by Nanthinee Shree
Reframe is a salon series by the Asian Film Archive that constructs critical frameworks and examines topics surrounding cinema and the moving image through film screenings, panel discussions and presentations. The Fatal & Fallen edition of this series consists of films curated by Jade Barget and Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee of XING, and dives deep into the tropes of the deadly, fallen, and delinquent woman pictured in East Asian exploitation films. However, I must warn potential viewers that this programme will push you to become a misandrist. The films portray the exploitation of women in various forms – mainly through sex and labour. I felt myself seething with rage as I witnessed the way women were treated in the films. I must add that I felt empowered too. As someone who grew up watching Tamil action films, the only 80s and 90s films I was exposed to were those starring screen heroes Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, in which they almost always took down villains single-handedly. Even today, I rarely see action films that have women beating down bad guys. So, when I saw what the women in Iron Angels (1987) and The Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1983) could do, my mind was blown.
Till date, we see the women in movies like Shang Chi & the Legend of the ten Rings (2021), forbidden from practicing martial arts solely because of their gender. It makes you wonder how much has changed over the last 30-40 years with respect to the portrayal of women and the jurisdiction they have over their bodies in action films.
I had many questions when I was going through this programme. Who watched these films? What made them so popular? Most importantly, why was I squirming in my seat as I watched some of them? A week after my rendezvous with the films, I was lucky enough to participate in a closed workshop discussion with the curators of this programme, as well as students and alumni from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who were likely asking themselves the same questions. Putting aside my dwindling hope for women’s portrayal in action films, I had the opportunity to unpack my questions and discover new schools of thought that made it make sense.
Unpacking the excess
Linda Williams’ essay, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess (1991) was the focus of the conversation in our first workshop. Many participants mentioned that there were aspects of these films that they found “too much” or “gross”. What unified us to claim that Kōji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels (1972) had excessive sex scenes? For Williams, the excess is present in films that do not follow linear, progressive narratives driven by the desire of a single protagonist (3). In genres such as Melodrama, Horror, and Pornography, the deviation from the usual Hollywood narrative is quite common. Women’s bodies in these genres are essential to evoke the emotions that the makers of such films want from their audience. For instance, when Myeong-ja is raped by her boss’s husband as she tries to keep her promise to her boss in Woman of Fire (1971), I clenched my fist, and my face did a weird contortion. It is this bodily reaction that the directors of Ecstasy of the Angels and Woman of Fire want their audiences to have to such scenes in their films. There are no metaphorical allusions to rape here. It is in plain sight for viewers to experience without any sort of censorship or consent. Filmmakers do not only present excess through their screenplays. A rather beguiling method employed by Wakamatsu in Ecstasy of the Angels to portray excess was through the manipulation of the visual grammar of the film. The lack of funds to shoot the whole film in colour resulted in the intermittent coloured sequences. The fact that Wakamatsu chose to use the first coloured sequence for a sex scene barely minutes into a film spotlights the pornography within the film.
Before this workshop, I was convinced that most of these films were made solely to satisfy the male gaze. The women are often depicted as objects of desire that men want to own. The men exert their power and desire to control women through rape or sexual assault. The male audience gains scopophilic pleasure through the male characters that attain the women on screen. How else would I justify the abhorrent rape scenes and sexual exploitation of women in these films? What really startled me was discovering the inception of our fantasies. In addition to the scopophilic pleasures and the Freudian justification for why men identify with such scenarios, it is crucial for us to note that fantasies, as mentioned by Laplanche & Pontalis in their article, “Fantasy and the origins of sexuality”, are located at the juncture of an irrecoverable real event that had taken place sometime in the past and a totally imaginary event that never took place (11). These are real thoughts that the filmmakers have or have had. The shocking nature of the audience’s relatability to these scenes illustrates its semblance to their own personal fantasies.
While the participants were busy unpacking the concept of the Male Gaze (Mulvey) to explain the popularity of this film genre, we came across a point put forth by Williams that intrigued me. The popularity of these films cannot be fuelled solely by men watching them; they were enjoyed by women too. The intense suffering experienced by the women on screen could have been enjoyed by female audiences for masochistic reasons. Alternatively, the transitions of the powerless female characters who are victims in the first half of the films (Myeong-ja in Woman of Fire) to their active empowerment in the later half could be another reason why women would enjoy watching these films. I must admit that this is what kept me watching the films in the programme. To see Myeong-ja terrorise the man who had raped her felt somewhat cathartic. This is a sentiment that many of the participants in the workshop shared too.
Excess in Popular Culture
In our second workshop session, we had the opportunity to read contemporary films through the lens of Williams’ perspectives on the role of women’s bodies in genre films. Fellow participants shared an eclectic range of present-day content that proved women’s bodies are still very much a tool used by filmmakers to evoke genre-specific responses from the audience. There were some key takeaways from this discussion that made me revisit my take on the films I watched in this programme.
Firstly, we investigated the portrayal of women in an animation film – Fantasy by DyE, and some fascinating arguments surfaced. Some participants felt that filmmakers find it acceptable to incorporate the sexploitation of women in animation films, as it does not exploit actual human actors. The concept of such fantasies originates from the intersection of a distant reality and an imagined event. Projecting such exploitative thoughts on animated female characters inevitably allows filmmakers to give female characters in their films little regard. Take, for instance, the portrayal of women and girls in Anime which has a long, problematic history. Their hyper-sexualisation has inadvertently been an avenue for filmmakers and audiences to project sexual fantasies on animated characters that seem to be exclusive from characters portrayed by actual women.
When examining the portrayal of the lead in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (2016), a participant posited that the female victim-to-active empowerment arc may be a post-feminist masquerade. Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) is an unassuming housewife in a loveless marriage, who has a sexual awakening after an extra-marital affair. It is only after this that she decides to fight back and take ownership of her life. However, the fact that sex, in this case in an extramarital affair, was the turning point, portrays her as a “whore” – the bad girl who is sexually active. Katherine is finally independent, but when we consider the caveat of her “whore” title, it seems crystal clear that we still refer to her through a misogynistic lens.
Alfred Hitchcock’s proclamation of, “torture the woman!” as his response to a question on his creative approach to horror films, echoing playwright Sardou’s belief (Clover 206), reveals a toxic culture among filmmakers of the horror genre. When I was searching for clips in horror films that used women’s bodies to evoke fear, the first film that came to mind was that of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). In the film, Shelley DuVall’s character, Wendy, is tortured emotionally and physically to portray the horror inflicted by her husband. We see her character screaming and crying for help to evoke a sense of threat in the viewers (bodily experience of fear). However, what concerned me is how the making of this film extended this torture of women beyond the filmed narrative. When Williams posited that the “terror of the female victim shares the spectacle along with the monster”, the actress too is a victim in this situation. DuVall mentioned that she “ended up with a hoarse throat, raw wounded hands, and severe dehydration” during the course of filming. Was it necessary for Kubrick to torture his actress for The Shining to achieve the cult status it has today?
While on one hand, we have characters like Wendy who are tortured by men to evoke fear, we have characters like Catherine in Stephen Shin’s Black Cat (1988) who make men shudder. Expectedly, many of the women in the workshop seemed to enjoy watching these femme fatales on a killing spree. What about excessive killings by women is acceptable to viewers? I could only justify why I enjoyed watching the lead in Black Cat going on a murder rampage based on being an avid fan of the BBC thriller series Killing Eve (2018 – present). However, Black Cat neither transports us to picturesque European cities nor does it have a leading lady that kills in couture. Yet, it is just as satisfying as watching Jodie Comer stylishly slit the throats of powerful men. In both these pieces of work, the women are extremely violent. Catherine in Black Cat may not dress to kill, but she sure kills just as ruthlessly as Villanelle.
Watching the films in this programme and listening to the views of fellow participants and the curators, proved that the bodies of women are still used as tools to evoke bodily reactions amongst audiences today. Whether it is through the disguise of a post-feminist masquerade, or through the perspectives of psychopaths and emotionally disturbed women, we enjoy watching victimised women become avengers.
During the workshop, one of the participants brought up a sad reality that made me piece together the puzzle. From the men in power having an opinion on our bodies, to losing to our male counterparts at work when it comes to dollars and cents, and even the palpable fear of walking home alone at night (even in a country like Singapore!) – women don’t have it great. That is why we need extravagant and extreme actions like a female serial killer using her sexuality to lure men, and then going on a rampage (killing mostly men), to feel like we have a win. A win for womankind. Since reality is already so depressing, it couldn’t possibly get any worse right? It is disheartening to acknowledge that we enjoy watching psychopaths kill for a living because we need to compensate for the daily losses we experience as women. Till we live in a world where women accumulate more wins than losses in their daily lives, here’s to all the Catherines, Villanelles and Myeong-jas. These women not only destroy bad guys but also break the mould for the “perfect virginal woman” in films.
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 187–228, https://doi.org/10.2307/2928507.
Laplanche, Jean, and J B Pontalis. “Fantasy and the origins of sexuality.” The International journal of psycho-analysis vol. 49,1, 1968, pp.1-18.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema”. Screen, vol 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18. Oxford University Press (OUP), https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 2–13, https://doi.org/10.2307/1212758.
About the Writer
Nanthinee Shree is a marketing executive in the broadcast industry. She was in a year-long research programme at Nanyang Technological University during her Undergraduate studies where she focused on the representation of single men in films. To cultivate her love for films, she was part of Perspectives Film Festival 2020 as the Festival Director and is currently in SGIFF’s Youth Critics & Jury Programme 2021. She looks forward to curating thoughtful reviews in the disciplines of media and feminist studies.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.