One of the fascinating things about words (aside from the power they can wield; I do believe they can be mightier than the proverbial sword) is their ability to be misunderstood. I’m not simply referring to the varying extents of people’s vocabularies and the confusion that can cause. I’m talking about the misinterpretation of words, and how people react to such misinterpretations. For example (and I am completely stealing this from local radio personality John Webster, so if he happens to be reading this [which is doubtful], thanks and sorry), if you say, “throw the cow over the fence some hay before you leave,” the syntax is funny, first because of the mental image it immediately conjures (throwing a cow over a fence, at least momentarily), and second because we know these words don’t go in this order, and we love to laugh (however lightly or cruelly) at the mistakes of others.
Another way misinterpretation can be a positive is in its ability to inspire. A great many writers mis-hear phrases, and it stimulates something in their brains that ignites an idea for an essay or story (I’m thinking specifically here about Harlan Ellison as the first author from whom I heard this [as the impetus for his story Jeffty is Five], but I also think it’s one of those innate skills/quirks of scribes, seasoned and neophytic). This leads into this week’s film, Tony Liu Jun-Guk and Chan Lau’s Angel Terminators 2 (aka Huo Zhong aka The Best of the Lady Kickboxer), which is one in an avalanche of Hong-Kong-produced films whose English subtitles are so literal they’ve become a trope in and of themselves. You get such gems as, “You shall be responsible if I suffer loss today,” “You come only now?” and “Hey, you’re nut.” This oddity doesn’t detract from the quality of the better-made Hong Kong films, but it does add a layer of fun to both accomplished and less polished efforts alike. Thankfully, this film falls in the former category.
After cops Great Aunt (Sibelle Hu, who wears sweat pants almost exclusively while on duty) and Bao (Jason Pai Piao) bust up a robbery, they head on over to the local prison. Bao’s daughter Bullet (Yukari Oshima, who also wears some tragically baggy pants throughout the film) is being released, but she wants nothing to do with her old man. Bullet’s best friend Chitty (Moon Lee, who we first see wearing a sweatsuit, notice a trend here?) and a gaggle of friends show up and take her into their care. But vile gangster Mad (Anthony Cho Cheuk-Nin) entangles himself in all of their lives, and the only way out is through blood.
One of the things this “girls with guns” film has at its heart is a theme of bonds between people (like a great many Hong Kong movies). Great Aunt and Bao are tight as partners. She is the loose cannon, while he is usually the voice of reason (though he can certainly handle himself in a fight). It’s a trait she admires in him, and she looks up to him both as an equal and (I got the impression) a surrogate daughter. Likewise, Chitty and Bullet are best friends from way back, and they look out for each other to the extent that Bullet will defy people she probably shouldn’t (and this points to a key aspect of her character, as well). Their friendship is primarily expressed physically in the fights in which the two girls seem to take great delight (with other people, not one another).
But for how alike they are in that respect, Bullet and Chitty are different in how they relate to their actual families. Bullet unrepentantly hates her father and displays her disdain openly (and considering her reason, you can’t really blame her). Bao tries to reach out to his daughter, but his apparent lack of emotion, his detachment from what family means, and his belief in duty over all, only helps keep the two at odds. Consequently, Bullet joined a gang in her youth and sought some form of acceptance in that lifestyle (this is never developed outside of a plot point, but it does make a certain sense for Oshima’s character). Conversely, Chitty’s Uncle Tiger (the late, great Lo Lieh) is a retired gangster, and Chitty does her best to make him believe that she is straitlaced (she changes into demure eyeglasses directly before seeing him). For how much she rebels, however, Chitty cares a great deal for Uncle Tiger. She has what Bullet doesn’t have (more precisely, what Bullet rejects) – a family – and so, she is a kind of substitute family for Bullet. As you may have guessed, these relationships become bonded by blood in a very actual sense, and it is in this way that the film resonates, as the best heroic bloodshed films (and action films in general) do.
These bonds and interrelationships carry over into ideas of individuality and conformity. Chitty rebels in her friendship with Bullet and their skirmishes together, but she plays the part of a nice young woman for her uncle. She wants to fit the mold she perceives as the norm, to please others over herself. Bullet is fiercely independent, though she has to rely on her friends for support. At one point, she tells Chitty, “If you don’t resist, others will beat you,” and this is the summation of her character from start to finish. This is not necessarily a philosophy she picked up in prison, although it would certainly aid in surviving on the inside. It’s a wall she has built up over time to protect herself from harm: hurt others before they can hurt you. By that same token, Bao is the model of conformity (and the film does make a point of emphasizing aspects of the British colonialism extant at the time of its production; so, there’s that). While Great Aunt does act out in the same sort of way that Bullet does, she is able to be reined in to some extent by Bao and the powers that be. Ultimately, it’s the two characters between the extremes (Chitty and Great Aunt) who will decide how they choose to live their lives for themselves and benefit from the lessons from both ends of this spectrum.
The fight choreography in Angel Terminators 2 is truly outstanding, and the participants (particularly the three main female characters) are a pure joy to watch (while I suspect there may have been some undercranking used to speed up the fights just a little, and if it wasn’t, color me even more impressed), and they are liberally sprinkled across the runtime. The filmmakers, in the Hong Kong tradition, use stylistic flourishes to emphasize the kinetic characteristics of their action scenes with Dutch angles, quick tracking shots, slow motion, low angle shots, and wide angle lenses all thrown into the mix rather smoothly. Also as is the norm in Hong Kong action films, the story brings up plot points that it forgets about and reintroduces them much later on, granting them more emotional weight than they probably should have for their lack of development. Ergo, its pace moves in fits and starts in spite of the frequency and velocity of its action beats. Despite its deceptive (some would say “sloppy,” and to be fair, I would probably prefer the term “ambitious”) structure, there is a ton to love about this film, and any fan of action films, foreign and domestic, should give it a whirl.
MVT: Yukari Oshima carries a lot of the film’s weight with a constant intensity that impressed me, her magnificent martial arts skills notwithstanding.
Make or Break: Coming as no surprise to anyone, the Make for me is a scene towards the end involving Bullet, some Molotov cocktails, and a very large knife. The first shot by itself was enough to engrain it in my head until the day I die.