Girls Just Wanna Have Guns

Female action heroines are a long-standing staple of Hong Kong cinema. While 1990’s La Femme Nikita sparked in Hollywood what one critic called, "nihilistic mannequin chic," Asian audiences have been watching female assassins kick butt for four decades.

Inevitably, substandard Tinsel Town princesses like the dire remake of Charlie’s Angels hog global advertising space; and although Quentin Tarantino’s chop-socky homage Kill Bill may improve the quality deficit, he’s installed a white American, Uma Thurman, in the role usually occupied by an Asian ass-kicker.

It could be argued that Hong Kong has an established history of positive casting for women, but the ubiquity of the “Girls with Guns” sub-genre has drained the demand for worthy dramatic roles for Asian actresses.  When acclaimed leading lady Maggie Cheung was offered the lead in French art film Irma Vep, for example, she leapt at the opportunity to play a more complex character than usual. There are few opportunities for actresses who don’t want to fight or strip.

Meanwhile the crossover potential for attractive starlets, be they models, singers, or whatever, to move into film is magnified in Asia. And so it follows that Chinese ballerina-turned-model Zhang Ziyi crops up in Crouching Tiger, Kicking Dragon; and flesh baring model-cum-Cantopop singer Shu Qi made upwards of 45 films in a mere seven years of acting. In keeping with a climate that rewards pretty young things unabashed about a wardrobe full of wet t-shirts, comes the dreadful Naked Weapon. Ostensibly a rehash of the 1992 cult thriller Naked Killer, the movie plays out like a star vehicle for Maggie Q[uigley], an American-Vietnamese model and the latest Asian sexpot to command a silver screen presence.

The plot follows the evil travails of Madame M (Almen Wong Pui-Ha) as she snatches pre-pubescent girls, including Charlene (Q), who show aptitude in sports or combat, hordes them on a remote island and forcibly enlists them in her assassin masterclass. After six years of grueling Pygmalion-esque training, the girls compete in a caged fight to the death; the winner graduates to become the Madame’s premium prize-fighting assassin, to be released into high society like some postgraduate femme fatale.

With a screenplay penned by Wong Jing, who’s renowned for low-budget quick cash-in comedies, and directed by Ching Siu-Ting, noted for his resume of no-brainers, the material is pure b-movie exploitation flick. Film scholars consider the exploitation genre extinct, but Naked Weapon is rooted in its “Wayward Women” sub-genre and preserves some of the conventions: it’s constructed with negligible attention to quality and an eye on a quick profit; encumbered by stodgy melodrama; and promoted with a sensationalist campaign. And so it follows that the salaciously titled flick should flaunt prurient advertising (focusing on Maggie Q and co-star Anya, another model, in the buff save for camouflage body paint), and feature a ludicrous script. But whereas the true exploitation films were Low Budget High Thrills, here we get High Budget, Low Thrills.

And so the action proceeds with plenty of Baywatch-style slow-m
o footage of the girls jogging in skimpy vests and hot pants. Despite the movie’s attention-grabbing title there’s plenty of flesh but scant nudity, although red-blooded males everywhere should rejoice the cameras’ constant worship of Maggie Q's form. But even the guilty enjoyment factor is reduced when the script -- by the writer of Raped By An Angel -- oversteps from cheap titillation to misogyny, shoehorning in a gang rape sequence to justify the girls’ commitment to the praying mantis approach to sex, whereby the male is killed immediately after copulation.

Madame M preaches that “man is weakest when he’s happiest” (i.e. – post coitus), which seems immeasurably cruel, but would be more warranted as part of some attempt to subvert movie sexism by emasculating patriarchal dominance, particularly in Asia -- but that’s clearly not the case. In Naked Killer misogynist men were the victims; here, they’re anonymous contracts popped-off to order. Even the romantic subplot (between Charlene and Daniel Wu’s investigating cop) and the only amorous sex scene is affected by Wong Jing’s dysfunction: Charlene is horny because she’s been involuntarily injected with an aphrodisiac dart.

The combat action is a mixed bag. By default, the fight choreography demands investigation, coming from Ching Siu-Tung, who made swordplay look spellbindingly beautiful in Hero. His trademark creative style is diluted here by the cinematography’s unswerving emphasis on the unrealistic. There’s an abundance of suspended midair posing; nothing new there, but there’s an emerging wirework boundary between the poetic and parody. There are a couple of impressively frenetic sequences, but often the obvious use of body doubles denigrates the scenes’ continuity.

So what are we left with? Lesbian imagery disguised as “best friends caring”; a contrived reunion between the one-dimensional Charlene and her mom; and Daniel Wu is likeable only because he’s so unwittingly cheesy. Naked Weapon delivers an English soundtrack; some characters recorded in sync sound; others were overdubbed later. It makes little difference: the egregious dialogue is terrible regardless of who’s speaking. The illogical plot only serves to further befuddle with its random time-frame jumps and disregard for verisimilitude. (So Madame M trains 40 girls over six years, feeding, clothing and accommodating them, only to kill off all but three for the final qualifying stage?)

Whether the po-faced incompetence of Naked Weapon will prove a more worthwhile watch than the witless mugging offered by Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle remains to be seen. Both offer a certain camp gravitas in the so-bad-it’s-good stakes, and their tooled-up heroines appeal to post-pub males, queer moviegoers and girly groups alike. Hong Kong's branch of the “Girls with Guns” genre was far better served by Corey Yuen’s more accomplished and techno-savvy So Close.

Those seeking an all-girl shoot ‘em up with genuine hardcore kicks may be interested in the anarchic French arthouse shocker Baise Moi, which follows the sex-and-killing spree of two nihilistic female pornstars -- although British critic Phillip French memorably described it as “Thelma and Louise remade as a home movie by the Manson family”.

-- Published by, 2002


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