Bright Lights Film Journal

Beauties and Furies: Hong Kong’s New Wave of Women Stars

“The women of To’s world are not just endearingly kooky, but often unacceptably bizarre and amoral in their excited reactions to events.”

Five years ago, I was starting to think that from now on, Hong Kong actresses would all be about the same thing: pixie cuts, tilted heads, and sweetly smiling faces, dimpling into the camera. Since the early ‘90s, no one had sprung up with the same force, or strangeness, of the great stars of the ‘80s. There was Anita Mui, who had an odd, Madonna-like ego and smirk, but who could — unlike Madonna — use that restlessness to serve a role. In Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio (1993), she played a brooding diva: making the most of that large, sad eye shape. As a woman indulged by her conventional husband, she comes across as a more pliant Joan Crawford: an image of determination, swathed in protective layers. Perhaps one of the most unusual stars in the world is Sandra Ng, who also came to prominence in the ‘80s. As an actress and comedian, she represents a sexual innovator: a sort of mainstream Mae West, but with the emphasis on excruciation and sexual dreariness rather than bliss. In the radical Golden Chicken(2002), a comedy about prostitution, she plays someone who doesn’t cut it as an object of dehumanizing lust, and feels unsexy as a result: she’s not special enough to be exploited. Ng tries to overplay her lack of appeal, by being grateful for what she can get: reacting happily to humiliation, and being regarded by the other girls as a dependable good sport. However, in Hong Kong, Ng has subsumed the more perverse aspects of her image by becoming the host of a ubiquitous radio show, where her personality is wacky, self-deprecating and fixated on weight loss. And recently, Ng seems to be stuck playing sidekicks and cynics. As the showbiz manager in Perhaps Love (2005), she’s a breath of fresh air, but it’s definitely a second-tier, marginalized part: a role she seems to accept.

So there seemed to be no-one worth fixating on — and given the blank-faced (and always pale-skinned) likes of Charlene Choi, Michelle Reis, Bobo Chan, and Shu Qi, it was difficult not to despair. The Taiwanese star Shu Qi has eyes set far apart, and can be filmed as a sorrowful beauty if perfectly still, or if the script gives her a reason for being as troubled as she appears. Although her dreaminess was well-used in So Close(2002), particularly in a De Palma-esque death scene, Shu is virtually unrousable as an actress: slouchy and dull-eyed. Even when dubbed, we can see the babyish formation of words, and the obvious relief when each line is dispensed with. As for the other ‘80s stars who remain active — Carina Lau, Rosamund Kwan, and Maggie Cheung (above) — in my opinion, they’re just okay. As an arthouse icon, Cheung in particular has become rather humorless; my favorite performance is the one where she was prepared to forgo classiness, as the funniest and most striking of The Heroic Trio. As a To heroine, she was full of comic bravado: bopping around in a rubber suit, she was a funny and bouncy performer, lighter and much more reactive than she is today. Her character was game for anything, scrappily wiping her mouth and twisting her face: it’s hard to imagine the star risking such a gesture now, as if the veneer might crack. The freer, modern actress has gone, and been replaced by someone with a stylish if rather indistinct presence. But if actresses today are required to be either stately or cute, that may suit the industry well; nearly all of these women are tied to cosmetics contracts, and how can anyone be expected to act when they’re thinking about dimples? Starlets are often given less to do in their film roles than in ads, where they have to at least push the product with some energy — and probably get more takes.

The Heroic Trio may mark the last time a film was specifically keyed to the moods of its actresses, with its uncharacteristically loose performances from Mui, Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh. But Johnnie To has been doing fascinating and unusual things with women since then, with writer and co-director Wai Ka-Fai. All I can say is that it took me several films to catch on to the style of this team — in particular, their weird attention to people’s looks. To pushes his actresses into dropping their graces, and if there is anything remotely strange about their movements, he encourages them to isolate that one gesture above all. The women of his world are not just endearingly kooky, but often unacceptably bizarre and amoral in their excited reactions to events. One reason why To and Wai’s reputations may have suffered is that they tend to use big-name stars who have been pedestrian elsewhere: pop singers who have been critically dismissed, and appear to be a concession to box office. But if the films are taken on their own, the casting seems far from pragmatic, although it can take a few viewings for the reality to dawn on us: why does everyone seem right in this picture, and nowhere else?

Gigi Leung may have been a veteran of sticky romance films and ads, but her performance in To and Wai’s Fat Choi Spirit (1999) ranks with that of any Hollywood comedienne of the ‘30s. In this film, her face, body and peculiar style of intonation are as one-of-a-kind as those of Dunne or Lombard: the physique which seemed designed for marketing purposes has become an essential part of the comedy. The long body has sprung a ditzy head which lolls about from side to side; the sparse brows are distorted with concern over a minor irritation. The mouth is no longer concerned with being luscious, but turns into a small prissy object that accurately reflects dismay. The voice — high, girlie and petulant — becomes an inimitable sound, and its shifting tone suggests a woman constantly at the mercy of unwelcome thoughts, unable to keep anxiety at bay. Despite her desire to appear feminine and mysterious, Leung’s act keeps slipping, and we can see her rising panic as she breaks each resolution and is forced to make a new one. We also see her relief when she’s able to reset her mind and start with a clean slate, although this too fades in a matter of minutes. In My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002), Wai’s script works wonders with the one-note Sammi Cheng. Cheng’s lack of diction and habit of swallowing her lines can be tiring in other films, and she is virtually unwatchable in romances like Marry a Rich Man (2002). But for Wai, having a monotone is no crime; Cheng’s voice simply comes across as a deliberate, dull effect which is balanced against the chaos around her — part of the total orchestration.

Most striking is the use of the versatile Cherrie Ying, generally in supporting roles: it may be a sign of the directors’ sensibility that they cast their most conventionally attractive woman as a character actor and stooge. Ying is the chameleon of the bunch, as far as pretty actresses are concerned: she has wide, clear eyes and a pout which she can use to suggest either a placid ingénue (for other directors) or a surly skank. Although some glimpses of humor were evident, Ying appeared impossibly untouched as the love interest in Teddy Chan’s Wait ‘Til You’re Older (2005), and as the serene prostitute in Dance of a Dream (2001, above). Thus she’s perfectly capable of playing a woman unconscious of her own appeal; however, a Wai script doesn’t let a girl slide by so easily. In Himalaya Singh (2005), every one of this woman’s calculations and attempts at delicacy are exposed. The film takes Ying’s light, graceful form and reverses all of its effects: the mouth is large, sulky and disappointed; the body is heavy; the dark eyes are constantly accusing. When we first see her character, she’s resting on a podium with legs spread; she seems to have taken that advice about confidence as sex appeal literally, and is insistent about her own charm, in the absence of any takers. She’s also jealous and obsessed with the film’s archetype of beauty, an Indian woman played by Gauri Karnik (itself a radical gesture for a Hong Kong movie, but completely naturalized here). So Ying can play a woman who wins a man by attraction or force, and Wai makes the wittiest use of her by casting her as, say, the heroine’s confidante, letting her looks pass without comment.

Just as they were developing their female stars, To and Wai have been working with a consistent group of male actors, whose faces serve as shorthand for a range of emotions — useful when a film is being shot at high speed, and scripted as it goes. Seemingly unaware that Hong Kong cinema is no longer in its “golden age,” the two continue to build up a stable of dependable but flexible talent. One of the most engaging is Raymond Wong, who often gets introduced in the last stages of a film — as an irresistible dreamboat, almost a play-thing for the other characters. This cherubic but fairly slender and pretty young man is like a mini-icon — his presence is used in the same way the tiny muscular form of Randolph Scott was used to tease Cary Grant in My Favorite Wife (1940). In Help! (2000) and Needing You … (2000), Wong functions as a pawn in the final round of the game between sexes: a token used to one-up other men, and get a reaction from women.

The directors also have a roster of stalwart actors, whose familiar faces can be read in multiple ways. Even though we’ve seen them a hundred times, we react to them in slightly different manners — and always with our guts. Lam Suet (the free-loading dad in My Left Eye Sees Ghosts) is generally perceived as either dumbass trash or a warm-hearted helper figure, with numerous variations in between. With his large floury face, he makes an all-purpose chump; for other directors, he tends to be cast as a Thai or Japanese sucker. (This reflects depictions of foreignness in Hong Kong. Outsiders tend to be seen as mindlessly avaricious, as opposed to the protagonists, who are just go-getters. Wai is unusual in that many of his films start with foreign languages being spoken, so that audiences are forced to hover around before settling into expectations. They have to adjust their identification with characters from the beginning.) Hui Siu-Hung (the cowardly doctor in Help! ) has a loose, jutting lower lip and a pugnacious expression; the several imprinted lines on his forehead make him look like an illustration, a cartoon Bill Cosby. This gives his directors a number of alternatives: he is equally at home playing a sap or a snickering bystander. However, if necessary, we can also see straight through to his core: at a glance, we somehow know that the unprepossessing face is the “heart and soul” of the office/precinct/institution. As for Bonnie Wong, even the most sophisticated viewer responds instantly to her various guises; as the head nurse in Help!, the wan face seems to encode treachery, sourness and gossip, and some instinct forces us to hiss. However, in Fat Choi Spirit, those same weakly expressive features become the signs of a heartbreakingly fragile mother — and again the emotional tug is instant. In My Left Eye, the matriarch she plays seems unquestionably gallant and dignified, and establishes a norm of energy in the film. In an odd way, we only partially register that it’s the same person in these roles; as in ‘30s Hollywood, we’re not really aware of seeing these actors as individual quantities. When we react to a perennial character actor, we’re conscious of plugging into that feeling, that genre of emotion they play; for To and Wai, the readings of each face can be shuffled, and shifted around.

Another actress the directors enjoy experimenting with is the inventive Cecilia Cheung (in Failan) — a marketable star from her teens, who has the girlishness the industry likes. With her soft, seemingly cold-afflicted voice, Cheung fits the bill as a model of femininity: she looks like a child, and has thus been allowed to display an unusual amount of nerve, without being tagged as a serious actress (the kiss of death as far as career is concerned). When I first noticed her in Running on Karma(2003), I thought she was a very sympathetic actress: studious, decent, focused on inhabiting her role. As the young cop, she was pretty good: the grave face stayed on just the right side of cuteness. I felt this was a diligent young actress, of maybe Renee Zellweger standard: talented but fairly pliant — not strange, and with no vision beyond the normal intensity of actresses. A few other films seemed to confirm this. Cecilia Cheung is safe from being regarded as too earnest or respectable, thanks to her constant appearance in the tabloids — with various dating and clubbing scandals, she remains a slightly controversial star. However, her record reveals a series of adventurous choices. Her work in the Korean film Failan (2001) shows courage if not range — Cheung is unable to transcend the style of Korean action dramas, with their interminable dialogue scenes, long-held grudges between men, and fixation on virginal (though sexualized) figures. Cheung is stranded in Failan — though she does speak, she seems like an expressive mute, caught between the film’s sentiment and its suggestion of exploitation. At To’s Milky Way Productions, she is often a similarly abstract figure. In Help! she is treated as a princess to be married off to one of two suitors. In Himalaya Singh and Wu Yen (2001), her characters suddenly become pregnant without penetration: her body is too unreal for anything but a miraculous conception.

However, the role in Wu Yen gave her the chance to combine her lightness with vulgarity — Cheung plays Yinchun, a fairy who can change sex on demand. With three female leads and a male supporting cast,1 this comedy is one of the most peculiar films ever made about love and attraction, although it might also be one of the most honest. Wai’s script tries to clear away the hypocrisy surrounding romantic love, while drawing attention to the strange, fragile anxiety attached to the libido. The film plays like a midnight romp, in which characters discover each other through clouds, auras and mists that never quite clear; they rush around planning sieges and attempts to win each others’ hearts, although their statements don’t seem to have any consequences. Bodies and their sexes are unstable, and this can be a source of delight as well as frustration: when a fairy (Cheung) who has spent time as a woman discovers himself pregnant, he seems as confused and elated as if an egg had fallen from the sky. He must remain in female form for the duration; one of this character’s joys in life is slipping between genders, but for once, staying put is a truly welcome limitation. As the Emperor besotted with Yinchun, Anita Mui is a character out of farce: a wheedling and faithless man, single-minded only in infatuation. Mui plays him as ludicrously horny — one of those melting men of fiction who give away kingdoms in the service of lust. The script constantly refers to the Emperor as being “only” human and male — and while this is a reference to his being played by a woman, it also suggests that gender is a pretext for action. “Beauty!” the Emperor cries when he thinks of Yinchun; in female guise, Yinchun is referred to as “Beautiful One” — an alternative term for lover, but here a reflection of the film’s main concern. For the Emperor, beauty is no euphemism for sex: he is genuinely and sentimentally attached to it, and literally starts whimpering the moment he sees it. He also weeps and is almost enraged by its absence; when he accidentally sleeps with the scarred Wu Yen (Sammi Cheng), he wishes himself dead, and wants to wipe away the trauma and curse of the association (“You ugly people just don’t give up.”)

In this formulation, beauty is to the Chinese what fortune is to the Greeks: a lack of looks is like a want of luck — a sign to keep away, and not invest in the bearer. The entire “romance” of the film consists of a strange harping on looks and the love that exists between attractive people. When Wu Yen has her scar removed, the Emperor immediately finds everything in the room beautiful, before noticing the change in her face: beauty is therefore an emanation, a context for the appreciation of other things. A face is an excuse — an alibi for affections, and a door to a certain kind of emotional response. If everything else looks beautiful because of a change in appearance, then beauty must be a way out of arbitrariness: a way to gain involvement with a set of characteristics, or invest in an atmosphere. Even the valiant warrior Tsi (Raymond Wong), criticized for his own disfigurement, can’t leave beauty behind, but must risk everything to return and claim it, in the form of Anita Mui (this time a woman as man as woman, since the Emperor dresses as a girl for protection.) The whole film is a pantomime of beauty and intimacy, reminiscent of that strange, plaintive scene in Shallow Hal (2001), where the son makes an oath to worship beauty at his father’s bedside. If Cecilia Cheung is the Beautiful One, then she is the apex of the film’s triangle: pain coming from her is eroticized, whereas from Wu Yen it is merely finicky, troublesome — or worse, unnoticed.

The fact that all of the lovers are played by actresses adds another dimension: when they (in male guise) make generalizations about femininity (“Isn’t that what women want?”), and refer to each other as “sister” during courtship, it’s more than an in-joke. These women-as-men are the most demanding critics of beauty: not only of its existence, but of the ways it must come across and be discovered to seem truly fascinating. While Mui’s performance is pleasantly over-the-top (like Mira Sorvino’s in Triumph of Love, 2001), the fact that the Emperor is a woman seems to release Cheung from all physical inhibitions. Playing opposite another actress seems to free her to be submissive and almost wipe-the-floor sleazy, much more so than with a man. Yinchun nuzzles against the Emperor’s torso, is servile in suggestive ways, and constantly talks of knowing unusual “tricks” — in some scenes she is practically hanging off his leg. Being a mischievous fairy, he/she also seems to want to test people’s tolerance of female helplessness (which in the Emperor’s case is limitless.) Yinchun talks of being happily “useless” and cosseted like a child; though “just a girl”, she capriciously stirs up trouble between states, and seems bent on becoming a Helen of Troy figure. Cheung’s tinkling little laugh is permissible only because she is a woman playing a man playing a woman — she needs that cross-over as an excuse, for adopting the gestures of a little girl. Changing to another sex and back is almost like being refracted through different mediums, in which not all aspects of personality get transferred. In the film’s arrangement, a troupe of loyal men serve the three main figures: women whose guises and sexes change throughout, resulting in shifts of power. When Yinchun returns to being a male, he has to relearn some semblance of virility, after a spell of being delicate and feeble. Characters are constantly rediscovering their attractions, and finding out what “works” in terms of their given sex — seeing what makes sparks. Sensuality arises when the Emperor, disguised in female dress, falls into voluptuousness and momentarily enjoys being controlled by a male warrior. Eroticism seems to be something that occurs in the slippage between narratives, in the change-over from one persona to another. In several films, Wai is fond of having his characters suddenly gain large breasts or muscles (Gigi Leung in Fat Choi Spirit and Andy Lau in Running on Karma), and he similarly perceives behavior in terms of add-ons: grafted bits of sexuality. When Yinchun feigns delicacy as a woman, we see what a forced and insurmountable barrier that “weakness” is — how strategically it resists, threatens and offers itself for display. For Wai, female sensibility is a trope: a cliché that women can’t get away with, although the comedy occurs when they try.

If the film still treats Cheung as a fair, high-born lady compared to Mui and Sammi Cheng, that may be due to the persona she established early on in Hong Kong. The small doll’s face, with its strongly marked brows and Jeanne Crain prettiness, seems to lend itself to conventional romance. However, her role in Wu Yen now seems like a rehearsal for her best performance yet, and the most hopeful sign of her future as an actress: in Chen Kaige’s The Promise (2005). This film is a marvel of top-of-the-line digital effects. Frame by frame, the filmmakers are in total control of our reactions: each image draws or startles the eye, exactly as much as intended. I wonder, though, if Western audiences are starting to get tired of this precision engineering, as Hong Kong viewers already are. First, there’s that trick of the camera panning back to reveal that things are of greater scope than we thought. Whatever we see on screen, there’s more of them — more warriors/shields/slave creatures than we mentally made room for. Expectations are precisely set, then exceeded. There’s also the use of controlled color effects — for instance, a red-on-red scheme, or an extremely pink object against a sepia background. Even at their most stunning, these effects seem overwhelmingly familiar. If things look very black or war-like from a distance, they do strike fear into the heart, but we’ve known that for some time now. When red arrows cut a line through mere bodies, we get the thrill of the opaque piercing the real — yet it’s a technique that’s been used just as well, if not better, in advertising. As in Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers(2004, which was basically Hero done up in different tones — peach and gold rather than primary colors), there is the minute control of each aspect of our awareness, for no apparent reason. It’s all about reactions to contrast: the tiny sounds that precede visual overload. A leaf softly falls amid huge towering shapes; intensely clear shots of trees and grass are surrounded by blur. The film is full of outsize, slow-motion objects that fall just beyond us. And in what is now the signature style of Hong Kong epics, there is the sudden quiet that emerges after a barrage of effects: huge gusts of noise and movement which die down to a few waving strands of hair, or falling petals. Most of these are formalized exaggerations of techniques that have been around since the ‘60s, although they do get our attention. When we see a surprising color match — a pink blossom on a red surface — we feel a momentary elation: the eye is mastered, and responds exactly as expected. This isn’t your average production team, coming up with heartless digital effects — even mystery and wonder are at their beck and call. A sinking golden suit of armor looks like a strange, eyeless god, as its face peeps out of the darkness. Interiors are crafted like the insides of bowls, stirring up childhood fancies of inhabiting small objects. But it’s a little disturbing when a film transforms an actor as nervous as Nicholas Tse into a compelling presence through editing. In this context, the only thing that does appear to be the result of spontaneous, individual choices is Cheung: her performance as Qingcheng, the “beauty of beauties,” shows real independence, and an aggressive point of view.

Unlike, say, Diane Kruger in Troy (2004), Cheung knows that the way to play a great beauty is through a series of implications: an intolerance of discomfort, an unfamiliarity with distress, and above all, the certainty of giving pleasure. Physically, Cheung does not resemble a classic or timeless ideal; her body is painted ice-white, and wrapped in many colored layers of fabric. Sometimes she resembles a gaudy bird, holding itself up to the wind and flapping in slow motion. However, it’s the faint expression on her face which draws us. Even though her features are submerged in paint, what comes through is her still, rapt expression. Depending on the situation, Qingcheng can appear either ineffably gentle or eerily impersonal. Her reactions in love scenes are neither detached, nor the object of wish fulfillment: most of all, she seems interested. Even in a fairly involved sex scene, something remains untouched in her demeanor. At times she can look surprisingly accessible, with her eager, sensitive profile. In front of a crowd, she smiles brightly, without malice or warmth. Cheung’s entire performance comes across as a dance in which even the smallest movements indicate her degree of responsiveness to events. Qingcheng knows that she has only to recline towards a man in order to convey favor on him. She brushes off a touch by withdrawing; a turned hand shows that she is closed to further remarks. During a conversation, she takes up a position next to a painted screen and continues speaking in front of it, as if to mythologize the scene while it’s taking place. She presents herself to the public on a rooftop, knowing that when she stands at the forefront of anything, she becomes a figurehead. She tosses her hair to expose just a sliver of her expression, or becomes an aloof object that threatens to withdraw itself totally. Every movement is ritualized: Qingcheng retreats or accepts advances as part of the dance.

This is not only a perfect beauty but a fabled one — Qingcheng’s story has been foretold since she was a child, and thus she knows what it means in narrative terms for herself to feel love. On one level, this girl is an art object, unconcerned with anything beyond itself. However, she is also very conscious of the part she has been assigned in history — when she hints at suicide, she knows it’s like threatening to throw a vase out the window. Cheung highlights the beauty’s fear of death in a way that all subsequent Helens and Cleopatras should note. The conceit is that she is protective of her own life, not only out of self-interest, but for posterity; like Helen, her instinct for self-preservation is part of myth. She holds herself outside the circle of raging men, telling them, “Go ahead and cry.” Few Asian actresses are prepared to be this cool, and risk the audience’s disdain. But with her low and pleasing voice, and sweet child’s face, Cheung can afford to keep her core intact — and she’ll need it.

  1. The basic set-up of Wu Yen — three leading actresses and a network of male supporters — is strangely similar to that of The Heroic Trio, and reflects To’s sophistication in relation to gender. In The Heroic Trio, three female superheroes are given the task of saving the city’s male babies. Thus, in the film’s curious positioning of the sexes, masculinity is at risk if women don’t shape up. Feminism is seen as the antithesis of any kind of man-hating impulse. Women must stay strong to ensure the future of the male race. []