awed detachment. There is always a danger, I suppose, that the emotionalism is too stark or forced, that it is distancing rather than engaging. It took me a while to acclimatise to the histrionics of this kind of emotional action cinema.

The final showdown is between Joyce Godenzi and Agnes Aurelio. Just prior to their confrontation, Mina’s bereaved mother-in-law is callously wounded, refuelling the drive for vengeance, but putting the emphasis on conflicts between women for the protection of the family (Mina is pregnant, remember). Each fighter is out for revenge for the other’s killing of a loved one. They kick at each others breasts, legs, bellies and groins, singling out each other’s womanly attributes for especially violent attention, perpetuating the fetishistic aspects of the female-focused martial arts film, but re-articulating the central themes – by protecting her unborn child, Mina will honour the wishes of her mother-in-law and the memory of her husband (who wanted a child far more urgently than she ever had: we saw him earlier making holes in a condom!). But this is not an unproblematic restoration of order. Everyone ends bereaved. The film ends abruptly when Mina beats Agnes into unconsciousness and tosses her onto the back of a motorcycle. The end credits roll over a montage of the happy couple, the husband’s death and funeral. If you’re accustomed to Hollywood action movies, you’ll find this unnerving. Where is the nod-and-wink, gift-wrapped happy ending of vanquished foes and nursed bruises, shrugging off the preceding mayhem and getting back to normality? How did this silliest of genres come to be taking things so seriously? It’s all part of the intensity, the heightened emotions that filled the films from this period, produced at a breakneck pace that fostered this kind of immediate headrush of bodily and emotional display.

(If you must see it out of context and in poor quality, you can see the fight between Joyce Godenzi and Agnes Aurelio on YouTube here.)

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