Every April at the Gutter, the editors write about something outside their usual domains. This month, Comics Editor Carol Borden writes about stars of action cinema.
I like ladies of asskickery, women who can throw a punch or wield a sharp pointy weapon, preferably both. Since it’s April and we mix things up here at the Gutter, here are three women who can do both, representing three countries—China, Taiwan, Malaysia—and some fifty years of action among them.
Cheng Pei-Pei (born 1946)
One of my favorite conventions of wuxia film* is the woman or girl who disguises herself as a man or boy. No matter how much make up she wears or how gracile her bone structure is, she is taken as male because she wears male clothing. And while this convention is very common in Chinese opera, literature and film before King Hu’s Shaw Brothers films, there is something about the Queen of Wuxia, Cheng Pei-Pei, that epitomizes it for me. She played her first cross-dressing role in Lotus Lamp/ Lotus Lantern (1965) but Cheng became a star as the cross-dressing Golden Swallow in King Hu’s, Come Drink With Me (1966) and its Chang Cheh-directed sequel The Golden Swallow (1968). Confident, collected but often hot-tempered, Cheng starred in many wuxia films between 1966 and 1971. She officially retired with her marriage and her last film for Shaw Bros. was The Lady Hermit (1971). While she made occasional film and television appearances during her retirement, Cheng began working consistently again in the 1990s.
I don’t know if she was retired when she took on a comedic role and fought Master Killer Gordon Liu to an open-hand standstill in Stephen Chow’s appealing Flirting Scholar (1993), but I enjoyed it immensely. I understand she’s in Flirting Scholar 2 (2010) as well. But she’s probably most familiar to Gutter readers as the vengeful Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Her night fight in that film is fantastic and Cheng sells Chow Yun-Fat as a powerful sword master.
Angela Mao Ying (born 1950)
Angela Mao Ying studied Chinese Opera and hapkido from a very young age in Taiwan. She was signed to Golden Harvest studios by director Huang Feng and got her nickname, “Lady Whirlwind,” from her role in his eponymous film (1971). Like Cheng Pei-Pei, she did some gender-bending swordplay films (King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan), but for me her most powerful roles were ones where she demonstrated her open-hand fighting skills with precision, power and ferocity in films such as Lady Whirlwind, Hapkido (1972) and When Taekwondo Strikes
(1973). Incidentally, all the films I’ve mentioned were choreographed by Sammo Hung Kam-Bo**. Both she and Sammo Hung appeared in Enter the Dragon (1973), the film that brought Chinese action cinema, Bruce Lee and Angela Mao to a global audience with her short chase and fighting sequence. After burning up the martial arts screen in the 1970s, Mao married and retired in 1980. She has done some film work since then but nothing like her massive output for Golden Harvest—six films in 1973 alone. According to Subway Cinema, she now owns two restaurants and a construction company in New York.
Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng / Michelle
Khan (born 1962)
Michelle Yeoh studied ballet at London’s Royal Academy of Dance until an injury prevented her from proceeding further, and she turned to drama. But apparently a back injury doesn’t mean you can’t be a martial arts star. Unlike other action stars, Yeoh is a former Miss Malaysia and had the title Dato’ conferred on her by the Sultan of her home state of Peraka in Malaysia. And unlike some action stars with a background in ballet, she is also capable of conveying convincing physical force. Yeoh is frequently my favorite performer in any movie she’s in. In fact, my two favorite fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are hers with Zhang Ziyi—the rooftop chase and the training room confrontation. While one is almost ethereal and the other is extremely grounded, she is amazing in her commitment and relentlessness.
Yeoh began making contemporary kung fu films in the 1980s: Yes, Madam (1985) with Cynthia Rothrock; The Royal Warriors (1986) with Hiroyuki Sanada; and The Magnificent Warriors (1987). In 1988, she retired at the insistence of her then-husband, millionaire producer Dickson Poon. But Yeoh returned to make some of her best action films after their divorce in 1992: Yuen Woo-Ping’s Wing Chun, appropriately enough about the founder of Wing Chun and featuring a cameo from Cheng Pei-Pei; Tai Chi Master (1993) with Jet Li; Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio (1993) with Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung; and Police Story 3—Supercop (1992) with Jackie Chan. She performs my favorite stunt in Supercop 3—jumping a motorcycle onto a moving train despite a bad back. I love this stunt because it’s more a human and relatable than many of Jackie Chan’s. It’s that humanity that Yeoh brings to her roles and to her fighting that makes her so appealing—and probably why she’s been cast as Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s The Lady. She’s been a Bond girl and worked on a lot of non-action films in the last 15 years or so, but I’m looking forward to seeing her kick ass in Reign of Assassins (2010).
*Swordplay films that frequently have fantasy elements, with swordsmen and women, often called “knights” in subtitles, mastering the power of light step similar to flight, closing off chi flows or chi blasts. I wrote about Ma Wing Shing’s Hero, here.
**An amazing number of Cheng Pei-Pei, Angela Mao-Ying and Michelle Yeoh’s films were choreographed by Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. In fact, Mao presented Sammo Hung with his NYAFF lifetime achievement award in 2010.
Carol Borden has probably watched more wuxia, kung fu and heroic bloodshed films than anyone should. She started in her sister’s dorm room, continued at Toronto’s old Golden Classics Cinema and followed Colin Geddes’ 10 year long Kung Fu Fridays wherever it did roam.