Bright Lights Film Journal

Against Pleasure, Against Identification: Feminism, Cultural Atheism, and the Tragic Subject (Part One)

Josephine Siao in The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk

Rescuing feminism from rape — and queer theory


On December 6, 2004, the Associated Press reported that the Chinese government, continually juggling the prospects of international humiliation and national discontent, banned a Nike commercial whose doubly racist narrative — unashamedly pandering to the kung fu tastes stereotypically associated with young black males — featured basketball thug LeBron James in a mock Shaw Brothers scenario defeating “an animated cartoon kung fu master … two women in traditional Chinese attire, and a pair of dragons, considered a sacred symbol of traditional Chinese culture.”1 Beijing’s hypocritical objection to the orientalist cheapening of Chinese culture ignores, of course, the fact that Chinese filmmakers have been sanctioned to do more or less the same, selling to the West candy-colored, store-bought scroll images of Asian iconography, just as a plagiaristic Hollywood has for the past five years internationally (and belatedly) commodified the glamorously sharp violence of the first and second Hong Kong new waves.2 In the mid-1990s, Rey Chow justified the self-orientalization evident in Zhang Yimou’s Fifth Generation films through the fashionably postmodern (and self-excusing) rubric of parody; now, as Zhang craftily overproduces clichéd, slow-motion swirls of rose petals and bounding longhaired swordspeople in Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) to prey upon the romantic longings of an expressly Western audience, has parody merely come full circle, or can we now call a spade a spade?

Hopefully Chinese cinema criticism, slowly recovering from subaltern indignation, can now elevate itself above the minefield of postcolonial anger, reactive territorialism, and subject-position bickering that the opportunistically touristic dissemination of Hong Kong cinema ignited in the 1990s. Or perhaps we’re yet unready to trample the red carpet of geopolitical correctness? At least, we’re surely prepared to shed our farcical roles as Western critics who, distancing ourselves from the orientalist evildoing exemplified by the very title of David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong (which others Chineseness into a global and not merely hemispherical difference), continue with problematizing the transnationalization of Chinese cinema, and as Chinese critics who self-righteously correct Occidental insensitivities while straining not to privilege, naturalize, or essentialize local meanings. These roles, once necessary and correct, now seem quaint, cold-blooded, and utterly useless.

The mistrust between Chinese and Western critics reached its fountainhead as Hong Kong cinema was obsessively reduced to “1997 syndrome,” where inevitable political crisis licensed inevitably narrow critical approaches. Yet this mistrust on both parts was grievously, vehemently misplaced, for 1997-ism was not a reification of the Western mind but the quite real, deadeningly repetitive textual neurosis of HK films themselves. As culturalism and genre studies were exhausting themselves, a neatly-packaged and ever-intensifying historicism arrived on everyone’s doorstep with a deadline tied in a bow. Time and again, from Alfred Cheung’s arty noir On the Run (1988), to pop action films such as Police Story 3 (1992), The Bodyguard from Beijing (1994), and Rock n’ Roll Cop (1994), to Clara Law’s Farewell China (1990), Autumn Moon (1992), and the Australian-made Floating Life (1996), to Shu Kei’s Hu-du-Men (1996, above) and A Queer Story (1997), to Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer (1998), to Stanley Kwan’s Hold You Tight (1998) and The Island Tales (2001), 1997-ism was reductively positioned by Hong Kong filmmakers as a singular macro-lens through which all psycho-socio-political affects could be managed and contained; it was a pretext repeated so often it became subtext, then text itself. We would do well, then, to chastise less the befuddled Western critic than the self-centered provincialism of HK directors, who repeatedly bathed postcolonial hysteria in action-film sweat or art-film style,3 and rarely bothered to investigate philosophical, aesthetic, economic, or intellectual problems beyond HK’s borders. In “A”-level action films like Police Story 3 or Bodyguard from Beijing, populist entertainment quality, as mandated by HK’s triad-run film industry, instantly sanctified provincialism, where “meaning” is an off-hand remark and “theme” a slight reference theorized out of all proportion. Even Allen Fong’s Wuniu: Dancing Bull (1990) and Evans Chan’s uniquely cerebral 1997 treatise To Liv(e) (1992), the only two HK features I can recall that posit intellectual characters, are consumed with provincial politics, as are Ann Hui’s Boat People (1983) and Ordinary Heroes (1998), and Jacob Cheung’s dully humanistic Cageman (1992), a few of the rare HK films in memory that address sociopolitical problems.

After select HK genre filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood, the inauthentic hybrid forms poised to ensnare incoming opportunists smugly trumped the inauthentic subjectivity of the Western critic. The aesthetic compromises to which John Woo or Jackie Chan submitted were so madly inevitable that no dose of exilic-transnational-nomadic-postcolonial-diasporic rhetoric could soothe them, and we even longed for the nationalism to which Chinese critics were afraid to reactively cling. But because they are mere “entertainers,” HK action directors were liberated from the burden of moral courage reserved for non-genre auteurs; for the entertainer, selling out is art. If it was cowardly for John Woo to make Windtalkers (2002), for postcolonial Sammo Hung to debase himself in the cookie-cutter cop show Martial Law (1998), for Ronny Yu to whore in adolescent horror franchises, and for a Disneyfied Jackie Chan to become a high-kicking spokesman for Hefty Ultra-Flex lawn-and-leaf trash bags, only the deluded would dare ask for better. Postcolonialism may forgive the subaltern for imitating their oppressors, but these are privileged, wealthy filmmakers, not slaves, day laborers, or the bourgeoisie! A depressed Chow Yun-fat now resenting his double-barreled Hollywood caricatures (i.e., Bulletproof Monk [2003]) or a dejected Ringo Lam being downgraded to direct-to-video B-movies would have been bittersweetly satisfying had they come five years earlier — but now, who cares? Expatriate auteurs such as Polanski and Bertolucci persisted in Hollywood by selling only half their souls — but because émigré HK filmmakers were invited to the West not for their dramatic skills but only to fetishize action choreographies, they had sold half their souls already. Corrupting the other half came easily.4

Now, years after the ’97 immigrant crisis, the transnational problems of distribution and appropriation remain intact, as evidenced by Beijing and Nike, but it, circuitously, has taken a back seat to the new method of production. Treacherous Hollywoodites are today redundant in the process of demoralized transnationality, an affect no longer tacked on by vulture-like distributors but ingrained by Chinese filmmakers who now trade sophisticatedly their own international commodity value. The resultant bogus multiculturalism of synthetic confections such as Naked Weapon (2002) or Twins Effect (2003) fosters greater cultural ineptitude than the multilingualism of the international co-productions that dominated Italy in the 1960s, and betrays a lazy misunderstanding of Anglicism equal to Westerners’ violent corruptions of Chineseness. (This laziness largely stems from incredible English-language “performances.” But honestly, even talented HK actors such as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai have, by international standards, fairly narrow ranges, even if few will reveal the secret.) This multicultural “synthesis” is actually unsynthetic, insofar as the fabric, by showing its seams, instructs you how to unstitch it. Warning signs of this stitching were evident in Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide (2000), which heralded the technological heights and ideological nadirs of HK filmmaking on the cusp of its conservative tourism: a gloss of gratuitously enigmatic stylization following Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To; dubbed bilingual performances (here, in Spanish rather than English) that nonsensically plead for multicultural cachet; the inclusion of a peripheral lesbian character to satisfy de rigueur, post-’97 gay tokenism; the relegation of veteran actors (here, Anthony Wong) to supporting roles, and the commercial advancement to the forefront of well-connected pop idols (Nicholas Tse) whose thespian merits begin and end with deluxe hairstyles; and, to rationalize all that has preceded it, a climax that restates the glowing values of pregnancy and the safeguarding of the nuclear family.

If we assume this transnational trajectory is cyclical, HK filmmakers — if their corruptions haven’t yet been finalized — might soon abandon pseudo-hybridized Hollywood norms and return to pre-’97 nationalism, if Chow Yun-fat’s failed careerism is a telling example. If the process is not cyclical, we may sourly surrender ourselves to ever-diminishing returns, and embark on new avenues of study. Regardless, it’s all left a bad taste in our mouths, and we can either continue deserved resentment toward HK cinema, masochistically reveling in the fact that we knew better than filmmakers themselves (as is usually the case), or we can forgive and overcome. Or, we can overcome without forgiving. One way to do this, perhaps, is to universalize and de-provincialize our subject matter against all correctness and interest groups, as I have attempted to do by eliminating any trace of “Asian-ness” in the title of this Asian-themed essay.

Introduction: Swordsman 2 Revisited (Again) — Or What if Stanley Kwan Had Directed Action Films?

If revisiting HK action cinema is something of a reluctant chore mired in endless transnational discourse and netted in rival subject positions, reexamining its appropriation of premodern gender performance, its most unique contribution to 90s world cinema, may be equally tiresome. Yet the universal potentialities of HK gender performance, though more limited than is usually admitted by overzealous critics, have yet to be exhausted.

Even a dozen years and dozens of critical essays after its initial release, producer Tsui Hark’s Swordsman 25 (1992, above) remains a turning point in the production and reflection of gender performance in HK cinema, as well as its most problematic, illegible example. Made only a year after the decriminalization of homosexuality in HK, and both politically limited and metaphysically emboldened by the gender mystification in which Tsui Hark characteristically trades, the film has been alternately critiqued as a fledgling attempt at queer subjectivity spoiled by a gutless whitewash of heteronormativity, and championed as a site of transgendered empowerment misunderstood by critics imposing reductionist (i.e., essentialist gay) readings. Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s essay “Unsung Heroes: Reading Transgender Subjectivities in Hong Kong Action Cinema”6 incisively takes the latter tack, first comparing Lin Ching-hsia’s transgendered “Dongfang Bubai” (rendered in English as “Asia the Invincible”) character in Swordsman 2 to the original incarnation of that character in Jin Yong’s Mao-era novel, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (1963). Noting that Jin’s novel allegorized the self-castrating, gender-switching Dongfang Bubai as a monstrous, power-hungry dynastic eunuch exchanging sexual potency for political might, Leung remarks that s/he was, “… conceived as a symbol of masculinity-under-threat by a transphobic imagination during the 1960s, [but now] is emerging in the new millennium as a transsexual icon.” Nevertheless, it’s debatable as to whether the slippage among transgenderism, transsexuality, and homosexuality in Dongfang Bubai’s pop iconology is a conscious strategy on Tsui’s part, or is bound up with, and short-circuited by, the more or less non-queer transvestite genre strategies of the resurgent, reinvented 1990s wu xia film.

Leung’s analysis of Swordsman 2 chastises critics who’ve believed Tsui timidly fails to follow through on the queer implications of Lin’s male-to-female Dongfang Bubai when, in the film’s sole sex scene, it is Dongfang Bubai’s female consort, Sisi, who sleeps with Jet Li’s swordsman, thus sparing a heterosexual audience the sight of a masculinized, gender-queer Lin embracing macho, heteronormative Li. Leung builds upon Jay Prosser’s work on transsexuality and the psychoanalytic notion of the “skin ego” to argue that sexually morphing Dongfang Bubai, still uncomfortable in her slowly transitioning body and unready for sexual contact, uses Sisi not as an intermediary to transitively project a re-heterosexualized version of herself, but as a phantom body through which she can psychically manage her work-in-progress gender, whose instability renders any contingent sexuality (temporarily?) untouchable and inexpressible. Rather than viewing Dongfang Bubai’s transsexuality as a depersonalized, gender-essentialized symbol of a 19th-century China presenting a violently butch face to Western imperialists in an attempt to camouflage a feminine passivity ripe for the colonial taking, as I tend to do, Leung sees Dongfang Bubai as a personalized subject whose transformational anxieties ring true for the type of audience Judith Halberstam has termed the transgender butch, or masculine women who inhabit the performative gray area between butch lesbianism and biological or surgical female-to-male transsexualism.

Leung is thus able to lambaste gay Chinese critic Chou Wah-Shan for, in the early 1990s, misappreciating Dongfang’s transsexual subjectivity, and insisting that, in the aforementioned sex scene, Sisi’s intrusion allows Tsui Hark to evade “rightful” gay male contact between Li’s swordsman and Dongfang Bubai, whose potential as a feminized homosexual male is disrupted by the casting of beautiful, heterosexual Lin, her cross-dressing notwithstanding. (In the pre-transition prequel, Swordsman (1990), a male actor plays Dongfang Bubai.) Leung also dismisses critic Yau Ching, who, focusing on receptivity rather than text, suggests queer pleasure decreases as the originally male Dongfang Bubai increases in supernatural femininity; when Dongfang Bubai’s escalating, diegetic femaleness becomes indistinguishable from the biological, extradiegetic femininity of Lin Ching-hsia, heteronormative identifications are reinscribed. As Leung says:

Both critics [Chou and Yau], in their very different readings, view Dongfang Bubai as a subversive character only in so far as s/he remains a symbol of gender instability. Chou prefers to see Dongfang Bubai played by a male actor, thus displaying a feminized male body and serving as an object of homosexual desire for Linghu Chong [the character played by Jet Li]. Yau relishes the casting of Brigitte Lin, as long as a queer discrepancy is maintained between Lin’s (meta-textual) female body and Dongfang Bubai’s (textual) male body. Both critics become disappointed when they are confronted with what is arguably Dongfang Bubai’s subjective emergence: i.e., as a transsexual woman who challenges Linghu Chong’s (and our) demand to tell the difference of transsexuality. In this light, the scene that has appeared so unqueer to critics can be re-read as an inscription not primarily of heterosexuality, but of transsexual agency.

On its own terms, it’s difficult to take issue with Leung’s analysis, which unusually privileges realistic psychology over the coldly symbolic transgressions for which HK cinema’s gender-bending is often celebrated. While Tsui is likely chary of the gay implications of a sexual encounter between a homosexualized Dongfang Bubai and Linghu Chong, he has, in his defense, happily admitted the influence of Yam Kim-fei’s gender-queer male impersonations on his work.7 It would also be narrow-minded to insist, as Chou does, that Dongfang Bubai is still essentially male when in Swordsman 2 (1992) and 3 (1993) s/he is obviously undergoing some kind of transsexual (not effeminately homosexual) formation, whether rationalized as politically invested symbolism or psychologically invested agency. Perhaps the problem results not from Tsui’s decision to cast both a male and female actor as Dongfang Bubai — an acceptable strategy — but from the fact that the actors’ gender difference is too-neatly distributed between the first and second Swordsman films, thus creating a linear, non-queer understanding of gender. A queerer and more imaginative, unconventional approach would have been to use both a male and female actor interchangeably within a single film, to alternately, and perhaps confusingly, represent Dongfang Bubai’s differently-bodied transformations, just as Buñuel had used Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina to alternatively portray the two faces of Conchita’s personality in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Then imagine that Tsui eliminated the underdeveloped, psychoanalytically intermediating character of Sisi altogether, and an anxiously transforming Dongfang Bubai did sleep with Jet Li’s character, during which discordant intellectual montage cut together the male and female actors differently interlocking with Li. Perhaps this Buñuelianism is crude and unsubtle — but at least it’s comprehensible.

As astute and progressive as Leung’s critique is, and while I can’t speak for Chou or Yau, I’ve had trouble distinguishing between a psychologized Dongfang Bubai actualized as a transgender agent, and a metaphysical Dongfang Bubai unsuccessfully actualized as a gay man in female skin, because Tsui signifies the character’s transsexuality through the same, somewhat Shakespearean, and otherwise normalizable transvestite masquerade that has generically signified heterosexual confusion in Swordsman (1990), Dragon Inn (1992), Magic Crane (1993), The Lovers (1994), and elsewhere in Tsui’s costume films (and their countless, often farcical knock-offs). The likelihood of an “authentic” transgender reading of Swordsman 2, therefore, depends on its isolation from Tsui’s intertextual use of a non-transsexual cross-dressing that erases gender difference only insofar as sexual borders remain uncrossed (this is truest of The Lovers, another version of the oft-filmed Butterfly Lovers legend). If, in Swordsman 2, transsexual signification is embedded in — and perhaps indistinguishable from — generically-determined transvestite signification, and if we’re thus unsure to what degree Tsui is excavating the uniquely transsexual from the generically transvestite, the failure to “tell the difference” of Dongfang Bubai’s transsexuality is not the result of a misinformed misrecognition, but rather a disinformed “disrecognition,” as Tsui, himself failing to tell the difference, folds Dongfang Bubai’s sexual mystification into the gender mystification that is his arch-auteurist signature. Consequently, Dongfang Bubai’s escalating femaleness seems the product not of a convincing psychological realism — Tsui’s over-busy plot is too concerned with frenetic swashbuckling to pause long enough for that — but of an inadequate gender disguise that allows Lin’s real-life biology to inevitably, and perhaps unintentionally, bleed through Dongfang Bubai’s fictional female metaphysics. Whatever sexual object choice proceeds from this “bleeding” is as presumably essentialist as that normally found in Tsui’s worldview, whose alleged postmodernism is more “normalizable” than the premodern gender performances of Yam Kim-fei, who had many star-struck heterosexual female fans entirely willing to believe that she was both diegetically and extradiegetically male.8

If Chou Wah-Shan’s disappointment in Swordsman 2‘s narrative is textually wrongheaded, it remains trenchant today as an extra-textual critique of the limitations of HK genre filmmaking, and of its leader, Tsui Hark, in particular. It’s not only the sex scene in Swordsman 2 that is evasive — numerous bodies in Tsui’s work, regardless of sex or gender, exist in “intermediate” sexual phases that render them immature, perverse, latent, neutered, untouchable, or simply unintelligible. In Peking Opera Blues (1986), Tsui dressed up girlish Lin as an asexual butch9 who is only (hetero)sexualized under the threat of gruesome torture at a villain’s bullwhip-wielding hands; Tsui rewrote history to transform Wong Fei-hong from the thrice-married man he historically was into a painfully shy, perennially virginal boy-hero trembling with an almost religious fear of intimacy; he injected puerile, and still largely uncriticized, homophobia into Don’t Play with Fire (1980), whose gweilo villains are demonic, bar-dwelling homosexuals; he remade The Butterfly Lovers not to queer its transvestism in accordance with then-ascendant postmodernism but only to reproduce a traditional reading; and his only film about sexuality per se, Green Snake (1993), is rather about its Buddhistic denial. We must reconsider how (or why …) we claim empowered subjectivities through cinemas whose sexualities are cloaked in glamorous yet inarticulate neuroses — when Christian Metz, in The Imaginary Signifier, describes a nosographic approach to cinema, where films are symptoms of auteurist neuroses (for, as Freud might say, art is to religion as neurosis is to psychosis), he could well be talking about Tsui. When subjectivity is claimed through auteurism, subjectivity becomes diseased.

The game of subjectivity-claiming is, ideally, no mere ego-stroking, even if gamesmanship is its vehicle. Yet as subjectivity-claiming wrests intentionality from a text and replants it as contentious political experience, poststructuralist subjectivism is quickly appropriated by the cult of professionalism, which degrades interpretative striving into journalistic battles among politely authoritarian subject positions eager to pat one another on the head. Power then paradoxically returns to the object when subjectivity is managed through texts as stylized and inarticulate as Tsui’s; he may like Yam Kim-fei (who doesn’t?), but could he fully explain the implications of Dongfang Bubai’s sexuality if a gun were put to his head? I myself still can’t say whether Dongfang Bubai is transgender (a supernaturally male-bodied woman) or transsexual (a man who’s supernaturally becoming a woman). Could Tsui? The predictable postmodern answer is “No, but he doesn’t have to explain.” But there comes a time when knowledge is non-negotiable. As Pauline Kael once said, it is not the critic’s job to clean up the filmmaker’s mess — critics are neither culturalist garbage-men nor therapeutic, enabling appendages to the obsessive auteur’s formidable, multimillion-dollar nosology.

I imagine gay critics have been disappointed with Swordsman 2 precisely because its metaphysical opacity, and narrative gaps ripe for the reader-response taking, potentially offer more subversively “trans-” potential than the pat, materialistic transvestite masquerade commonly featured in early ’90s wu xia. Therefore, we’re paradoxically less critical of, say, the more timid yet easily recognizable lesbian comedy of transvestite misrecognition into which Josephine Siao is thrust in Fong Sai Yuk (1993), even if that film lacks the “bivalent” (i.e., ambiguously bisexual) kiss Chris Straayer claims is a small, deviant pleasure to be extracted from the conservative narrative structure of the “temporary” transvestite film, which regularly normalizes heterosexuality during its climactic unmasking of transvestite disguise. “The multiple erotic pleasures afforded by the paradoxical kiss contest narrative destiny,” Straayer says, before continuing, “… the homosexual viewer claims the kiss as his or her own and actively constructs an alternate narrative, however tenuous.”10 But what if an alternate, ivory tower narrative isn’t good enough? What if I dare to want the real thing, not a figment of my overworked, undernourished imagination? What if I, not a garbage-man or enabler, don’t want to claim the inferior subjectivity of second-hand goods, and, under the aegis of allegedly deviant power-claiming, seek corrupted pleasures in a text that deceives with false promises? Hence, the disappointment in Swordsman 2, where a hypothetical kiss between Dongfang Bubai and Jet Li’s character would have transgressed bivalence to become transsexually quadrivalent, or doubly bivalent, as the extradiegetic bivalence of Lin-the-actress-as-a-transvestite-male kissing Li would cut across the diegetic bivalence of Dongfang Bubai-as-a-transforming-male-kissing Li. (The ambisexual kiss in Peter Chan’s popular 1994 He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, a film Straayer overlooks, tenders a homosexual rather than transsexual quadrivalence, with Leslie Cheung’s real-life homosexuality standing in for Lin Ching-hsia’s real-life heterosexuality.)

In Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s analysis, the conspicuous absence of a multivalent kiss is proof that Dongfang Bubai is a transgender agent and not a transvestite homosexual switching between diegetic and extra-diegetic confusions. Yet not all transgenders are ambivalent about the sexuality their transitioning gender calls into question, and presumably by the time of Swordsman 3, when Dongfang Bubai has (more or less) fully transformed, she’d be able to fuck without recourse to psychoanalytic evasions, veils, or phantom intermediaries. But this never happens — in Swordsman 3, Dongfang Bubai and Tsui Hark are still unprepared for sexual contact, and one wonders how many theoretical sequels are required before either is ready to take the plunge. Tsui’s Swordsman films, because they’re the only transsexual wu xia films, labor under an impossible burden — their mystifications cannot be everything to every queer audience.

As queer theorists have increasingly noted, the gender essentialism at the heart of biologically goaled, surgically enhanced transsexualism violates queer theory’s mandate of subversive, constant fluidity. The operative transsexual is fluid only when s/he is transitioning, and when the final or desired gender is achieved, essentialism, and sexual object choices that result from essentialism, are reinstated. This, however, isn’t the problem of transsexuals, but of fantastic, improbable, and actually misnamed queer theory, which is not a provable “theory,” as is the Pythagorean theorem, or a unified, mathematically derived explanation of phenomena, as is Einsteinian relativity, but a set of antiessentialist postulations whose lack of a unifying principle is immediately betrayed by the real-life narratives of transsexuals who want the gender they want and don’t care if essentialism is politically incorrect. If essentialism weren’t in bed with political oppression, there’d be nothing wrong with it.11 But as gender-essentialist transsexuals are contentedly unqueer and nonsubversive,12 we suddenly realize that queerness, as ordinarily defined, is really more about political subversion than (alternative) sexuality per se, and, indeed, it frequently extends its utopian inclusiveness to all marginalized-disenfranchised communities. If queerness is not clearly defined — for it strives to be invulnerably uncategorizable — how do we define subversion? If a person identifies herself as gender-bendingly queer but worships Almighty God, guzzles gas in an SUV, sports a business suit, opposes socialized healthcare and raising the minimum wage, believes chronic drug addiction is a moral failing and not a psychological or economic condition, proselytizes American supremacy, or engages in other nonsubversive practices, the conventionality of her controllable, ill-educated social behavior surely trumps the unconventionality of her semi-controllable sexual identity. As gay and lesbian identity becomes increasingly legitimized by liberal-to-moderate religious denominations, a staunchly heterosexual militant atheist who is shunned by theistic queers as well as the theistic mainstream could well be queerer than a flaming queen who longs for heaven and dreads hell. We will disagree about what constitutes subversion — atheism, for instance, is generally ignored as a category of revolutionary difference (incredibly ironic considering most academics are atheist or agnostic) — and precious few of us are totally, correctly queer or totally, incorrectly unqueer if all our daily behaviors are to be weighed against each other. In other words, if queerness is really subversion, queerness must be judged through conscious, holistic behavior and not identity-as-a-state-of-being — which is paradoxically the opposite of what mainstream, subject-oriented, and desire-directed queer theory claims. Some may summon the logician’s trick of saying subversion, to avoid petrified normalization, must continually subvert itself by clustering together conflicting, contradictory subject positions within the same person — such as coupling Dongfang Bubai’s simultaneous transgender agency with her conventionally violent anger and reactionary, provincial nationalism. But remember that every instance of subjectivity-claiming has its price.

Queer subversion, unfortunately, has become conventionalized as a discursive category defined by psychic desire and sexual performance, and divorced from the consequences of real activism; identity-as-being, passive as it is, may have once been politically subversive, but, as queer civil rights are simultaneously propagated and diluted through media stereotypes and normalizing institutions, identity-as-being is no longer subversive enough. This correct, embarrassed conventionality is immediately recognizable in our stillborn, aching vocabulary, cleansed of the inspirational individualism queerness supposedly scrambles. One only needs to reorganize and excrete a mouthful of conventionally signifying terms — “inscribe,” “the body,” “ambiguity,” “slippage,” “transgression,” “pleasure,” “the male/female/heteronormative/lesbian/gay/queer gaze,” “the subject,” “abjection,” “erasure,” “difference,” “fluidity,” “subversion,” and “transgression,” preferably though not necessarily in that order — and one is suddenly speaking queerly on autopilot. When this speech is leavened with problematizing catchphrases like “minoritizing logic” and “identitarian discourse” (or, if you prefer, “minoritizing discourse” and “identitarian logic”) that call queer theory into question, then goose-fattened with the usual citational suspects (Sedgwick, De Lauretis, Irigaray, Kristeva, Butler), one is suddenly writing queerly — and yet so very unqueerly. Through this language, a corrupted Hegelian strategy combines a failed text (thesis) and an insightful exegesis (antithesis), resulting in the legitimization of publication and reception (synthesis). Accepted jargon both magnifies and extinguishes the anxiety of influence, insofar as the writer is coerced into imitating and deferring not to a persona or style (for the only style is stylelessness) but to dehumanized ethos writ as pseudoscience. Queer language, which should be deadly living, is thus a living death.

Quickly take another look through the list of jargon clichés in the previous paragraph’s third sentence — which is most problematic for you? “The subject,” you might say, because individualistic subjectivity is a sociological construct. Or perhaps “subversion,” since, as we’ve said, one woman’s subversion is another’s conventionality. For me, however, the most problematic brick in this leaning Tower of Babel is “pleasure,” the unholy, inescapable gift of psychoanalytic criticism — even though Freud himself warned that pleasure was not sex alone, not reducible to sadism, masochism, voyeurism, fetishism, or the scopophilic, Mulveyan gaze through which fetishes are funneled. So what is really meant by pleasure? Eroticism? Masturbatory fantasy? Unexpected joy? Forgetful drunkenness? A passing fancy? Intellectual enlightenment? Righteousness? Moral satisfaction? Certainly not the friendship that is Aristotelian happiness in the final books of The Nicomachean Ethics. Neither cinema’s guileful cultural artifacts nor the somnambulistic, moribund jargon that unpacks them know anything about that. A verbose queer reading’s literary self-impressedness is perhaps more the source of “pleasure” than is the disoriented eroticism it celebrates, licenses, and liberates. If pleasure truly lies in the reading rather than the text, or in the desirous spaces between the two, why consent to inferior texts? — why not pool our resources, limited as they may be, and make our own films, rather than digging for fugitive pleasures in hegemonic product? The theoretical model of Mulvey’s moldy chestnut “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is now defunct by dint of its mid-’70s binarism and heterosexism, but critics have hastily dismissed the second part of her thesis, her call for a new feminist cinema outside the avant-garde’s fringes. That this new, liberated cinema failed to materialize for either feminists or queers — the political spinelessness and bourgeois, bar-hopping romance characteristic of much of the “new queer cinema” is the most recent demonstration — is not her failure but ours. But critics will never wag their fingers at themselves.

The woeful conventionality to which pleasure is illiberally tethered is troublingly revealed, for example, in Chris Straayer’s claim that the “exquisite black-and-white cinematography … au courant decor and costumes … and sweeping formal ellipses” of Monika Treut’s Virgin Machine (1988) “… combine to offer extraordinary viewing pleasure.”13 Is pleasure, that which has harangued film criticism for the past three decades, that which is the most transformative, fearsome, and liberating force known to queerkind, in fact predicated on such banal, nonsubversive criteria as ambrosial images, cool decorativeness, and mannered formalism? Can’t we do better than this? Doesn’t, say, the moral satisfaction delivered by the triumph of the underclass in Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses (2000) outstrip in “pleasure” the indulgent sensualism of Treut’s self-congratulatory (if low-budget) style? Isn’t Loach’s focus on the tribulations and socioeconomic indignities endured by immigrant janitors and Latina charwomen — the kind of people usually ignored in liberal yet narcissistic LGBT cultures — really “queerer” (i.e., more subversive) than butch lesbian posturing? If Vicky Funari and Julia Query’s documentary Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000, above) yokes together titillating female nudity and socialist politics in its narrative of unionizing strippers, don’t we derive more pleasure from its rare angry muckraking than its commonplace ecdysiasm, which the directors deliberately deglamorize? Or, to rephrase the question, shouldn’t we?

One of the earliest — and least barbaric — treatments of the problem of defining pleasure is found in Plato’s Gorgias. All of this dialogue’s personages — Callicles, Socrates, Chaerephon, Gorgias, and Polus — were real historical personages save social Darwinist Callicles, whose elitist, hedonistic, and yet utterly conventional championing of pleasure seeking over sociopolitical responsibility suggests his close-minded definition of pleasure is as unrealistic and imaginary as he is. Beginning as a deconstruction of manipulative Gorgian rhetoric, the dialogue soon escalates into a debate about which citizens are most fit to rule. With characteristic Socratic goading, Callicles progressively defines the “best” citizens as “the excellent,” “the wiser,” the “best legislators,” and finally those supermen who are able to enjoy life, indulging themselves in sensual pleasures without heeding the conventional, slavish virtue of Greek moderation (though Callicles exposes conventionality himself when he balks at Socrates’ example of the never-satisfied catamite always begging for a reaming). For Socrates, the appetitive hedonist is a blissfully ignorant Sisyphus forever doomed to the cruel pleasure of scratching a persistent itch. The hedonist’s suffering soul is a leaking vessel needing constant refilling, and his uncontrollable, unquenchable pleasure seeking falls beyond the bounds of logos. If pleasure and goodness are not synonymous, we must discriminate between good pleasures (the righteous indignation of Loach’s social conscience) and politically squeamish, irresponsible ones (the normalized transvestite’s insufficiently rebellious, arguably worthless bivalent kiss). Socrates insists that popular arts, such as flute- and lyre-playing and dithyrambic poetry, aim unambitiously for pleasurable flattery14 — as do appealing cinematography, self-satisfied jargon, or the ways in which professional rhetorician Gorgias flatters his audience by playing upon their preconceived, mainstream prejudices (and thus winds up not controlling his audience but being controlled by them). As always, there are gaps in Socrates’ argument — his leaking vessel analogy assumes the cessation of pain and the inauguration of pleasure are simultaneous events (i.e., ecstatically, bloodily scratching a pesky itch), and ignores the common fact that pleasure often soothes not pain but more neutral states (i.e., mild contentedness, boredom, or distractedness). But Socrates’ discussion of courage crystallizes (and rationalizes) the issue. Wanting to reduce courage to knowledge — knowing when a valiant stand is heroic and when fleeing an internecine battlefield, where one is outnumbered, is a rational act — he concludes that when the enemy retreats, the coward experiences more pleasure than the hero. Comrades, don’t retreat into pleasure — the enemy is not that overwhelming!

What an odd experience it is to ponder Swordsman 2 while I watch Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni’s Mondo Magic (Magia Nuda, 1975). Such shockumentaries are known for their unashamed fakery, but it really makes no difference whether its graphic, seemingly real scenes of West Africans participating in rituals honoring the trickster God Legba are authentic — we know that fiction has as many truths as selectively edited documentaries falsehoods. In these scenes, men smilingly kiss, mime oral sex, worship beautifully carved wooden phalluses, engage in mock sodomies, and perform bloody bestiality while an intrepid narrator, castigating Western bourgeois sexual neuroses, intones, “What is hidden from children in civilized societies is here dictated by religion … [and] heaven help the child who turns from the spectacle: he is immediately captured and drawn back to the ceremonial circle where he is subjected to a symbolic ritual sodomy.” The tribespersons’ free nudity and polymorphous sexual expression remind us that the problem to “tell the difference” of Dongfang Bubai’s transsexuality could be instantly solved if Tsui could shed the clothes of transvestite conventionality, and if the mainstream HK new wave regularly allowed sex and nudity (the copious female nudity in the 1984 An Amorous Woman of the Tang Dynasty is a notable exception).15 Some queer critics were angered that the nude scene in Potter’s Orlando (1993) displayed the heroine’s body as neutered rather than really (trans)sexual, but seeing the transsexual body naked is no longer taboo — even semi-mainstream films like Different for Girls (1996) and Kitchen (1997) have unclothed and demystified the transgender form. Yet it’s so unimaginable for a Tsui Hark film to be nakedly open about sexuality that we’ve no choice but to make mystification academic sport — transparent, unambiguous sexuality is only for sexploitation or sophisticated films.

Obviously, these problems exist equally in conservative American media. It is telling that the closest American network television has come to showing explicit acts of male sodomy are the disseminated photographs of tortured, naked Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, stacked into sodomitic positions by frat-boy American gunmen (and gunwomen). Only as institutionalized sadism can sodomy be consecutively visualized, deplored, and corrected, and, even if the media euphemistically describe the acts as “sexual abuse” rather than “homosexual abuse,” the Muslims’ pure fundamentalism preserves their honorable, humiliated heterosexuality. (Similarly, the only scenes of frontal nudity permitted in pre-MPAA Hollywood cinema were the grainy stock shots of Nazi atrocity victims in the 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg). Even worse is NBC’s stunningly reactionary Law and Order: SVU, which demonstrates rudimentary knowledge of sex-and-gender constructionism only to reject it as the excuse of the incurable deviant. In the episode “Identity” (2005), a gender-reassignment surgeon responsible for transforming a penis-deprived male twin into a girl correctly insists that the straight detectives who berate him are deluded by essentialist bourgeois morality (apparently the show’s writers had taken “Queer Theory 101”). Yet the episode’s writers acknowledge anti-essentialism only under the assumption that audiences will dispute its sinister premise as they would revisionist Holocaust denial; the episode’s narrative therefore paints the surgeon as a molester, pedophile, child pornographer, and run-of-the-mill mad scientist who hides behind untested, quack progressiveness.16

An obvious yet oft-overlooked fact is that no internationally well-known gay directors — Stanley Kwan, Yonfan, Gus Van Sant, Pedro Almodóvar, François Ozon, André Techiné, Chantal Akerman, etc. — have had the interest, or finances, to make a conventional genre (i.e., action) film.17 Thus, we’re left futilely wrangling about heterosexual directors’ questionable suffusions of tepid homoeroticism. We need neither more gay auteurs nor more gay critics, but LGBT filmmakers willing to insert transparent and centered queer subjectivity into conventional genre films. Yet the corporate expensiveness of action films safeguards the heterosexual signification of the glass-splintering brawl, the melon-tossing car chase, the fire-balling explosion, and the ironically phallic hardware. Producers must realize queer audiences don’t necessarily want silky drawing-room affairs, ironic camp, or shakily filmed, quasi-renegade whining — we have a right to violence, too, political or otherwise.

There are many kinds of censorship: that imposed by governments, the heteronormative conventions of industry, the self-censorship of filmmakers unwilling to fully expose their obsessions, and the economic censorship that stifles the creativities of artists outside the mainstream. Therefore, we must explore censorship, the freedoms allowed by its relaxation, and the genres inadvertently created through its intensifications.

Part One: The Relationships Among Mode, Genre, and Sexual Censorship in HK Cinema

To investigate how and why sexualities can and cannot be represented transparently onscreen, we needn’t review the massive history of film censorship — suffice it to say that the cinematic proscriptions of the Bolsheviks (who banned pro-capitalist films in the 1920s), Nazis, Maoists, Saudi Arabian and Iranian theocrats, and so forth were only ideologically radicalized, standardized, and perfected versions of the social injunctions first introduced by American, French, and especially British censors. By the close of filmmaking’s second decade, restrictions on filmmakers and exhibitors had matured little since the end of the 19th century; even as the fleeting “cinema of attractions” was being slowly replaced by more thematically ambitious two-reelers, cinema was still viewed as a vulgar carnival for the unlettered classes, whose occasional complaints about cheekiness or moral corruption could be swept under the rug. As Annette Kuhn notes in Cinema, Censorship, and Sexuality: 1909-1925, Britain’s 1909 Cinematograph Act was the first piece of legislation to instill “a period of uncertainty — even of struggle — over the means by which cinema was to be understood, defined and regulated,”18 although at its inception the Act was primarily concerned with licensing arrangements and public flammability hazards in wooden-bench theaters, and not with restricting content. By the 1910s, as socially conscious, sometimes controversial films started to appear, governments began overseeing public film exhibitions to appease moral hygiene collectives and offended interest groups; when governments realized censorship granted them special opportunities to actively shape film subjects, the appeasement of interest groups was reduced to pretext, and governments began pressuring exhibitors and producers to censor themselves or be censored.

In a time when malevolent depictions of racism were a font of comedy, and tales of baby-abducting gypsies (i.e., Griffith’s highly influential The Adventures of Dollie [1908]) horrifically amused middle-class mothers, it wasn’t nudity and violence that were censored — nudity had yet to arrive in mainstream films,19 and violence was limited to cute dismemberments allowed by Méliès-style trick splices — but topics seriously threatening pseudo-Victorian sensibilities, such as eugenics20, unionism, birth control, abortion, venereal disease, alcoholism, promiscuity and adultery, anti-religiosity, and other indecencies. With the outset of WWI, antinationalism and subversion were added to the list. In 1914, British censors deleted incidents “tending to scare the public, and produce panic during the war,” and “scenes intending to disparage our Allies,” and in 1915 the British government, presumably fearing the instigation of socialists and anarchists, banned depictions of the “relations of Capital and Labour.”21

While we now tend to equate external, governmental censorship with the violent illiberalism of the Hays Code and the reactionary parents who pull the strings of the MPAA, the silent era’s barely codified governmental controls were tantamount not merely to picayune Puritanism but to an overarching, overprotective paternalism. Alice Guy’s Falling Leaves (1912) faced censorship for its scene of a young girl embracing her tubercular sister, an act that, it was thought, potentially threatened public health by playing down the epidemical contagiousness of tuberculosis.22 Of course, as cinemas began to spread from permissive big cities to insular exurbs, it was sexuality and immorality, and intolerance toward their attendant public scandals (i.e., Fatty Arbuckle’s demise) that eventually warranted greater suppressive attention. When words such as “knickers,” “torso,” and “hosiery” appeared in intertitles and raised an eyebrow or two, Hollywood adopted a self-regulating Code of Standards in 1924 at the behest of Will Hays — a decade before the more notoriously draconian, governmentally-regulated Hays Code. The 1924 Code forbade phrases such as the gentlemanly “long, lovely nights,” the counterintuitive “it wasn’t love,” and the negatively suggestive “twin beds,” which, presumably, would conjure images of the activities twin beds inhibit.23 Still, we know pre-Code romance was spicier than the swabbed courtships that followed, just as (to stretch the point) the literary ancients were more sexually liberated than their Victorian counterparts. We usually think of modern Hollywood censorship as a linear historical process proceeding from the 1934 code, which pitilessly censored W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Mae West, and whose infamous kissing and bed-sitting rules were slowly eroded year by year. This linear model generally holds true from 1934 through late 1967, when government regulation was exchanged for the MPAA’s industrial self-regulation — but from 1967 through the present day, American censorship has been a chaotic circularity. While it’s true that Midnight Cowboy (1969), originally handed an X, was downgraded to a more “legitimate” R after its Oscar success, the X of Joseph Strick’s Tropic of Cancer (1970) was merely switched to the more genteel but equally stigmatic NC-17 for its video release, and Pasolini’s naturalistic The Canterbury Tales (1971) and Arabian Nights (1974) still retain their renegade X’s to this day. More reactionarily, the John Wayne oater Big Jake (1971), originally blessed with a G, was re-rated PG-13 for its 1980s video release, when the film’s shotgunnings and pitchforkings could be overlooked no longer, and the redemption of Wayne’s familial charisma was dead and wormy. The Wild Bunch (1969), originally an R, was rudely stamped with an NC-17 when re-released for its 25th anniversary in 1994, its classic status notwithstanding. No one questioned that times had changed — but how had they changed? Were the startled, child-panicked suburban parents of the mid-’90s more anxious about the effects of bloody art than the optimistic Yippies and flower children of 1969? Was fighting the media-created hysteria over media violence in the ’90s an even more Pyrrhic victory than losing ourselves in Vietnam?

In her critique of common perceptions of institutional censorship, Kuhn takes issue with what she calls the “prohibition/institutions” model, which illusions and disenfranchises artists (and the public, I assume) by reinforcing a narrow, one-way system through which reality is perceived. The artist’s prohibited texts are legitimized and rendered “unreal,” while the invisible governmental-institutional hand that punishes their moral and aesthetic disobedience becomes authentic. With reality linked to distribution and unreality to production, the semiotic readings of texts into which one is encouraged produce one-sided meanings that ignore the converse and reciprocal effects films have on institutions (the fluctuating standards of the MPAA are obvious examples). Kuhn’s argument seems to be one-sided itself, however, as it downplays the blatant fact that forbidden objects derive unintended credibility from the aura their censorship excites — they are the “authentic” truths lurking behind the fallaciously authoritarian mask. Nevertheless, Kuhn is correct as she remarks, “to assume that censorship only prohibits or represses is to forget that censorship might equally well be productive in its efforts” [italics original].24 Though clothed in the obligatory Foucaultian rhetoric of the late ’80s (the word “knowledge” appears dutifully), the ultimate implications of Kuhn’s basic point are really simple: as classifications such as “X” were created to address preexisting dilemmas, censors are themselves clearly shaped by production, and if pornography creates rather than inhibits new possibilities of genre, we needn’t say “might well be productive,” but “within limited parameters, are definitely and necessarily productive.”

In terms of genre studies, whether deconstructionist or culturalist, some variation on this point is usually mobilized to argue for a positive irony — foisted conscriptions force directors to be differently creative, and goad them into pushing the generic envelope. Therefore, the resurgent transvestite “discourse” of the ’90s wu xia was a generically circumscribed yet highly creative way to (safely) address an emergent ’90s queerness that would have been otherwise untouchable. Such apologias may be necessary, but few will regard them as preferable, as the burden to uphold the social contract still falls disproportionately on individuals (i.e., artists) rather than bureaucracies, who control laws to insure their own legitimacy and preserve the illegitimacy of the individual. We should remember, too, that artists may themselves become tacitly bureaucratic, lording over the rules of genre as they remold it in their own image — Tsui Hark is a clear example, but his slavish imitators bear some responsibility too. But even if censorship unwittingly creates “new spaces of discourses” that couldn’t have occurred without outside interference, this newness is itself compromised — the forms are indeed creative (reviving transvestite traditions), but the content is inherently insufficient (rewriting premodern operatic traditions of transvestism into heteronormative submission). Furthermore, new discursive spaces are created for the very purpose of cordoning them off — because pornography is created and defined only to be compartmentalized, taboos are intensified and audiences stigmatized. By celebrating pornographic extremity, queer and sex-positive theorists further compartmentalize sexuality by defining it narrowly as thrill-seeking transgression, rather than demystifying it as the unexceptional, sometimes humdrum part of life it may be. Paradoxically, boredom may be the greatest transgression of all.

Reciprocity between artist-producer and censor-distributor, then, can intensify boundaries between the two as much as it can negate them. Kuhn certainly realizes this, as she continues:

But if by resolving the dualism [between representations and institutions] is implied some merging together of text and context, then resolution is clearly not possible; an unraveling, perhaps, or a deconstruction, might be more to the point. If the text-context dichotomy is to be transcended … we must abandon the dualistic thinking which produced the impasse in the first place.25

Deconstruction, however, will transcend the dichotomy only in theory. Abandoning dualistic thinking is, by now, an intellectually easy, even perfunctory game, even if the populace’s refusal of the notion makes it seem difficult. Actively merging together text and context, representations and institutions, which for Kuhn is “impossible,” is really what is revolutionarily required but pragmatically rejected (who cares about a mere “unraveling”?). While such a resolution, or synthesis, was more or less impossible during the early, unstable period of British film Kuhn discusses, if one tightly defines textuality as generic, it is possible to see how a mode of censorship (the context) can not only influence a genre (the text) but overlap with it. This is arguably the case with HK’s “category 3” films, a censorship classification that operates simultaneously as an overarching modality and in the guise of specific genres.

Concurrent with rising exploitation trends in the West, the seedier HK cinemas of the ’70s broached sex and nudity theretofore alien to the honorably Confucianist standards that controlled Chinese filmmaking through the ’50s and ’60s. Less reputable, droolingly misogynist Shaw Brothers ventures such as Bamboo House of Dolls (1973) and Killer Snakes (1975, discussed later in this essay), among countless other cheapjack sleazes, brought with them the paired permissiveness and decreased production values that mark generic exploitation.26 In the early ’80s, the first HK new wave ushered in a more cosmopolitan, though perilously short-lived, sexual maturity. Films such as Ann Hui’s The Story of Woo Viet (1981), Patrick Tam’s Love Massacre (1981) and Nomad (1982), David Lai’s Coolie Killer (1982), Tony Au’s The Last Affair (1983), and Clarence Ford’s homoerotic Before Dawn (1984) and On Trial (aka Job Hunter, 198027) — the latter featuring an adolescent Leslie Cheung in a sweaty, masochistic, ultimately tragic tale of semi-requited schoolboy longing28 — offered noirish, aloof sensualities drenched in dimmed neon, murky ennui, and futuristic synthesizers.29 By the mid-’80s, however, more commercially viable, mainstream production companies began encroaching on auteurist sexualities: Cinema City offered adventure and familial farce, Sammo Hung’s BoHo perfected slickly produced martial arts, and tycoon Dickson Poon’s D&B Films traded in well-produced action franchises (the In the Line of Duty and Black Cat series) augmented by the occasional prestige film (Stanley Kwan’s sullen Love Unto Wastes [1986], Sylvia Chang’s award-winning “women’s film” Passion [1986]). With infrequent exceptions, by the mid-’80s a sentimentally inflated yet overwhelmingly shy romance had supplanted nearly any trace of transparent eroticism in mainstream HK film.

In 1989, a new, liberalized ratings certificate system was implemented, divided into “category 1” (general audiences), “category 2” (equivalent to anything from a PG-13 to a hard R), and “category 3” (anywhere from a hard R to NC-17 to X).30 Whereas the Hollywood NC-17 resulted from the classist, bourgeois concerns of directors worried that their high (i.e., skillfully filmed) art — such as the X-threatened Henry and June (1990) — would be callously lumped together with low (i.e., scrappily videotaped) pornography, HK’s institution of the category 3 apparently had little to do with HK auteurs not willing to exchange artistic freedoms for categorical delegitimation. Nor did category 3 directly result from the timely coincidence of Tiananmen Square, as tempting as it is to postulate a convenient causal relationship between the Mainland’s oppression of artists and intellectuals and the politico-cinematic freedoms sought by colonially democratic HK. Rather, the censoring of imported films, particularly Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) the previous year, seems to have alerted both filmmakers and the public to the necessity of revised, more permissive censorship categories. Importantly, the political and censorial assumptions of HK’s category 3 are diametrically the opposite of the NC-17. Judging films solely on the basis of content and ignoring the elitist production values that categorically define art as “art,” category 3 discourteously bunches together gorgeous prestige films (Clara Law’s Temptation of a Monk [1993]) and failed independent art films (the obscure Midnight Revenge31 [1995]) with gory sado-horror (Run and Kill [1993]), farcical sexploitation (Ancient Chinese Whorehouse [1994]), and countless hardcore pornographies lining dust-encrusted video store shelves.

Indeed, while economic censorship doomed NC-17 to colossal failure — shopping mall theaters are contractually obligated not to show films above an “R” — the effective elimination of stigmatic boundaries within category 3 insured some (limited) degree of acceptance and success. With this declassing of auteurist pretension also comes an a priori reclassing of the boundaries that exist internally among “high and “low” subgenres — therefore, the category 3 appears to be a perfectly postmodern way of destabilizing (unintentionally as it may be) the determined, segregationist binaries of high/low, mainstream/marginal, art/pornography, exclusivity/inclusivity, hegemonic/subversive — and possibly modal/generic. Nevertheless, while we may interpret the relationship between censorship — even economic censorship — and production as mutually inclusive rather than antagonistic, we should be wary of suggesting this totally changes the way films are distributed and consumed. While niche and alternative distribution outlets grant visibility to marginal films buried by the economic bottom lines of big distributors, small festivals and cable television have their own stifling criteria, and can be as oligarchic as global conglomerates. The power hierarchies deciding which films do and do not receive distribution may have widened, but they haven’t deepened.

In many ways, film censorship shares the (self-censoring) psychological and (other-censoring) socioeconomic concerns of literary censorship. When film censorship is carried out invisibly and seamlessly, it is apparently analogous to literary censorship — just as “the [literary] censor does not leave an obvious blank on the page,” as Christian Metz says,32 the film censor’s hand should follow, exploit, and cower in a film’s preexisting montage scheme to make censorship seem organic, not imposed.33 However, the populist disdain the HK film industry shows toward its creations affords them no discreet handling. Butcher splices and static-ridden pops are nakedly evident in mainstream action films whose excessive violence risks a “3” (e.g., the HK prints of Woo’s Hard Boiled [1992, above] and Yuen Kwai’s Hero [1996]), and even films already rated 3 (such as Ebola Syndrome [1996]) betray glaring, roughshod continuity problems during more fulsome moments (even the “3” has its limitations). With no pretense taken to hide the hidden, these jarring splices are the simultaneous evidence of transgression and its failure, and the helpless yet self-conscious audience squirms in its position as castrated viewers of a castrated film.

Nevertheless, as with censorship in countries as conservative as the U.S., in HK cinema unrepressed sexuality generates more anxiety in the parental censor’s castrating scissor than does rarely repressed violence34 (the opposite is generally true of liberal, socialistic countries such as Holland and Denmark, which permit free cinematic sexuality, including pedophilia and pubescent homosexuality,35 but forbid violence). Crystal Kwok’s feminist art film The Mistress (1999), which psychologizes feminine sexuality but forgoes nudity, received a “3,” while the sanguinary yet generically codified excesses of post-A Better Tomorrow (1986) gunplay usually warrant only a “2” (or achieve a 2 with minor cuts, as mentioned above). What distinguishes “2” violence from “3” violence is often not bean-counting quantity or even rarefied quality but the generic identifications and circumscribed styles the 3 generates — in other words, it’s not the degree of violence but the knowledge of a different kind of violence. For example, the forensic horror of the 3-rated The Final Judgment (1993) is horribly tame compared to the rent limbs and perforated torsos of the routine HK cop flick, but its classification as a category 3 “thriller” (I use the term loosely, and generously) separates it from action cinema’s bloodthirsty yet morally wholesome incarnations of Confucianist yi (honorable brotherhood).

There are obvious, unenlightening ways to account for the graphic violence that marks most generic (non-auteurist) category 3’s — the bizarre, rabid sadism reflects the anxiety of a colony whose uncertain future had little to lose (so what?); or it was, like the those silken ghost romances, eye-bulging vampire comedies, and contrived, wearisome gambling cycles that dominated HK cinema in the late ’80s and early ’90s, another opportunistic supra-genre ripe for exploitation, redundancy, and eventual burn-out (what else is new?). In truth, within category 3, properly understood as an overlording modality rather than a genre in itself, there are a number of sub-genres, which can be divided roughly into ten groups:36

  1. Graphically violent serial killer horrors that take as their inspiration and/or justification well-known true-crime histories, beginning with the first category 3 film, Sentenced to Hang(1989), and continuing through Dr. Lam(1992), The Untold Story (1993), and Legal Innocence (1993), etc. Starting with Dr. Lam, most of these films archconservatively glorify vigilante torture visited by heteronormative police inspectors upon social deviants.
  2. Traditional rape-revenge narratives, such as Daughter of Darkness(1993,right), to rape-revenges that offer possibly gay or queer variations, such as The Wrath of Silence(1994), The Sweet Smell of Death (1995), and, in a more metaphorical sense, Brother of Darkness (1994), Red to Kill (1994), and Twist (1995).
  3. Erotic thrillers and erotic action films, such as Naked Killer(1992), Fatal Love (1993), and Women on the Run(1993), whose contestations of feminine identity intersect with those of rape-revenge.
  4. Erotic thrillers with bisexual or bi-curious themes, such as Spider Woman(1995), Passion Unbounded(1995), and the obscure Crazy (1999). Such films tend to be marginal even within the confines of category 3.
  5. Prostitute narratives, both heterosexual female (The Girls from China[1993]) and heterosexual male (Hong Kong Gigolo[1990], Gigolo and Whore [1993])
  6. Films that deal with the inner machinations of the triads and their secret vocabularies, beginning with Triads, the Inside Story(1989), to adolescent fare such as some films in the late ’90s Young and Dangerousseries. Public concern that such films serve as triad recruitment vehicles — apparently a serious social problem in a film industry largely controlled by gangsters — is responsible for the “3” classification; these (relatively) “realistic” films should be distinguished from the glorious, arousing fantasies of John Woo and his epigones.
  7. Films parodying or playing with classic, dynastic literary erotica, following the example of Sex and Zen(1991).
  8. Singular, nongeneric art films dealing with “mature” sexual themes, such as Happy Together(1997), The Mistress(1999), The Accident (1999), and Lan Yu (2001). Such films are actually erotically tame by European, Japanese, or overall international standards.
  9. Films dealing with controversial or uncomfortable sociopolitical issues, such as Jacob Cheung’s Cageman(1992), Ann Hui’s Boat People(1983), and the anti-Mao Taiwanese film If I Were for Real (1980), the latter two retroactively given 3’s for their DVD and laserdisc releases. By the standards of a Costa-Gavras, Pontecorvo, Godard, or Oshima, these films would be considered centrist.
  10. Hardcore heterosexual pornography.37

There is obviously some spillover among these categories — the prostitute narratives often feature rape-revenge formulae, the erotic thrillers intersect with the prostitute narratives, the rape-revenges involve cathartic climaxes as gory as those of the true-crime horrors, and so forth. There are also a number of random, oddball exceptions: The Assassin (1993), an unusually dark and gory wu xia; Stephen Chow’s profanity-laced Flirting Scholar (1993); mildly naughty horror-comedies such as Blue Jean Monster (1991) and Ghostly Vixen (1991); cruel, icy experimental cult films such as Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997) and the vapidly self-indulgent 9413 (1998); and even Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China 4 (1993), whose “3” was awarded for reasons unclear to me.

Like many low-budget HK action films, and even many of Japan’s pink films, numerous category 3’s are filmed on the cheap, on rushed schedules, then hurried into theaters to make a quick profit before being shuffled off to video store alcoves. The sex-and-violence category 3’s reached a dense point of concentration from 1992 to 1994, and in 1993 — the year that marked mass, pre-1997 emigration and a concurrent, critical devolution of HK cinema — approximately a third of all HK films were 3’s. The trend petered out around 1995, when the film industry itself suffered from pre-postcolonial drainage (a few straggling 3’s persisted through the late ’90s). As with other popular, overworked HK subgenres, the sexploitation horrors of category 3 were churned out so quickly, and so closely together, that sheer imitativeness and repetitiousness prompted conscious streams of intertextuality, parody, and self-parody — with the parodies released near-simultaneously with the originals. For instance, The Underground Banker (1993) allows Anthony Wong to instantly spoof his cannibal antihero from The Untold Story (1993), and Frankie Chan’s ludicrous The Wrath of Silence (1994) inappropriately lampoons Billy Tang’s sincerely atrocious rape perversion Red to Kill (1994, above). Yet the irony that would conventionally attend a postmodernist reading of these intertexts is at best strained and superficial, and at worst curiously absent; irony may be the inevitable form, but the farce, travesty, and burlesque characteristic of HK cinema comprise an equally inevitable content.

Though category 3 films are classified as beyond the mainstream, this doesn’t render them invulnerable to the callous (and embarrassingly visible!) reediting that films regularly endure in HK cinema, where the idea of an auteurist “final cut” (which paradoxically renders a text immortally infinite) simply doesn’t exist. Countless mainstream films are at the mercy of capricious distributors who slice films to suit assumed audience preferences, and no consistent logic can account for multiple versions of films that bounce between HK and Taiwan — sentimental endings can be changed from sad to happy (the Taiwanese print of Kawashima Yoshiko [1990], whose antiheroine is not shot by a firing squad, as she is in the HK print, but lives through old age) or from happy to sad (the Taiwanese print of Butterfly and Sword (1993), whose heroine climactically commits suicide, a moment abruptly chopped from the HK version). This arbitrary existence is even truer of category 3’s, whose censorship potential is a precondition of their existence, even if no consensual censorship practices exist among territories. For example, the Taiwanese prints of Dr. Lam (1992), Daughter of Darkness (1993), and Dignified Killers (1991) trim the more graphic sado-erotic moments, while the Taiwanese prints of A Day Without a Policeman (1993), Love to Kill (1993), Run and Kill (1993), and Brother of Darkness (1994) preserve traces of gore expunged from the “official” Hong Kong versions.

Narratively, the average 3 ranges from conventional to incompetent. 3’s billed as outrageous cultish horror, such as Dr. Lam (1992) and The Untold Story (1993), turn out to be tedious police procedurals doctored with slapdash sadism and cackling Cantonese scatologia, and precious few 3’s are as stylish or compelling as Clarence Ford’s Naked Killer (1992) and Remains of a Woman (1993). Certain specimens, such as Horrible High Heels (1994) and The Unpublicizable File [sic] (1993), a distaff variation on The Untold Story (1993), appear to be several incomplete films haphazardly patched together and surreptitiously (and briefly) released to theaters with blithe disregard to self-evident continuity gaffes. Though not wholly heteronormative, the sexualities of many 3’s are infuriatingly and probably self-censoringly softcore, with the penis making scarce appearances. Even in A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994), among the wildest and most beloved of 3’s, the cock can appear only after it’s been severed from its owner, or as an oversize, prosthetic joke dangling between a fool’s legs.

In the discussion that follows, we’ll investigate how sexuality, gender, and censorship classification are balanced in category 3 films and some of their precedents in HK cinema. The films we’ll examine are mainly concerned with gender identity, especially as it is constructed through straight and not-so-straight rape and rape-revenge emplotments, category 3’s primary fixations. Tangential category 3 subgenres such as the triad films and costumed, dynastic erotica lie beyond my interest, though these certainly could be worthwhile subjects for future inquiry. In the following sections that discuss rape-revenge, we’ll be concerned primarily with the construction of a feminism and heterosexual femininity that are, in many ways, still at violent, essentialist odds with queer theory. However, I’m not interested in privileging or even problematizing queer theory, but in scrutinizing the plight of the endangered heterosexual woman, who is now doubly threatened by male hegemony and queer theory’s attempts to render all essentialist desires demonic. Queers now have “their” cinema, as mortifying, anti-intellectual, romantic-bourgeois, and beggarly as it often is — but heterosexual feminist cinema, displaced by reactionary ’80s Reaganism and subrogated by LGBT militancy, is now a fleeting memory. Thus, our present irony: once gay and lesbian identity was tucked away into second-wave feminism — now, we believe queer theory should swallow up heterosexual women, just as lesbians once believed heterosexual women were suppressing them.

Part Two: Feminism Nails the Witches’ Hammer

Without the inestimable advantages afforded by European socialist financing, many of the most vital feminist directors — Margarethe von Trotta, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Agnès Varda, Márta Mészáros, and myriad other European leftists — would probably not exist, at least as we know them today. In capitalistic film industries enslaved to the adolescent common denominator of box office returns — Hong Kong, Bollywood, the U.S. — attempts to address feministic themes (as opposed to “feminism” per se) inexorably manifest themselves in the more profitable, populist terms of generically violent films paradoxically aimed at young male audiences. Musing over the artifacts of tentatively feministic ’70s Hollywood, one recalls far more rape-revenge thrillers, or women-in-prison travesties that coarsely rejoice in the unshackling of wrongfully accused womankind, than empowering women’s films in the Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) mold. As a prisoner or rape victim, a woman can be both femininely sexual and credibly, believably violent; though the emphatic penile fixations of rape-revenge reveal its male fantasy, it’s a qualitatively different kind of erotic fantasy than, say, the femme fatale, who is a misbegotten, beguiling succubus, not a material victim of social injustice. At first glance, the swordswomen, folk heroines, and martially empowered policewomen of Asian cinemas seem to trump this problem, offering images of violent female heroism that are robust, dignified, and generically centered, not shuffled off to marginal sexploitation sub-genres like rape or women-in-prison. As we’ll see later in the second part of this essay, however, this assumption usually rings hollow, for most of HK’s violent women follow the “Mulan” archetype, whose gender transformations, rather than creating an ambiguous “third gender” (as in genitally neutered Japanese anime) open to postmodernist reading, only alternate between violent-male and passive-female roles without being able to synthesize the two. The masculinized Mulan woman, whose feminine heterosexuality exists in inverse proportion to her violent masculine agency, actually has more in common with medicalized models of gender-appropriate behavior than the queerer Chinese traditions advanced by Yam Kim-fei, whose transvestism didn’t sacrifice heterosexual identifications to masculine performativity.

Feminists since Brownmiller (at least) have recognized that artistic depictions of rape are as political as the act itself. The introduction to Sarah Projansky’s pallid study Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (2001) argues that “all representations of rape necessarily contribute to the discursive existence of rape,” while Carol Clover’s much-debated Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) assumes horror films’ obsessions with rape makes them necessarily psycho-political and latently feministic. Following Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Clover believes rape-revenge’s generic obsession with apparent feminism, because it is designed for the consumption of male audiences, and codes all violence as male performance, operates on the ancient model of a singularly-gendered humanity, where women are identified not as differently sexed beings but as inverted, inferior men (an old prejudice of the Greeks). This one-sex model allows a male audience to alternatively draw sadomasochistic pleasures from the defilement and subsequent revenge of a rape heroine whose neutralized gender becomes a screen through which male subjectivity is projected and read. As the rape heroine (or the horror genre’s “final girl”) moves upwardly from female victim to performatively male violent avenger, the male audience who identifies with her also switches between an inverted or corrupted maleness (when she’s being raped) and a recuperation of authentic maleness (when she becomes masculinized through vengeful violence). If male-made horror films “run their fears” (as Clover says) through female intermediaries because they’re too insecure to face them head-on, male audience members paradoxically identify with the castrating heroine most when she’s castrating — that is, when she is most terrifically violent. Male identification climaxes in orgiastic self-destruction.

Thus, the one-gender model becomes inescapably masochistic for the male spectator of rape-revenge — even normally sadistic scenes (gory murders) become masochistically consoling to a mass male audience, who tacitly acknowledge to others in their collective (the theater) their common, neurotic fears about becoming, and failing to become, a “really” phallic man.38 The social Darwinism implied by the rape heroine’s violently materialistic overcoming of rape tribulations is trumped, then, by the ways in which a defensively misogynistic or homophobic male audience exploits that social Darwinism’s upward or downward mobility to safely allegorize its own perceived gender anxieties and shortcomings. (In later sections of this essay, we’ll more critically examine presumed, overgeneralized notions of audience identification when we discuss Hong Kong’s gay or gay-coded rape films generically aimed, notably, at the same male demographic for whom female rape-revenges are intended.) The rape-heroine’s crypto-capitalistic feminism — where conquering one’s oppressors is tantamount to moving up the ladder of male competitiveness — is really a spurious diversion. The female’s thrashing attempt to push forward stands in for the male’s trembling fear of falling back. The moment the female ceases the gendered becoming signified by her forward mobility — her competitive violence — she returns to the static point of original womanhood. The forward thrusts of the male, already seated in privilege, are physically violent in relation only to other males; to stave off the woman’s forwardness, he treads only enough momentum to remain in his place. For the masculinized violent woman, the mobile act of switching itself (between male and female binaries) becomes a cripplingly deterministic substitute for the queer deconstructions she, as a second-wave heterosexual feminist icon, cannot access. The violent, phallic woman therefore straddles the premodern, one-sex construction of gender, which views females not as full citizens but as inferior men with inverted, second-class genitalia and subhuman lusts, with the post-Enlightenment, Rousseauean model of gender identity, which sexually differentiates women and grants them limited heterosexual and reproductive agency. Like the subaltern woman of premodernity, the fact that phallic existence is forever beyond her grasp proves her gender inadequacy; like the equally subaltern woman of the modern, two-sex construction of gender, her phallically violent goals keep in check the eroticism denied her before the Age of Reason.

We’ve expended so much theoretical energy in the past thirty years disproving the illusoriness of the modern phallic regime’s sexual differentiations that we forget the pre-bourgeois superstition and fetish magic of the Middle Ages openly, if unintentionally, exposed the chimeras inherent in its one-sex model, which divided gender only into normality (maleness) and imperfection (femaleness). The first widely published text in the Western canon to standardize a fetishistic worldview of literally phallic power — and incautiously reveal its secrets — was probably Dominican scholars James Sprenger and Henry Kramer’s notorious Malleus Maleficarum (“The Witches’ Hammer”). Given its obsession with projecting male sexual panic onto and into the female, and its historical status as a treasure trove of outlandish phallic lore, it’s surprising how rarely the Malleus is referenced in Lacanian, feminist, or queer criticism. Published in 148639 and thereafter appearing in twenty-nine editions from 1574 to 1669, its influence throughout Christendom was overwhelming; it was the second-best-selling book of its time, after the Bible, whose misogynistic prejudices it put into excruciating practice. Employing a random, potshot stew of Augustinian (sin is failed free will) and Aristotelian (causation of sin is extrinsic) argumentation, the Malleus Maleficarum‘s theosophy mandated that demonological belief was “essential” to Christian faith (just as othered homosexuality is “essential” to the understanding of heterosexuality), and became the accepted manual for witch-hunting, torture, and trial. (Notably, the Malleus doesn’t group together witchery with atheism and sodomy, which are curiously absent from the text.) In outlining the powers of the witch and her anthropomorphic collaborators (incubi, the devil), one particular fixation is constantly, paranoiacally articulated: that witches, who “can do marvelous things with regard to the male organ,” are empowered not to literally thieve the penis, but to charm a man into believing it has vanished. Yet, it is God himself who “allows more power of witchcraft over the genital functions, on account of the first corruption of sin which came to us from the act of generation … [and] so He also allows greater power over the actual genital organ, even to its removal.”

Unsurprisingly, the Malleus‘ misogynist one-sex model of gender is explicit (women “know no moderation in goodness or vice,” and are iniquitously, and inequitably, “more carnal than a man”40), and etymologically inauthentic. As Robbins notes, “the [book’s] argument depends on the fantastic sacrifice of logic and common sense to a preconceived theological line … femina [woman] is derived, quite erroneously, from fe [faith] and minus [less] …”41 What is unexpected, however, are the graphic, frank, and unashamed — yet wholly Christian — descriptions of the cock’s intimate workings and dear vulnerabilities. The modern reader is surprised to learn the specifics of the devil’s power to “prevent the erection of that member which is adapted to fructification … [and] prevent the flow of vital essence by closing … the seminary ducts.42 Further proofs of the supernatural pitfalls of one-sex phallocentrism are baffling, and as puerile as a twelve-year-old boy’s fears of his transforming pubescence. That witches can rob members “is argued a fortiori; for since devils can do greater things than this, [such] as killing [men] or carrying them from place to place — as was shown in the cases of Job and Tobias — therefore they can also truly and actually remove men’s members.” In narrating instances of member-stealing, however, the Malleus paradoxically argues that the phallic regime is manufactured symbolically and psychically, not actually: “… it must in no way be believed that such members are really torn away from the body, but that they are hidden by the devil through some prestidigitory art so that they can be neither seen nor felt.”43 The devil enacts “a true abstraction of the member in imagination, although not in fact … so that … [the affected man] can see and feel nothing but a smooth body with its surface interrupted by no genital organ”44 — suggesting that the witch, aided by the evilly phallic devil, dematerializes the testicles and public hair along with the penis. Anecdotal evidence is then supplied: when a young man’s penis vanishes after he heartlessly leaves his lover, he, realizing she is witch, begs her to magically return his defenseless wand.45 Moved by his entreaty, she touches the smoothness of his neutered groin, whence spouts his full member miraculously unharmed.

Clear paradoxes abound here: the existence of the devil (overlording corrupted male) and witches (powerful yet servile corrupted female) are more “veracious” than a phallic regime that exists truly in men’s easily-addled minds, and that must be begged from the castrating, bewitching female; yet the cock’s imaginary nature and perceptual relativity also render it impervious to actual theft. Even granting the witch’s fearsome power, in a one-sex model of gender she can (with the devil’s phallic aid) only render the male invertedly, smoothly female — for in the one-sex model women have no valid sexual organs — rather than hide his cock under her dress. The woman’s Lacanian lack of the penis transitively becomes a bewitched man’s (meta-) symbolic lack of the woman’s symbolic lack; yet the inscrutably empowered witch lacks the political power not to return the phallic power whose purely imaginary existence she rightfully revealed. The violent, castrating women of rape-revenge and other “low” genres (who, obviously, are as fictional as witches) find themselves in a mirror image of this paradox. As Freudian women who bury the history of the one-sex model beneath the penis envy fantasies of the modern two-sex model, they lack the very power to return it. The clear problem, however, is that the destructive, “modern,” two-gendered solution is effectively similar to the magical, premodern, one-gendered one. In either case, that the penile fixation in either era is inevitably read as inescapable subaltern lack turns the woman’s cock-filching into a confession of futile self-defeat.

Just as censorship cannot be understood as progressive linear history, neither can feminism. It’s unsettling to learn that, in some ways, women in the one-sex 13th century had more civil rights than women five centuries later. According to Projansky, for instance, before 1285 an English woman was entitled to bring legal charges against her rapist, and could (surprisingly) levy an injunction that would force the rapist to wed and financially support her, if she so wished46 — quite the opposite of the Biblically justified, Puritan wife-ownership model of marriage that would follow. Analogously, we shouldn’t assume every instance of queer, preciously subversive, poststructuralist cinemaesthetics is unequivocally more trenchant than the earthy socioeconomic of traditional, wage-inequality feminism, its essentialism and heterosexism notwithstanding. That the sexy disestablishmentarianism of queer art is intended to fantastically liberate doesn’t mean it, by dint of its marginality alone, cannot also oppress. The underground’s improbable, indulgent criteria of spectacle, exhibitionism, cool performance, and visual beauty — because of their very existence as criteria — can become as authoritarian, impossible, and bulimically influential as the overbearing standards of beauty and perfection the mainstream vomits out. I confess this has affected me, personally. After dazedly combing through much queer film and video criticism, I reluctantly conclude that I can only have a politically correct sexual experience if I am a bearded, leathered lesbian anally fucking a bi-curious straight man cross-dressed as a rifle-stuffing Annie Oakley while a nonoperative transsexual guava fetishist urinates in my all-knowing eyes before reciting passages from Das Kapital and posing to 80s Rumanian electronica. That such fantasies are fun (aha! — “pleasure”) doesn’t mean they liberate me, or that they are the kind of liberation I — a perennially unemployed sub-citizen presently concerned more with paying my bills than gleeful genderfuck performance — want or need. If all of queer theories’ demands became reality, would global economies truly collapse and reform, or just become more absorbent? I appreciate the repetitious, ritualized need for the outré, and an author’s desire to leave the greatest excitements and titillations for a book’s climactic final chapter. However, even if spectacular pleasure has distended the gulf between queer theory’s utopianism and the economic reform such utopianism would ideally entail, we should at least reclaim and legitimize the boredom, drudgery, depression, and apathy that are part and parcel of genuine sexual experience; only then will “subversion” overcome its self-satisfied marginality and become truly an anarcho-democratic worldview.

Many of us are, by now, probably a bit tired of the abysmal subjectivities of enigmatic HK gender performance, and of performativity overall. So much subversive-queer-transgressive currency has been spent to weave premodern, pre-medicalized gender performance (Yam Kim-fei) into postmodern, post-medicalized gender performance (the pseudo-queer ’90s wu xia) that the threads have shown their wear, threatening to indignantly snap if teased any further. While we’ll eventually return to sensational queer variations on the generic rape film in HK (saved for our final sections, naturally), in the following part we’ll turn our attentions to the theory of rape-revenge, and how its “male woman” falls uncomfortably between the failures of feminism and the uncertainties of queer theory.

Put-upon heterosexual feminism is now locked more tightly than ever into the deterministic binaries — passive/aggressive, beautiful/violent, Madonna/whore — represented by both HK’s Mulan woman and Western cinema’s rape-revenge horror. The escalating stakes of the culture industry, whose perfected neoconservatism absorbs contention and repackages it as style, now produces a toxic postfeminism defined by fashion alone. In Hollywood — now HK cinema’s diseased aspiration — it’s inconceivable to resurrect the Barbara Stanwyck archetype — cunning, bossy, professional, occasionally violent or a bit butch, and yet unwilling to coolly cloak her heterosexual desires or emotional vulnerabilities. Standards of beauty have reversed and narrowed (blonde hair, plastered makeup); the expertise of young actresses is limited to (and by) dire, telegraphed television realism; and gendered politics is passed off as a knowing joke that in fact knows nothing. In assessing rape-revenge, however, we should remember that it is produced by the same culture industry that pimps postfeminism; indeed, that rape-revenge imagines radical feminism only in terms of satisfying violence already reveals that its politics are bound to mainstream ideologies.

Part Three: The Theory of Rape-Revenge: Read versus Clover; Myself versus Read (Or The Exchange Value of the Stockholm Syndrome)

The semi-canonical status Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws has achieved in genre studies has demanded critiques from horror-genre theorists and, especially, postfeminists, who reject the notion that a woman’s violence should be necessarily coded as male and that her aggressiveness is incompatible with femininity. Clover’s most extensive and single-minded critique thus far is Jacinda Read’s The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (2000). However, what many (straight) critics, including Read, take away from Clover is her emphasis on performative binaries; they’re usually reluctant to go further, to investigate the unspoken relationships between a male audience’s transgender identification with a female victim/hero and the heteronormative, homophobic, and/or trans-phobic fears that underpin this binaristic identification. For example, Brown emphasizes the “the complex gender performances found in [slasher] movies that facilitate the Final Girls as masculinized proxies for male viewers,”47 but fails to understand that what’s at stake is not the masculinization of fictitious females and the transitive, attendant re-masculinization of an anxious male audience, but the feminization (or homosexualization) of straight male viewers who masochistically enjoy identifying against the grain of the male gaze. We should note, however, that Clover, writing in 1992 and referencing the theories of Butler only in passing, admits she is unready to link her transgender thesis to a queer reading of the phenomenon.

Because in this essay’s later sections we’ll discuss how Clover’s theories of the transformatively phallic woman and her receptivity intersect with Chinese cinema’s martially-empowered heroines, we need to take a full accounting of Read, who, staking out her own academic-professional turf, spends the first fifty pages of her book sincerely yet vehemently debunking Clover. Read’s exceptions to Clover, taken individually, are valid, and she convincingly critiques some of the blanket assumptions that plague Clover’s rape-revenge model, as follows:

  1. Clover’s sociological sample of horror films is largely dependent on highly questionable video-rental categorizations. (This is a limitation Clover openly admits, however, and, in Clover’s defense, rape-revenge was largely popularized in the ’80s through video rental availability.)
  2. Clover reductively argues that rape/horror films’ obsession with female subjectivities automatically qualifies them as politically“feminist.”
  3. Clover relies heavily on outmoded psychoanalysis at the expense of a historicist understanding of genre.
  4. Clover sees rape-revenge as a generic phenomenon particular to ’70s and early ’80s horror genres coinciding with and informed by second-wave feminism, and not as a long-standing dramatic pattern mapped over the course of film history’s intersections with first-, second-, and third-wave feminisms, as Read argues.
  5. Clover considers The Accused(1988) a film really about “feminism” rather than a diatribe about the Reagan-era citizen’s need to assume personal responsibility in any mob-mentality context (which it probably is).
  6. Clover believes low-budget, marginal, unrespectable films are privileged sites of “authentic” American feminism — which probably has more than a grain of truth despite the efforts of culturalists and postmodernists to dissolve high/low binaries. This is one of Read’s weaker points — she herself claims John Dahl’s The Last Seduction(1993) successfully presents a strong heterosexual woman because it was “financed on the Hollywood fringes” and “can be seen as less constrained by the commercial and ideological imperatives … of mainstream Hollywood.”48

While Read’s point-by-point debunking of Clover is sometimes worthwhile, one nevertheless comes away respecting the bravery of Clover’s cross-gender identification thesis and unimpressed by Read’s attempt to replace Clover’s critical-sexual imagination with a thoroughgoing, bland culturalist historicism wherein individuals are so saturated with, embroiled in, and psychically tormented by pop culture that they’ve no choice but to partake in its decadent false consciousness. In this media-made universe, undiscerning, brainsick citizens have been robbed of any existentialistic choice not to be obsessed with, to cite her examples, the star discourse manufactured around Sharon Stone’s vaginally-aware postfeminism, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume and the high-school level Freudian quips Tim Burton puts in her mouth in Batman Returns (1992),49 and the Spice Girls’ negotiations of femininity and feminism(!) — negotiations, she fails to mention, cunningly pimped by their male agents, managers, producers, distributors and so forth.

By definition, culturalists such as Read believe the Frankfurtian critique of the culture industry is passé, elitist, impractical, and idealistic. They qualify their acquiescence to and collaboration with the culture industry by insisting, ‘Yes, capitalist hegemony is unfair, but by participating in it with a critical eye we can learn more about social construction and, therefore, more about ourselves.’ Like victims of the Stockholm syndrome, culturalists believe that if they love their captors their lives will be spared. To borrow from Read’s own analysis of Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) — whose title draws upon feminist-era claims that women who fuck men are betraying the feminist cause — culturalists have no choice but to cozy up to a corporate enemy whose phallic global capitalism begs to be neutralized by postmodern sensibilities that pretend phallic privilege is available to anyone who can throw enough jargon around. Indeed, how critical can the culturalist eye be if Read trusts that “… as new feminist stories emerge…the culture industries will devise new narratives to make sense of [rape-revenge]”?50 Where are these new stories, and how could this “sense” (or non-sense) even respond to new stories if it’s only capable of replacing gender binaries with sexual ones? After groping lampless in a labyrinth of “but on the other hand” argument construction and “negotiating the spaces” wishy-washiness, I’m shocked that, in a last-minute attempt to extricate her pop culture thesis from mere heroine worship, Read (citing Tony Bennett) claims that “a [cultural] practice which is articulated to bourgeois values today may be disconnected from those values and connected to socialist ones tomorrow.”51 Yet the cultural mobility structures through which this disconnection can occur are solely in corporate hands; we can only interpret films within or against the capitalism through which they come into being, and imagine what their narratives might be like if they weren’t beholden to themes, narratives, and ideologies beneath our own.

If queer theory’s cloudy utopianism is frequently mocked by dissident queers, a culturalism that believes hegemony does not absorb opposition, but politely negotiates with it, is equally utopian, as it is to suggest, as Read does, that the postfeminism of the multimillion-dollar Batman Returns, though “tailored to the perpetuation of a capitalist hegemony,” retains an “oppositional charge.”52 While she positions Michelle Pfeiffer’s strong but hetero-sexy Catwoman as an “avenger of capitalist excess and greed,”53 there is no analysis of the immoderate Hollywood culture that, to guard against and deflect attention from its own gluttony, produces this critique and plops it within a fallacious postfeminist costume. A world in which women construct their mass identity through millionaire Michelle Pfeiffer’s “PG-13” dominatrix costume and god-awful thespianism54 is not oppositional. For the culturalist, the slight oppositionalities that culture industries are willing to disseminate are preferable to the extreme ones that could never get off the ground. This, of course, is the corporate kidnapper’s game — if we enjoy the mild irony of an anticapitalist joke winking from the folds of a monstrous capitalist production, we’ll learn to surrender all the more happily.

Read cleverly attempts to bypass the masculine production of female stars by guardedly turning her argument, in its final few pages, from pop culture to feminist pedagogy:

Rather than decrying the appropriation of feminism by dominant consumerist culture … we need to reappropriate the power of feminism to ‘sell’ anything from pop music to vigilante politics, to ‘sell’ to our students not only the ‘exchange value’ of an academic qualification, but the cultural and social ‘use value’ of feminist politics.55

First, the exchange value of a degree should never be sold — what’s the point in apologizing for the capitalist ideology of degree qualifications (a poison to the autodidact) when every professor knows they’re fraudulent? More to the point, her sudden switch from the cultural to the personal glosses over the fact that she, a heterosexual feminist, is ever at the mercy of whatever white, male, corporatized studio bosses toss her way, and that the capitalist greed in which female stars participate and pretend to decry places them in smaller versions of the crushing, exploitative shoes of corporate masters for whom populism and philistinism are interchangeable terms. When pampered actresses and the journalistic media complain of the “lack of strong women’s roles,” they’re not lamenting the absence of films about Simone de Beauvoir, or films lacking intellectually feminist content. Rather than wanting truly “strong women,” they literally want “strong women’s roles,” which would allow them to craft realistic psychological portraits, prove their thespian abilities, and win praise and awards.

Read’s greatest fault is a self-conscious avoidance of the nonheteronormative potentialities to which Clover’s thesis, however tenuously and searchingly, is tantamount. Her bias is explicitly apparent when she concludes that “the narrative possibilities the rape-revenge structure offers may have been exhausted.”56 The very possibility of a gay or queer rape-revenge film — and within HK’s category 3 a surprising number of these do exist — does not even cross her mind. In fact, Read’s argument, though (apparently) blissfully ignorant of and uncomplicated by the queer theory that would render her unqualified use of the terms “feminine” and “femininity” utterly useless, seems intent on rebuilding a long, essentialist, identity-politics bridge between feminism and queerness. While postmodernism forms a large part of her project, her understanding of it is limited to parody and ironic generic hybridization — postmodernism’s easiest incarnations — and not postmodern sexuality. Her persistent critiques of mandatory “heterosexual romance” beg for alternatives that are frequently never given (a common shortcoming of non-lesbian feminism). Only when she valorizes the strong woman, as exemplified by open-legged Sharon Stone, do we realize Read wants to redefine heterosexual romance rather than do away with it, and only in her conclusion does she confess the biases she should have unambiguously revealed in her introduction:

I am only too aware that this study, in many ways, merely serves to perpetuate … the hegemony of white,57 heterosexual, middle class feminism. I do not, however, feel authorized to speak from any other position than that constructed for me by my race, class, and sexual identity.58

Not authorized to speak! What profound misunderstanding of pedagogy and intellectual pursuit! What outrageous, scandalous timidity! Have I not been speaking for straight women, even if incorrectly? If, in the stout, empowering name of egoistic subjectivity, a gay man cannot fearlessly speak for straight women, or a straight woman for straight men, or a transgender butch for straight women, then three decades of postmodernism’s echoing catchphrase, “let’s dissolve the binaries,” has been at best selfish and unempathetic, and at worst worthless, vapid, and hypocritical.

Because the social constructions of Read’s own culturalism have not authorized her to speak from the perspectives of different identities — that is, she fears using her imagination runs the risk of political incorrectness should she slip and say the “wrong thing” about lesbianism or queerness — she is confined to the “detotalized”59 roles hegemony has crafted for her. It is her responsibility to learn about and explore other sexual identities, not as a heterosexual woman, but as a feminist. That feminism has been, for better or worse, detotalized into segregated minority identity politics (pardon me — “discursive identitarianism”) does not excuse the perpetuation of politically correct fears of imagining alternative ways of being, not through sympathy, but empathy. That gays and lesbians have always been forced to empathize with heterosexual characters without authority doesn’t necessarily privilege their insights. Read may not believe it, but gays and lesbians, though empowered with an outsider’s subjectivity, don’t have all the answers about sexuality — even their own — and we might just be able to learn something about deviance, sexuality, and political identity from a courageous heterosexual feminist. It is thus to Clover’s credit that she, a heterosexual woman, has laid the groundwork, partially articulated though it may be, for an unconsciously queer model of audience receptivity. While Clover’s argument has obvious limitations in light of queer theory, and many have criticized her exclusive focus on a heterosexual male audience, I believe that’s precisely where our focus should be. Despite their internal bickering over inaccurate media representations and cramped mobility structures, queers, at least, already know what mobility is; straight young males (more than straight young females) are the ones still needing education, and it is their experiences that must be not privileged but sociologically studied.

My own critique of Read is itself not a politically correct lambasting of heterosexism, for her omission of nonheteronormative narratives is a real and self-contradictory oversight in her argument. While mapping the cinematic progress of the three waves of feminism to redress Clover’s insistence on the authenticity of second-wave feminism, she totally devalues (or is ignorant of) the crucial role lesbianism has played in that three-waved progress. The few, unsatisfying, and occasionally antagonistic examples of lesbianism she does include in her 290 pages impossibly stack the deck in her favor: the ogling lesbian vampire films of the 1970s; the self-parodying 1979 rallying cry of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group (“Men are the enemy. Heterosexual women are collaborators with the enemy … Every woman who lives with or fucks a man helps to maintain the oppression of her sisters and hinders our struggle.”60); and the authoritarian black lesbian FBI agent in Schlesinger’s Eye for an Eye (1995), whose feminist potential is undermined by her upholding of masculinist law. Read mentions the kiss shared by Thelma and Louise, but its implications go unexamined; the politically incorrect lesbianism of Basic Instinct is not even treated as lesbianism, but is rather folded into the postfeminist model of the self-confident, powerful, manipulative woman as embodied by Sharon Stone’s star power. If Read’s ideal heroine “embrace[s] the discourses of heterosexual romance and femininity traditionally rejected by radical feminism,”61 we can only assume by “radical” she means — following from her previous few examples — unshaven, desexualized man-hating, an easy caricature to dismiss. In critiquing the gender binarism of Clover’s cross-gender audience identifications, Read merely reinstates a binarism of sexuality, where, because she assumes her reader is heterosexual and doesn’t feel “authorized” to speak from another identity, nonheterosexual options are few and unappetizing, and any trace of stone butchness is repellent. It’s therefore unclear why she’d assent to Molly Haskell’s binaristic claim that the 1920’s flapper “wanted social and sexual, rather than political or intellectual power,”62 when her entire, anti-binaristic project should be aimed at bridging heterosexual femininity, whether inchoate (first-wave) or ascending (second-/third-wave), to relative historical levels of political power (albeit not intellectual power, which, after the wrinkled demise of Katharine Hepburn, is denied Hollywood women).

My intent is not to merely prop up Read as a straw woman. What she argues for is important, and just as relevant to the Mulanish image of Hong Kong cinematic women as it is their American counterparts — namely, the ascent of a heterosexual heroine (an “erotic” female avenger, to use her term) who wields socio-sexual power without becoming a desexualized or asexualized creature, who can be transformed from a private, domestic being into an active, public one without risking masculinization.63 Yet, this liberated publicity is severely limited; the violent heroine’s materialism is one of those slight oppositions the culture industry is willing to tolerate and expects us to celebrate wildly. By definition, all the feminine publicities Read celebrates turn on generic violences: Raquel Welch’s vengeful rape heroine in Hannie Caulder (1971), Jamie Lee Curtis’s policewoman in Blue Steel (1990), Sharon Stone’s gunslinger in Sam Raimi’s jejune pastiche The Quick and the Dead (1995), Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1993), among others. The synthesis the culture industry offers, therefore, is not intellectual or moral strength wedded to confident heterosexuality, but publicized, legitimized violence wedded to confident heterosexuality.

Though her language is academically noncommittal, Read seems to regret that “traditional feminist discourse meant giving things up [such as] … heterosexual femininity as it is constructed through adornment and consumerism.” Quoting feminist Jane Gaines, she further believes that the avenging woman can be re-eroticized and empowered through clothes and a “self-decoration [that] ‘may give women a sense of potency to act in the world.'”64 (Perhaps we should ask, then, if the Third World sweatshop children who slavishly manufacture self-decorating clothes for the white bourgeoisie also benefit, erotically or otherwise, in the “public sphere”?) In opposition to Clover’s masculinity model, she suggests that:

feminists, myself included, are drawn to film noirs, erotic thrillers and neo-noirs because they represent a fantasy of being conventionally feminine but strong [my emphasis]. Rape-revenge, on the other hand, thanks largely to the widespread success and circulation of Clover’s work, would seem to offer the rather less appealing prospect of a masculinized female victim-hero constructed for the pleasure of the male spectator.65

But since she herself admits that the women of revisionist action films, erotic thrillers and neo-noirs derive, and are guaranteed, their femininity from cosmetology and dress (i.e., in Hannie Caulder, Raquel Welch wears a skimpy dress on the beach so her gun-slinging doesn’t make her seem butch), it’s not at all clear how the often prettified female victim-hero, with the exception of uniformed, boyishly handsome Jamie Lee Curtis in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, is less subject to the male gaze. Further, by eliminating homosexuality from her discussion, she fails to realize that the closeted gay male, who lives differently in private and public spheres simultaneously, problematizes the binary distinction between “feminine” privacy and “masculine” publicity. Most unfortunately, she dismisses or ignores the stealthy queer potential of heterosexual male audiences semiconsciously identifying with female heroines — probably the only way a homophobic audience, who would never intentionally watch a gay-themed film, could undergo a transgendered cinematic experience. Indeed, this “stealth” transgenderism could well be more “subversive” than legitimate transgender subjectivity, and could serve as a behaviorist demonstration of how sexuality could construct sociality as much as society constructs sexuality. If the active male/passive female gender identifications embodied by Clover’s model of rape-revenge are binaristic, the prospect of straight, possibly homophobic youths imagining themselves to be an onscreen woman is nevertheless potentially more threatening to the phallic regime than the frequently neo-bourgeois texts offered by the “new” queer cinema

Read’s examination of male roles is problematic whenever she veers from heterosexuality. Arguing that popular notions of postfeminism coupled with Bush-era kindness and gentleness had resulted in a softer, more penetrable male body in the 1990s — in contradistinction to the Rambo-esque hard body of the Reaganite ’80s — she suggests that, “The emergence of a soft, penetrable [male] body clearly keys into contemporary anxieties about AIDS and homosexuality.”66 Apart from this statement being both utterly obvious and, owing to its feeble verb “keys into,” meaninglessly vague, her immediate example of this penetrability is the heterosexual clawing of Batman by Catwoman in Batman Returns. If in fact this penetrability “keys into” homosexuality and AIDS panic, Read has apparently contradicted her thesis, for here Catwoman’s aggressiveness and violence code her as a performative (or at least symbolic) gay male capable of AIDS transmission (and in 1992, AIDS was still a “gay disease” in the popular mind).

The invulnerability-impenetrability of the action-hero’s body, particularly during the 1980s, is something of an unexamined truism — feminists often see the muscular male body staving off assault as a grotesque Reaganite caricature of the neo-conservative body politic imperiled by second-wave feminism. The Terminator (1984) both apotheosizes the notion of muscular impenetrability and reduces it to (or exposes it as) a straight-faced farce when, after revealing godlike Schwarzenegger’s fully nude body in its opening sequence, we climactically see his impenetrable “body” is not male after all, but an unsexed machine. What is often underexplained is that throughout androcentric action genres the male hero has been immanently and expressly violable — to make his heroic exploits more heroic (a superhero without an Achilles’ heel cannot be heroic), to recuperate his violence in the guise of a standard-issue Christ figure, or, more arguably, to subject his body to an ambisexual gaze. Cases of the action hero cum Christ figure (a persistent cliché in archconservative cultures) are common enough. In the film noir Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Robert Montgomery’s despondent WWII vet is thrashed within an inch of his life and spends the film’s second half in a black-and-blue daze. In the spaghetti Western Django (1966), Franco Nero’s hands are gruesomely crushed in close-up, and he must spiritually muster his fingers’ last ounce of strength to climactically riddle the villains when he confronts them in a crucifix-festooned cemetery. In both the anti-traditionalist For a Few Dollars More (1965) and the rape-revenge derivation Sudden Impact (1984), Clint Eastwood is beaten to a pulp such that he may rise again, in the latter film framed by heavenly backlighting. Most recently, critics and flabbergasted journalists have reexamined Mel Gibson’s insistence on male masochism (the drawn-out electrocution sequence in Lethal Weapon [1987], the disjointed arm in Lethal Weapon 2 [1990], etc.) in the wake of The Passion of the Christ (2004). French Connection II (1975) provides a rarer, realist example, as Gene Hackman’s harrowing recovery from forced drug addiction reveals extended psychophysical imperilment action heroes — and their directors — usually, neurotically suppress. Additional evidence is endless and transparent, so you can continue this list in your head as we continue.

The action hero’s outward musculature is often ineffective, and is as superficially decorative as the makeup that feminizes the femme fatale’s treachery and keeps an action heroine’s looming masculinization at bay. When imperiled or captured, he, eminently violable, penetrable, is frequently subjected to the gazing sexual sadism Mulvey believed was mainly directed toward women. In Red Scorpion (1989), chained, half-naked Dolph Lundgren’s heaving pectorals are quite literally penetrated by long, torturous needles at the hands of a homosexually-coded Soviet ghoul. True, such villainous homosexuality places the homosexual gaze in narratalogical terms, such that it’s fixed to the villain’s subjectivity and not the audience’s or director’s — yet this only excuses, rather than deters, audience participation. I recall reading a fanzine review67 of a heterosexual porn film wherein the homophobic reviewer confessed that, as a heterosexual male, he felt uncomfortable watching straight porn because viewing a naked heterosexual man fucking a woman unintentionally turns him into a bisexual spectator — the very act of witnessing male nudity makes (half of) his identification automatically homosexual. Though on the surface the reviewer’s homophobia is damnable (and de rigueur for fanzines), his conceited childishness actually discloses the fallacy of presumed identifications: straight males may, uncomfortably yet unavoidably, view screen heroes as both subjects and objects, and not only in academic theory.

Often it’s hard to account for male identifications in commercial action films only in terms of male heterosexual spectatorship. In the Reagan-era Opposing Force (1986), a mad survivalist commandant tortures rugged Tom Skerritt and numerous male prisoners in the nude; in a disarmingly lengthy scene, middle-aged, frontally naked Skerritt is strapped to a chair and beaten mercilessly. In the Hong Kong actioner Thunder Run (1990), the macho hero is stripped and his quivering ass is bamboo-whipped — in close-up — by a cackling jungle dictator. In First Blood (1982), the Christlike Rambo, a Northerner psychically raped by post-Vietnam, posttraumatic guilt, is thrown naked into the shower and opened up to the sodomitic possibilities proposed by redneck fire-hose torture — the revenge he exacts reproduces the familiar city/country distinctions of Deliverance‘s rape-revenge structure. Even in the epoch-marking Rambo (1985), the ne plus ultra of Reaganite ideological crudity, Sylvester Stallone, after being revealed nude from behind, is tied bare-chested to an electrified wire rack, and told by his Soviet tormentor that “there is no shame” if he screams in pain — Stallone/Rambo, and the male viewer, need to be reminded that expressing emotion will not render them homosexual, even as Rambo’s twitching torso both violently protests against and ultimately succumbs to performative effeminization. The narratively gratuitous nudity of Jean-Claude van Damme — or occasionally of Mark Dacascos, who in Crying Freeman (1995) is clad only in a jockstrap as he slays nocturnal assassins — is a more opaque matter. As continual views of Van Damme’s prone buttocks surrender him to (an ostensible) female gaze, he is both effeminized in the same way Clover’s female-victim hero is masculinized, and paradoxically heterosexualized as a viable love object contrary to the Rambo-esque loner, whose stiff musculature codes him as so stoically masculine that even heterosexual expressions of love could effeminize-homosexualize him.

Chang Cheh’s films are famous for their images of righteous male heroes being violated by fists and metal. Chang’s Five Deadly Venoms (1978), though artistically one of his poorest films, has achieved cultdom with young martial arts fans precisely because of its oft-censored, bare-chested penetration scenes, including one where a half-naked man is punctured in an iron maiden. The scene in Chang’s final film, Slaughter in Xian (1990), wherein a muscular hero is gorily (and vertically) sodomized in slow-motion with an eight-foot metal pike, prompted Stanley Kwan, in his documentary Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1996), to ask Chang on-camera whether he believes his imagery invites homosexual interpretation. Chang, aged and smiling, responds coyly, insisting that, although the brotherly heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms “aren’t gay,” one can interpret anything sexually or phallically, as Freud says. However, truly unambiguous scenes such as the pike sodomy in Slaughter in Xian, or the alarming moment in Chang’s Two Champions of Shaolin (198068) when a man’s testicles are ripped off in a gung fu tournament, are probably sui generis in terms of the “traditional” action film.69 If the male hero’s masochism is a prerequisite for his heroism, we must ask if a male audience’s masochistic identification with a gender-sliding female victim/hero is the same kind of masochistic identification it makes with a vulnerable male hero whose sexuality, rather than gender, is in question.

I don’t believe it’s terribly useful to label action films’ male-on-male scenes as homoerotic, as is often overreachingly and, I believe, self-defeatingly done. The very word “homoerotic” is an unfortunate, euphemistic catchphrase whose unstable meaning, in the blasé name of subjectivity-claiming, confuses and/or conflates anything from a potentially open homosexuality, to a permanently repressed one, to a falsely perceived one. What’s really more interesting than overworked tropes of action films’ homoeroticism is the fact that male heroes’ sexuality (and possibly gender) is not taken for granted hegemonically, but must be contested over and over, in every scene of prisoner abuse and bondage, every torture endured, in every sequel, remake, rip-off, and derivation. If the male hero’s (hetero-) sexual and contingent (performative) gender identities are in question as much as the vengeful rape-revenge heroine’s, the performative man into which the rape heroine generically transforms is not impenetrably, heterosexually masculine, but is a man whose constant, masochistic proofs of inviolability suggest his heroism and masculinity are in a state of perpetual becoming rather than one of static being. Thus, the violently vengeful woman’s own gendered becoming is doubly nested within the male’s, whose sexual fears are conversely, defensively, circuitously projected back as gendered ones when male audiences identify with gender-sliding female screen heroines.

In the second section of this essay (to follow in the next edition of Bright Lights), we’ll closely read numerous texts in HK’s category 3 cinema. Not only will the female and male rape heroes of category 3 develop our themes of generic performativity in terms of category 3’s pornography classifications, but they will also intersect with modes of traditional Chinese gender performances, which, unlike Western models of receptivity, allow room for heterosexual female spectatorship of violent action. We will then critically question whether or not audiences truly identify with the generically gendered characters whose subjectivities they are supposed to mindlessly inhabit.


Click here for part two of this series (BLFJ 50)
  1. AP bulletin, reported by Audra Ang. A billboard version of the ad campaign, as seen in New York’s Times Square, attempts to parody old Shaw Brothers movie posters in a Five Deadly Venoms (1978) vein. []
  2. Indeed, if we consider Tsui Hark, his nonviolent films, such as Shanghai Blues (1984) and A Chinese Feast (1995), are less valuable and viable as cult items; Shanghai Blues even remains unavailable on DVD, as of this writing. []
  3. The art-film style is especially true of Law, an incredibly gifted stylist — far preferable to Wong Kar-wai — who nevertheless needs to distance herself from provincial subject matters. []
  4. The ironic fate of Jackie Chan’s Armor of God 2 (1991) is a case study in shifting attitudes about the importability-distributability of HK cinema. Originally filmed in synchronized English with a largely Anglo cast, it failed to win Western distribution and was dubbed into Cantonese and Mandarin for the Chinese market; after Chan successfully infiltrated Hollywood a few years later, the film was, rather than restored to its original soundtrack, redubbed into English for a late-coming U.S. release. Similarly, Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (1995), shot in English and intended for the gweilo market, was dubbed from its original sync-sound English into different, extradiegetic English when it was belatedly released into the U.S. Psychotically, the arbitrary contingencies of transnational economic structures alter the very quality of (sound) realism even when the language remains unchanged. []
  5. The film’s credited, nominal directors are Ching Siu-tung and Stanley Tong; the film’s themes and style bear Tsui’s obvious stamp. Indeed, in HK auteurism is often the function of producers rather than directors. []
  6. Leung, Helen Hok-Sze. “Unsung Heroes: Reading Transgender Subjectivities in Hong Kong Action Cinema.” Masculinities and Hong Kong Cinema. Eds. Laikwan Pang and Day Wong Kit-mui. HK: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. Also available online here. []
  7. See the interview with Tsui in Stanley Kwan’s documentary Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1996). []
  8. The transvestite performances of Yam Kim-fei, the foremost female performer of cross-dressed male roles in traditional Cantonese opera during the 50s and 60s, were so convincing that many heterosexual female audiences have confessed to having fallen in love with her. In Shu Kei’s Hu-du-men (1996), Josephine Siao plays a Yam Kim-fei-style Cantonese opera singer who fails to see the connections between the sexual confusions of her premodern transvestite performances and the modern lesbianism of her “out” teenage daughter. []
  9. At a screening of Peking Opera Blues in New York several years ago, the audience laughed during the scene in which Lin, Sally Yeh, and Cherie Chung lounge before the fireplace and play girlishly. While instances of mass nervous laughter should always be taken with a grain of salt, the laughter here is actually correct — in trying to heterosexualize short-haired Lin with giggles and a nightgown, Tsui only winds up infantilizing her. []
  10. Straayer, Chris. Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientations in Film and Video. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Pages 55-56. Straayer’s defense of the temporary transvestite film is, admittedly, the weakest part of her otherwise useful work; in her book’s final chapters, Straayer explores more radical deviance in lesbian fetish porn, etc., so it’s unclear why she’d bother apologizing for the temporary transvestite plot’s conservatism. []
  11. Biddy Martin has argued similar views. []
  12. The differences between non-operative transgender and operative transsexual are, of course, very real contentions within trans- communities. See this link for an interesting interview with notable transgender activist Pauline Park, who admits a “segment [of the transsexual community] … is really quite gender conservative,” even though she supports the democratic right to have biological alteration. On the other hand, Monika Treut’s Gendernauts (1999), a documentary about San Francisco’s trans- community, happily (and perhaps unintentionally) ignores the difference between sexual “operatives” and gender “performatives.” []
  13. Ibid, 24. []
  14. Unlike The Republic, in Gorgias Socrates doesn’t paradoxically consent to the good of art in service to the state — here his argument is narrow and unyielding. []
  15. Reportedly, the bare female breasts in Tony Au’s Dream Lovers (1986) caused a minor stir at the time; Chow Yun-fat also has a brief dorsal nude scene in Au’s The Last Affair (1983). Male nudity in mainstream (non-pornographic) HK cinema is used mainly for comic effect, for example by Jackie Chan in Young Master (1980), Fearless Hyena 2 (1983), Project A (1983), Police Story 2 (1988), and First Strike (1995), and by Sammo Hung in Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1981) and Encounters of the Spooky Kind 2 (1989). The Seventh Curse (1986) is a rare 1980s genre film to feature (frontal) female nudity. []
  16. In an even more offensive episode of SVU, detectives persecute a member of NAMBLA by mocking the organization’s rather obvious claim that children are sexual beings. []
  17. Exceptions include Clarence Ford’s Cheap Killers (1998) and Argentina’s Burnt Money (2000); the latter may have been commercially viable partly because it was based on a regionally famous true-crime story. []
  18. Kuhn, Annette. Cinema, Censorship, and Sexuality: 1909-1925. London: Routledge, 1988. Pages 1, 15-18. []
  19. Of course, underground stag films below the censor’s radar had been made since the end of the 19th century. []
  20. The ban on eugenics continued in mainstream cinema, but U.S. government shorts on the subject, for official use only, were produced in the 1920s and early ’30s, when eugenic programs were forcibly sterilizing thousands of mentally retarded citizens. These U.S. eugenic programs preceded and influenced similar programs used by the Nazis. []
  21. Phillips, Baxter. Cut: The Unseen Cinema. New York: Bounty Books, 1985, 24. []
  22. Contrarily, we may think of today’s lack of censorship when it comes to public health, such as the widespread complacency during the ’80s AIDS epidemic. []
  23. Phillips, ibid, 32-33. Similarly, in Auntie Mame (1958), the curious young hero’s question “What does ‘heterosexual’ mean?” (in reference to a conversation overheard at a cocktail party) instantly raises the “other,” inverse question, a clear evasion in a time when the word “homosexual” was taboo. []
  24. Ibid, 4 []
  25. Ibid., 5. []
  26. I use the word “exploitation” as a reluctant term of convenience — all films “exploit” one thing or another. []
  27. Some sources say 1981. []
  28. In Ford’s often overlooked On Trial, Cheung even has a scene where he masturbates seminude — in the VCD print, this scene looks slightly edited. []
  29. The most overtly sexual film of the new wave was Eddie Fong’s An Amorous Woman of the Tang Dynasty (1984), a favorite among critics. It is a rare HK art film to feature frontal (female) nudity; Stanley Kwan’s “category 3” Lan Yu (2001) is a rare example of (flaccid) frontal male nudity. []
  30. Previously, HK cinema has been categorized only as either for “general audiences” or “mature audiences.” In the mid-1990s, category 2 was further broken down into “category 2a” (equivalent to PG-13) and “category 2b” (an R). []
  31. The drearily noirish, obtuse Midnight Revenge may be the least financially successful film in HK history; according to the Hong Kong Movie Database, it played for one day and earned about $6,000 HK dollars (a little less than $900 U.S. dollars). []
  32. Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Page 255. []
  33. The effect of “panning and scanning” on television is a more rampant example of visible visual censorship. []
  34. The parameters of the MPAA’s self-censorship are certainly as vague as those of HK. Woo’s The Killer (1989), released uncut in HK, was threatened with an “X” when first released in the U.S. in the early ’90s. If re-released today, when violence has become mainstreamed and sanitized through CGI effects, it’s not clear if it would still qualify as an X. R-rated films since then, such as Starship Troopers (1997), or even Ronny Yu’s Freddy Vs. Jason (2003), have certainly been more violent quantitatively and qualitatively. []
  35. C.f., Denmark’s You Are Not Alone (1978), etc. []
  36. I should like to thank Grady Hendrix for spending many diverting hours with me discussing, combing through, and subcategorizing an avalanche of category 3’s, many of which turned out to be useless, and indeed tedious. []
  37. While gay pornography doubtless exists indigenously in Hong Kong, it is generally unavailable commercially (i.e., in Chinese video stores). []
  38. The effects rape-revenge formulae have on female audiences is usually not considered; it is assumed that the identifications are transparent, though I imagine many women would resent rape trauma serving as a convenient allegory for male sexual neurosis. []
  39. Some sources say 1487. []
  40. From Part I, Question VI of the text. Complete public domain texts of the 1928 edition of the Malleus Maleficarum are available online here and here. []
  41. Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1959. See the book’s entry for Malleus Maleficarum. []
  42. Ibid, Part I, Question VIII. []
  43. Ibid, Part II, Question I, Chapter VII. []
  44. Ibid, Part I, Question IX. []
  45. Interestingly, the story also recounts how the young man drank heavily before appealing to the witch. It is not explained how the man might urinate without his penis, which apparently has sexual functions only. []
  46. Projansky, Sarah. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Page 4. []
  47. Brown, Jeffrey A. “If Looks Could Kill: Power, Revenge, and Stripper Movies” in Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies, eds. Martha McCaughey and Neal King. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001, 69. []
  48. See Read, Jacinda.The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle.Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, 159-160. []
  49. Read’s implication that postmodern-ironic films are more textually sophisticated about psychoanalysis is just false. For example, the disarmingly sincere, non-ironic rape-horror The Entity (1982) is deliberately structured as a Dora-esque Freudian case study in hysteria, and knows far more about psychoanalysis than Batman Returns‘ schoolyard phallus jokes. []
  50. Ibid, 245. []
  51. Ibid, 247. []
  52. Ibid, 248. []
  53. Ibid, 176. []
  54. Admittedly, Pfeiffer is better here than she is in The Age of Innocence (1993). []
  55. Ibid, 254-254. []
  56. Ibid, 245. []
  57. Read says she is unaware of any African-American variations of rape revenge; yet if she can argue that film noirs are influenced by rape-revenge plotting, it’s not clear why she can’t also point to the literally scores of instances of rape, accompanied by some kind of revenge, that litter ’70s blaxploitation. []
  58. Ibid, 252. []
  59. Her word. Ibid, 253. []
  60. Ibid, 66. []
  61. Ibid, 71. []
  62. Ibid, 82. []
  63. Read says the acts of raped avengers are not performatively yet binarily male or female, but are woven into “narratives of transformation over which the [rape-revenge] structure is deployed.” Ibid, 31. []
  64. Ibid, 175 and 52. Read is quoting Jane Gaines in the second quotation. []
  65. Ibid, 49. []
  66. Ibid, 190. []
  67. From a 2001 issue of Oriental Cinema, which regularly features homophobic fan commentary. []
  68. Some sources claim 1978. []
  69. I exempt the homosexual torture scenes in the comic genre exercises of Takashi Miike, which, inspired by eroto-horror manga, obviously exist beyond the parameters of the “traditional” moralistic action film. []