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My introduction to Hong Kong movies was, without a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen to me as a direct result of my writing about film. The year was 1989, and I was writing for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco. I’d like to say that I was “working” for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco, but the truth is that I was actually working as a clerical temp downtown, and that I was, at best, just making a meager dent in my nightly bar tab by writing a couple of film or album reviews a month for the lordly sum of a nickel a word.
Anyway, one day my editor tells me that he’s pegged me as the right guy to cover a certain film festival that’s coming up at one of the city’s small repertory cinemas — a film festival dedicated to this crazy popular cinema that’s been coming out of Hong Kong in recent years. Though I was intrigued, I have to admit that my exposure to Asian cinema at that time was limited to the output of Japan and the Bruce Lee movies I’d seen as a kid. I really didn’t know what to expect. Still, what little I had heard about these films included the fact that they were extremely fast paced and filled with all kinds of crazy stunts, which, then as now, was more than enough for me. I accepted the assignment, and was in turn handed a stack of VHS tapes that had been provided by the festival organizer.
I hadn’t actually planned to watch all of those tapes in one sitting. In fact, upon arriving home, popping the first of the tapes into the VCR, and witnessing its dire picture quality, I despaired at being able to get through even one of them. Those of you who were fans of Hong Kong films during that era know exactly what I’m talking about: The Tai Seng logo, the washed out, dupey images, and just enough of the English subtitles poking up at the bottom of the screen to taunt you with their presence while at the same time remaining completely illegible.
Still, this proved to be less of an impediment to my enjoyment than I anticipated, and I was soon popping in one tape after another, devouring them greedily like a fat kid with a box of bon bons. As a result, my introduction to Hong Kong films was less of a gentle easing in than it was a process of total immersion, like learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end. In that one afternoon and evening I watched Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and the first Police Story, as well as a couple others whose titles escape me at the moment. Then, on the following day, I skipped work to go to an early morning press screening that featured back-to-back showings of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II.
As you might imagine, to say that my mind was blown would be an epic understatement. This was a pivotal event in my life as a film fan, one that would change the way that I watched movies forever. But to understand just how blown it was, you really have to understand how different these movies were from what I, like a lot of other Americans, was used to at the time. It seems silly, thinking of it now, but previous to that time I had dedicated a lot of word count to decrying what I saw as Hollywood’s then increasing reliance on action spectacle, singling out now fairly conventional films like Lethal Weapon II and The Abyss for reeling out fast paced series of big “events” at the expense of those things that thoughtful and sensitive folks such as myself were supposed to place a higher premium on, like plot and characterization.
What I had yet to realize, though, is that it wasn’t that those Hollywood action films were going too far, but that they weren’t going far enough. With Hong Kong movies, I experienced for the first time the joys of pure cinema, of movies that you experienced viscerally as a blur of motion, speed and undiluted style. This is not to say that I had previously been a stranger to the thrills of genre and exploitation cinema, mind you. Thanks to the variety of theaters available to us, my friends and I came of age as film geeks on a steady diet of equal parts art- and grind-house cinema, and back in the day were just as likely to be found at a matinee showing of Death Race 2000 or Don’t Go In The House at the St. Francis as we were a Bunuel retrospective at the Castro.
It’s just that, in these Hong Kong films, I saw consistently demonstrated something that, in my long experience of watching American genre films, I had only very seldom seen: and that was a solid commitment to actually delivering. Though about as mercenary as could be, these movies paradoxically displayed a desire to entertain that seemed completely untainted by cynicism, refreshingly free of the air quotes that modern Hollywood tends to put around anything as corny as the idea of actually trying to inspire wonder in their audience, as well as of the short-cutting, bait-and-switch tactics of the exploitation game. With movies like Eastern Condors or Police Story, your mind was blown because their makers saw it as their duty to insure that your mind was blown, no matter how limited they were by their means.
Of course, who wouldn’t be blown away by their first encounter with Jackie Chan in his prime? Or by the Better Tomorrow films, whose on-screen body count was at the time greater than anything I’d seen before — to the point of being exponentially so — yet also exuded visual poetry, along with an awful lot of not-so-subtly gay undertones? Or the, at the time, very discordant seeming collisions of ruthless violence, wacky slapstick, and overweening sentimentality found in most of these films? And then there was Zu, my initial reaction to which I have been striving to recreate throughout all of my subsequent years of trolling through world pop cinema. I quite honestly had never seen anything like it. So taken with it was I that I excitedly subjected the girl I was dating at the time to an impromptu screening, which she effectively shut down after twenty minutes with an indignant cry of “I can’t believe you thought I would like this!” (We didn’t stay together too long after that.)
So, needless to say, there were a lot more of those warbly Tai Seng videos in my future, as I spent much of the next few months trying to make up for all the time I’d spent on Earth not knowing that these movies existed. Then, in 1990, I moved to Los Angeles, and during the period of adjustment to a new town, a new job, and a new relationship, I started to lose sight of some of my old interests, including, for a time, my pursuit of crazy Hong Kong movies. This dark period, I’m sad to say, went on for far too long, finally coming to an end in the mid 90s, when an old friend, who thankfully hadn’t realized how lame I’d become, gifted me with a copy of the book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head.
It didn’t take long for that book to rekindle my passion, and I was soon down at my local video store –- which, like many non-chain video stores by that time, had a lovingly curated section dedicated exclusively to Hong Kong movies — trying to catch up on what I’d missed. With the Sex and Zen book as my guide, I chose as my first two rentals Johnny To’s The Heroic Trio and the film that I am eventually going to get around to reviewing here, Naked Killer. Both films have gone on to count among my very favorites — not just in terms of Hong Kong films, but films, period. And while watching them for the first time, along with being blown away anew, I was struck by the fact that Hong Kong films had changed while I was gone. For starters, everything was blue! And, as Naked Killer clearly evidenced, there was lots of sex now!
Of course, one of the biggest changes in Hong Kong cinema during my several year period of inattention was the transformation undergone by the country’s “Category III” rating, which went from simply being part of the ratings code to becoming a distinct genre all its own. Essentially the Hong Kong equivalent of the U.S.’s NC17, Cat III was notable for being the one tier on the HK ratings system that was actually enforceable by law; underage audience members who flaunted it could be subjected to heavy fines. Though the rating had been around for a while, it was not until the late 80s, with the success of films like the explicit war atrocity expose Men Behind The Sun, that producers recognized a substantial potential audience for exactly the kind of taboos that the rating was designed to prohibit. Thus came forward a wave of films that courted the Cat III rating with depictions of almost every kind of depravity imaginable, as well as, of course, copious amounts of those age old friends of the exploitation filmmaker, nudity and simulated sex. Rape, cannibalism, sexual mutilation and graphic child murder were not uncommon in the Cat III films. And if the film happened to be directed, written, or produced by Wong Jing, it likely added to those disturbing elements a jarring dose of lowbrow slapstick comedy.
I want to say that Wong Jing is a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema, but the truth is that there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the fact that his films are generally awful. Or, I should say, a consensus among those who do not include the many, many, many filmgoers who made Jing a very wealthy man as a result of his not underestimating their appetite for trash. Jing was one of the most prolific and successful commercial filmmakers in Hong Kong, thanks to a factory-style production technique, a shrewd ability to identify and shamelessly copy popular trends, and a willingness to stoop as low as necessary to provide his audience with what he deemed their desired (very generous) level of sex, violence and vulgarity. This last quality, unsurprisingly, made him a pretty heavy presence in the Cat III scene. And while I have not exactly sought Jing’s work out, I have to say that, in my experience, his name in the credits is not necessarily an impediment to a very enjoyable viewing experience. For instance, he acted as a producer on The Seventh Curse, which, alongside The Eternal Evil of Asia, is one of the most crazy and flat-out fun examples of Cat III supernatural nonsense out there. He also both produced and wrote the Clarence Ford directed thriller Naked Killer, which, as I’ve already said, is one of my favorite movies.
Now I should say here that Naked Killer definitely exists on the tamer end of the Cat III spectrum. In terms of sex and violence, its content doesn’t go far beyond what you’d see in the kind of direct to cable erotic thrillers that Cinemax was showing at the time. But while, in the case of those thrillers, the most you could hope for, in the best of circumstances, was that they would actually deliver those promised elements, Naked Killer sets itself apart by being so much more than even the most unrealistic thrill seeker could hope to expect. This means that, along with our very generous apportionment of skin and gore, we also get a raft of bizarre characters, a seemingly inexhaustible series of outlandish situations, and one jaw-dropping plot twist after another, all thrown at us at the reckless, head-spinning pace that we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong at the top of its game. And to put the bow on the package, the whole is at once coolly stylized to within an inch of its eroticism-oozing life and as slick as a stretch of rain covered blacktop.
Naked Killer demonstrates its good will toward its audience by making good on its title within scant minutes of its opening credits. And by that I mean that there is a killer, and that she is indeed, by all appearances, naked. This automatically makes Naked Killer better than approximately 80% of all other non-porn movies with the word “naked” in the title. After an opening shot of a mysterious woman hurrying down a rain slicked street bathed in atmospheric blue light, we see an armed man making his way through a darkened apartment and surprising a woman in the shower. “What are you doing in my apartment?”, he asks, effectively making our expectations do a quick somersault. Well, it turns out she’s there to kill him, which she does by handily disarming him, then hobbling him with his own workout equipment before crushing his skull and sealing the deal with a well placed bullet to the groin.
We later learn that this woman is Princess (Carrie Ng), a professional assassin who, along with her partner and lesbian lover Baby (Madoka Sugawara), is responsible for a string of castration murders that have the Hong Kong police baffled. Participating in the investigation is improbably fashion-forward young police detective Tinam, played by former model Simon Yam. And, because this is a Wong Jing film, Tinam has a partner named Shithead (or “Dickhead”, as he’s referred to in certain, more dainty translations of the film) who we will later see mistakenly eat the severed penis of one of Princess’s victims thinking that it’s a sausage, as well as verbally abusing a Filipino maid with all kinds of sexually inappropriate questions. Comedy!
This being a Wong Jing film, poor Tinam is also not without a few peculiarities of his own. It seems that, ever since a recent shooting incident in which he mistakenly killed his policeman brother, he is unable to handle a gun without becoming physically ill and vomiting. He also can’t get it up. In order to allay his blues, his superior officer suggests that he go get a haircut.
At the salon, Tinam witnesses a beautiful and provocatively dressed young woman named Kitty flirting with, and being aggressively hit upon by, one of the hairdressers. Things heat up when the hairdresser’s pregnant girlfriend shows up demanding to know why he dumped her. Kitty at first eggs the guy on in his contemptuous treatment of the woman, but then reveals that she is in fact the woman’s friend, and that she was merely setting him up in order to demonstrate to her friend what a scumbag he was. Then she takes the hairdresser’s cutting shears and stabs him repeatedly in the groin with them.
Kitty is played by the actress Chingmy Yau, here saying goodbye forever to the nice girl roles that she had played previously and embarking on her career as one of HK cinema’s biggest sex symbols of the 90s. Yau was the girlfriend of the married Wong Jing at the time, and the producer had — and would continue to — cast her in a number of his films, including, in the wake of Naked Killer‘s success, quite a few Cat III titles. Intimations of the casting couch aside, it’s easy to see why this was. Yau is a star with enormous sex appeal, and, in Naked Killer the camera just can’t get enough of her. Cinematographer William Yim takes great care to insure that no opportunity is missed to milk the beautiful star’s every pose and gesture for all of its fetishistic potential, whether she be zipping herself in or out of some picturesquely restricting pleather or spandex garment, or suggestively wielding an automatic weapon.
Interestingly, despite her status as a star of erotic films, you will never see Yau fully nude in any of her pictures — though the lengths gone to strategically place mussed sheets, picturesquely out of place strands of hair and resplendently splayed limbs to accomplish this render her “not nude” in only the most technical sense. This is a product of the general desire to avoid the stigma of nudity on the part of those actresses who appeared in Cat III films but also wanted to maintain their foothold in mainstream fare. Such career-protecting reticence is also the reason for the absurd lengths to which the actress Amy Yip went in almost every one of her films to conceal her nipples while at the same time showing us virtually all of the goods. In the case of Naked Killer, Japanese pinku actress Madoka Sugawara had to be imported in order to deliver the necessary quota of skin, as all of the other lead actresses keep their wardrobes within teasing yet strictly PG-13 parameters.
After witnessing Kitty’s de-balling of the hairdresser, Tinam pursues her out of the salon, only to be overcome with nausea when she grabs his gun from its holster and points it at him. Apparently fascinated by this strange and pathetic creature, Kitty uses her shrewd skills at manipulation to convince Tinam to leave the scene without arresting her, but then uses the excuse of his left-behind pager (ah, the 90s) to contact him later. With some dogged persistence on Kitty’s part, a cautious, teasing courtship between the two begins, one which soon show signs of developing into a full-blown case of amour fou. Before this can happen, however, Kitty comes home one day to find that her father, a humble food cart operator, has been killed by his much younger wife’s lover, a Triad type by the name of Bee. Kitty responds to this by showing up at Bee’s offices with a sub-machine gun and killing absolutely everyone in sight –- receptionists, secretaries, file clerks, everyone –- before finally doing in the man himself. With some of Bee’s goons in pursuit, she then takes as a hostage an older woman who, it appears, just happened to be visiting the office at the time, and makes her way to an adjacent high-rise parking garage.
Once in the garage, however, it is quickly revealed that Kitty’s hostage is much more than she initially seemed. As the goons close in, this woman suddenly whips off her dowdy business attire to reveal a skintight cat suit, then assumes one of those cat-like, battle ready ninja poses that lets you know that the shit is on in no uncertain terms. What follows is an absolutely spectacular set piece in which quick cutting, masterful stunt work, and lots of blood packs combine to present us with the vision of two female badasses making hash out of an army of hapless stuntmen. 70 seconds later, when it’s all ended with an explosion and the two women using a fire hose to rappel down the face of the parking structure, one can only catch one’s breath and immediately reach for the replay button. Truly, what’s most amazing about the sequence is that, despite it’s skittering pace, chaotic staging and lightning fast edits, the viewer is never left confused as to what exactly is happening or whom is doing what to whom. Michael Bay take note.
Kitty’s new friend, it turns out, is a sort of hitwoman mother superior by the name of Sister Cindy (Taiwanese singer Kelly Yao, aka Wai Yiu), and, when Kitty next awakens, she finds herself in Cindy’s house, which is basically a multicolored comic book funhouse well suited to being a villain’s lair in an old episode of Batman. She also finds that her fingertips have been removed. Cindy tells her that she has decided to take her under her wing and train her as an assassin, and given that the alternative is for Cindy to either kill Kitty or turn her in to the police, Kitty reluctantly agrees. And so the training begins.
Like any hitwoman worth her salt, Cindy has a violently psychotic pedophile chained up in her basement, and Kitty’s first lesson involves her being locked in with him with no choice but to kill him in order to get the key, which Cindy has planted on his person. Once this is out of the way, much of the other lessons involve Cindy drumming into Kitty’s head the idea that her most formidable weapons are her body and feminine wiles, all the while groping and fondling her suggestively. Finally, school is out and it’s time for Kitty’s first assignment, which involves icing a Yakuza at one of those classic 1990s erotic thriller nightclubs where there are half naked people in masks on the dance floor, orgies going on in the bathroom, and men quite literally snorting coke off the backs of whores. While Kitty’s mission is completed successfully, it has the unfortunate consequence of the Yakuza hiring a rival pair of female assassins in order to get payback against her and Cindy –- and these turn out to be none other than Princess and Baby. Princess, we learn, is a former pupil of Cindy’s, one whom Cindy has warned Kitty to be wary of, as, unlike the two of them, who only kill people who “deserve” it, Princess and Baby would kill their own mothers –- or mentors –- for the right price.
Along with being something of a classic among Cat III films, Naked Killer is also a key entry in the whole “Girls With Guns” sub-genre that flooded Hong Kong’s screens during the late 80s and early 90s. And, truly, it’s hard to imagine a film that makes more explicit the already none-too-subtle “chicks with dicks” subtext of those particular movies. (Though, in saying that it’s hard to imagine, I’m not suggesting that, in the varied and perverse world of Cat III and GWG cinema, another such film might not exist.) The film’s world of male characters is made up either of violent, sexually predatory curs who deserve nothing less than the castration meted out to them by the female leads, or ineffectual neurotics like poor Tinam, who appears to have some difficulty with getting his “gun” to work properly in the first place. Really, in the end, it’s only Naked Killer‘s chicks who have the dicks. And while the film’s depiction of lesbianism is — let’s not kid ourselves –- clearly intended to titillate, it ultimately ends up looking less “naughty” than it does to be the only sane alternative in the world the film presents. In this sense, Naked Killer reminds me a lot of the Japanese films in the Pinky Violence genre, as, like those films, it comes to its male viewers with the self loathing already built in, reflecting them back to themselves as an unseemly parade of slavering potential rapists and impotent boy-men. I suppose all the better to be squished under Chingmy Yau’s imposing thigh high boots.
And, of course, first in line to be squished is Tinam, whose investigation of the castration murders ultimately leads him to Sister Cindy’s doorstep. However, by this time, Kitty has assumed a new identity, and, upon seeing Tinam, pretends to have no idea who he is. At this point, Naked Killer briefly feints toward being a sort of Hong Kong new wave take on Vertigo, but Tinam and Kitty’s mutual attraction soon proves too strong to allow this situation to stand. We are treated to a montage of each masturbating languorously in his and her separate corners of Hong Kong, cluing us in that the mounting pressure will soon place them in bed together where we all now want them. When this does happen, I imagine that few will be surprised to learn that Tinam’s former erectile difficulties are now firmly consigned to history. In fact, so heated is this coupling that Princess, spying on the two through her rifle’s telescopic site, finds herself instantly in the throes of sexual obsession with Kitty, and, at the height of her arousal, discharges her weapon skyward in frustration.
Clarence Ford has said that his primary inspiration in making Naked Killer was Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen’s 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, while Wong Jing had wanted a Hong Kong version of the recent American hit Basic Instinct. Interestingly, the finished product does, to some extent, come across as a combination of Chor’s more refined and elegant approach to eroticism and Paul Verhoeven’s coarser one. Though I think that, in the end, Chor Yuen won out. Ford was uncomfortable with filming sex scenes, as well as with requiring nudity of his actresses, and so kept both to a minimum (certainly by Cat III standards, at least). He compensated for this by conveying sensuality through lushness of atmosphere and luxuriousness of texture, along with a voyeur’s obsessive focus on the physical beauty of his actors. In other words, by an engagement with the truly erotic. Dated 1990s fashions and trip hop music notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone can deny that Ford’s is a movie that’s oozing with a potent sexuality — one of the type that only gains intensity by it’s proximity to mayhem.
And mayhem there indeed is, with Sister Cindy taking it upon herself to kill everyone who can establish a connection between Kitty’s new identity and her former life, including Tinam’s boss. Tinam himself only escapes as a result of Kitty’s constant interventions. Meanwhile, Princess combines her stalking of Sister Cindy with an increasingly fevered erotic pursuit of Kitty, inspiring not a small amount of ire in the heart of the lethal Baby. It probably goes without saying, given all that has lead up to it, that the end will come in an epic conflagration fraught with grand tragic gestures and operatic bloodletting. Who would expect anything less?
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss a film like Naked Killer. But, to me, it’s only the subpar exploitation films that give sex and violence a bad name, while the ones like Naked Killer put sex and violence back on the pedestal where they belong. Rather than the nihilistic sleaze-fest that one might typically expect from the Cat III genre, Naked Killer is a film that rages with vitality, and offers about as good an example as I can think of of cinema’s unique ability to show us a vision of our waking world merged with that of dreams. And by “dreams” I don’t mean the kid stuff that Hollywood usually sells, but the sweaty adult variety, teeming with submerged guilt and forbidden desires. It’s an aestheticized orgy of sex, death, lust and murder that, when it’s all over, somehow leaves you feeling like the world is a pretty damn wonderful place. And for that I can only say this: Thanks once again, Hong Kong, for delivering.