Saturday, February 18, 2012

Female Authority

I'm not actually sure how I should write about a movie like Yes, Madam (1985, directed by Corey Yuen). I mean, on a very basic level, it's a bad film. It has a terrible plot, unfunny comedy, and mostly awful performances. It was designed as a starring vehicle for American martial arts b-film star Cynthia Rothrock, but it winds up being completely stolen by her co-star, Michelle Yeoh, who was a superstar in the making. And, man, is the cinematography flat. But, holy crap, when this film wants to kick ass, it kicks SERIOUS ass. The fight scenes in this movie belie the mundane scenes that connect them. This is the kind of movie where you walk away from it with your jaw hanging open, unsure if you actually saw what you just saw. Mind you, there are much better movies from the period that have the same effect, but it's a brute force approach that works even at the most basic of levels. This is not a film that cares about the formalities of film, as it were. ALL it cares about is bodies and fists in motion. And broken glass. Lots and lots of broken glass.

The movie opens on an action sequence, in which Michelle Yeoh's Inspector Ng of the Hong Kong police foils an armored car robbery. This is a taste of things to come. It's violent, but it's not violent in the way that the later HK gun films are violent. It's a little cartoony, actually. The main plot of the movie, though, is about the fallout when the Triad boss, Tin, is betrayed by his accountant. He hands evidence of forged contracts to an agent of the HK police, who happens to be Inspector Ng's mentor. Unfortunately, it never makes it into the hands of the cops. It's intercepted by a pair of bumbling criminals who have no idea of what they have. They hand it over to their buddy, a forger, who makes stolen passports. One of those passports leads the cops back to our trio of small timers. It also leads the minions of Mr. Tin, the Triad Boss, to them. Also in the mix is British cop on loan, Inspector Carrie Morris (Rothrock), who teams with Inspector Ng to find their mentor's killers. They play good cop bad cop. The whole thing climaxes with a sustained fight sequence at Mr. Tin's palatial residence.

Some of the elements of this film are frankly inexplicable. How does Inspector Morris know flawless Cantonese? Why are our trio of idiot small-timers given pharmaceutical names? What the hell is up with this guy's mustache?

It's best not to think about these things, because if one approaches this as a "good" movie, you are going to be sorely disappointed. There is no subtext, no real melodrama or passionate motivation. There's not really much in the way of style. This is a blank-faced movie in which keeping things in the frame counts as good composition. Where things are in relationship to each other does not matter, except when things are positioned to clarify the geography of the fight sequences. This, alone, is where the movie excels.

This is very much in the mold of the movies Jackie Chan was making at the time, in which fight sequences involve insane stunts performed for real, often by the leads rather than stuntmen, and in which objects found in the movie's environs become both weaponized and geography for bodies in motion. This is particularly fond of glass stunts, as if the filmmakers were interested in one-upping Chan at his own game (Chan was enamored of glass stunts, an urge that reached a kind of apotheosis in the same year's Police Story). The stunts in this movie share the visceral impact of Chan's stunts: as you watch them, they make you wince. You wonder how in the world some of the falls in this movie were performed without seriously injuring the stuntmen. Of course, these stunts often DID injure the stunt men (and the lead actors, too). Hong Kong during this period, it should be noted, was a kind of frontier milieu for filmmakers where niceties like insurance coverage and special effects were a luxury. For instance, this HAD to hurt:

Also cringeworthy: the costumes. The fashions in this movie scream 1985 and they don't flatter either Ms. Rothrock or Ms. Yeoh. But bad as their jumpers are, the costumes the men wear are worse. Mr. Tin's see-through shirt near the end of this film is one of the ghastliest garments I've ever seen in a movie. The costuming mutes the star power of the leads to the point where any charisma Cynthia Rothrock might have had is completely obliterated, while Michelle Yeoh's has to work double time. But even the costumes don't disguise how completely badass these women are in a fight. This film is gender-blind when it comes to kung-fu badass-ness, though that's a characteristic of HK films generally.

As I say, this isn't a particularly good movie even by the standards of its time, but there are categories of film where a lot of critical standards tend to be suspended. I mean, an audience for Yes, Madam isn't there for anything other than the fight scenes, and by golly, this movie delivers on those in spades.

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