Five… Asian action heroines to discover

By Sam Inglis 

With South Korean revenge actioner/Nikita knockoff The Villainess (with the excellent Kim Ok-vin showing her action credentials) recently released on Digital HD, I thought I’d use this week’s Five… to spin off and take a look at a handful of the many, many great action heroines that Asian cinema has given us over the years. Some are relatively unknown in the mainstream, others are huge stars. Some started working over 50 years ago, others are much newer to our screens, but they’ve all given us plenty of kickass action to enjoy.

Cheng Pei-pei

Cheng Pei-pei had female contemporaries in martial arts cinema, but at just 19 she secured her legacy with her first film in the genre: King Hu’s wuxia classic Come Drink With Me, plot wise it’s pretty standard issue stuff, but Cheng is a force of charisma to be reckoned with in the leading role, and both the choreography and Hu’s direction are stylish and impactful even 51 years later.

Cheng reprised her Come Drink With Me role in Golden Swallow which, strangely, is named for her character but relegates her to supporting character status. She still, however, steals the film through sheer presence. She continued in wuxia films (with standouts including Princess Iron Fan and The Lady Hermit) until the mid 70s, when she took an extended break. A notable role came in 1986 in Painted Faces, in which she played a character based on Chinese Opera school mistress Fan Fok Fa, in a film based on the school days of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (who played his own teacher). In later years Cheng has played mother roles in kung fu films, and had a great part (and a very good fight) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Cheng’s most notable recent work has been in a purely dramatic part in the British film Lilting, playing the mother of Ben Wishaw’s recently deceased boyfriend. This role allowed her to show a side that most martial arts movie fans probably hadn’t seen from her before and demonstrated again that her talents run to much more than fight scenes. She is kung fu cinema royalty, and her early films still hold up brilliantly.

Meiko Kaji

Most of this list deals with women who execute complicated martial arts choreography on screen, that’s not really true of Meiko Kaji, but still, I think she’s a legend of the genre based on just a few roles which required relatively simple action work of her.

Kaji wields swords with blistering speed in the likes of Blind Woman’s Curse and the two Lady Snowblood films, but her sharpest weapon was always her gaze. This was also the weapon she always carried with her, whether it was in girl gang movies like the Stray Cat Rock series (especially its standout entry, Sex Hunter) or as the silent and increasingly enigmatic Female Prisoner Scorpion in four films in that series.

Lady Snowblood, however, is the series that cements Kaji’s credentials as an action lead. It deals in impact rather than intricacy, but is no less impactful or memorable for that. Indeed it has become an often referenced text in action cinema, with Quentin Tarantino lifting from it wholesale for the fight between The Bride and O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Kaji remains a cult figure in the West, known almost exclusively for the films I’ve mentioned here, her actual filmography is much larger as is her cultural impact in Japan, but even if all she had left audiences were those few films and that stare, she’d probably still be on this list.

Michelle Yeoh

Like many of her contemporaries, Michelle Yeoh was not a trained martial artist when she began making action films in Hong Kong. She was, however, a trained dancer with an uncanny ability to mimic movement and, apparently, a fearless approach to fight and stunt sequences. It’s also worth noting that she’s probably the best actress on this list, with especially strong performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Ann Hui’s The Stunt Woman.

The list of Yeoh’s best action films and fight scenes is perhaps too long to fit here. There are the recognised classics like the dazzling multi-weapon fight between her and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, there are the cult classics like Magnificent Warriors, where she plays a character akin to a female Indiana Jones, using her whip in some incredible fights or Police Assassins and the way she holds her own next to trained martial artist Cynthia Rothrock and then there are oddities like Johnnie To and Ching Siu-Tung’s Heroic Trio films, which really have to be seen to be believed (and also feature the great Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung).

Outside of Crouching Tiger, Yeoh is probably best known for bringing her martial arts talents and a real grit to the Bond Girl role in Tomorrow Never Dies (I’m amazed it was Halle Berry’s Jinx that a spin off was discussed for, I’d watch a whole series of Wai Lin films) and for her role as Jackie Chan’s partner in Police Story 3: Supercop. Supercop isn’t a film that has been treated well in English language releases, but if you can find the uncut version, it’s incredible. Jackie is on record as saying that Yeoh’s fearlessness pushed him to do bigger and better stunts himself. Still, it’s Yeoh who steals the film, with an astounding stunt in which she jumps a motorcycle on to a moving train.

At 55 and with over 30 years of martial arts films behind her (she started with a cameo in Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars), Yeoh continues to make action films. I can’t wait for her next; an Ip Man spin off film about Cheung Tin-chi with Zhang Jin, Dave Bautista, Tony Jaa and Yuen Woo-ping behind the camera.

Yanin Vismitananda [Jeeja Yanin]

Ong Bak is a great film, make no mistake, but I never felt that Tony Jaa, for all his skill, was much of a presence on screen. It’s a pity that Yanin Vismitananda was given a new name that explicitly positioned her as a female Jaa, as right from the start I found her not just incredible in her own right, but overshadowing her more famous near namesake.

Chocolate, Vismitananda’s first film, is an odd mix of stuff. The depiction of her character Zen’s autism is, shall we say, lacking nuance and the melodrama of the plot is often hilarious but Vismitananda does a decent job with a relatively thin part and when her tiny frame unleashes ferocious power in the film’s many fight scenes it is jaw droppingly impressive. The premise is that Zen’s autism allows her to memorise and repeat martial arts moves she sees on screen, so we get a wide array of styles; a Bruce Lee inspired scene, a Jackie Chan style fight and, perhaps inevitably, a scene that draws on Ong Bak. However, the film may be at its best when all of these influences coalesce, in the end, into Zen’s own style. The last 20 minutes of this film are some of the greatest martial arts scenes ever filmed.

Raging Phoenix gave Vismitananda another star vehicle, perhaps not quite the equal of Chocolate, but it showed again that she’s an engaging presence and the streetdance inspired style of the choreography leads to some great fights. The more comedic Jukkalan, released overseas with the does what it says on the tin title of This Girl is Badass is the least of Vismitananda’s starring roles, but the scene in which she uses a bike to beat up a gang is as good as anything in Chocolate.

Since this film Vismitananda has had a child and turned up in some supporting roles. She’s in Hard Target 2 with Scott Adkins and will soon be seen in Triple Threat with, well, everybody worth mentioning in martial arts cinema. Still, I’d love to see the long rumoured Chocolate 2 happen.

Julie Estelle

Born in Indonesia, and of mixed French-Chinese-American descent, Julie Estelle had been in films since 2005, but it was in 2014 that people sat up and took notice. Estelle needed just one scene and precisely no words to land herself on this list. In The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ absurdly bloated sequel to his modern martial arts classic, Estelle appeared as the silent Hammergirl.  Estelle is definitely stealing at least a few moves from Meiko Kaji here; an aura of silent cool, backed with the ability and willingness to kill. For many, Estelle also steals the movie in one incredibly dynamic action scene on a subway train. I remember this scene being the talk of Frightfest, where it screened as a single piece and all but stole the festival. For me though it loses a little impact in the film, being intercut with another fight.

That’s why, if I’m honest, I may prefer Hammergirl’s other fight, as she again goes up against Iko Uwais’ Rama, this time with the equally descriptively named Baseball Bat Man. It’s shorter, but the scene is sustained.

Since then, Estelle has gone on to an impactful part (and more dialogue) opposite Iko Uwais in Headshot and she’ll next be seen, again with Uwais in Headshot director Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us. Estelle has the moves, the look and the presence, for now it seems she’s sticking to villains in her martial arts roles, I get the sense she just needs a great star vehicle to truly break out in her own right.

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