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The Inspector Wears Skirts
(Ba wong fa, 1988)

Wellson Chin Sing-Wai

Hong Kong

95 min, color, Cantonese (English subtitles)

Review © 2007 Branislav L. Slantchev

There are three, and only three, reasons to watch this film. First, it's got women toting guns so huge that one almost wishes they were toted by men so one could pontificate on the implications of the phallic symbolism. Second, it's both Sibelle Hu and Cynthia Rothrock, not to mention a stellar support cast with Ellen Chan, Regina Kent, and Kara Hui, among others. Third, it's the perfect medicine to anyone suddenly afflicted with 1980s nostalgia. What? You were not even born back then? Go away, I don't want to hear it! (And yes, I fully recognize that any nostalgia about the 1980s cannot possibly include fond memories of either fashion or hair styles. Or music.)

Peek-a-boo Ninjas If Cynthia were a man, I'd know how to interpret the size of the gun, but for a woman?

The opening is brief but so explosive that it sets an impossible standard that the rest of the film predictably fails to achieve. Sibelle and Cynthia get in the way of some ninja-actor-impersonating terrorists who apparently try to kill some visiting dignitary from Saudi Arabia. I take it they were from the campus committee organizing a protest against the subjection of women in that backward medieval sheikdom. My favorite sequence is with an assassin on a roof taking the safety cap off a grenade but getting shot by police on the ground. As he plummets toward the crowd, Sibelle and Cynthia somehow rope him in and then jump off holding their end of the rope. This pulls the guy back up toward a the pole acting as a fulcrum, and there he explodes in all special effects glory. It happens so quickly, you may have to watch it a couple of times just to appreciate it. I did.

Female Commandos: drill still boring but looks better in uniform Karaoke Law Enforcement on Roller-Skates!

After this impressive display of action style, the film bogs down in some ill-advised comedy that I suppose was funny if I could only make up my mind if it were intended as some sort of social (or gender) satire or just as something a puerile writer thought would be humorous. Sibelle basically gets to run a training camp for an all-female commando unit. This is because her superiors recognize that women have some advantages over men, so it's desirable to have them properly trained if they going to go on missions. Leaving aside the fact that apparently Sibelle and Cynthia were already doing missions, one may wonder just what this advantage might be. As Madame Wu (Sibelle) helpfully explains several times throughout the film, men are much stronger than women. Since I did not heard the argument that they are dumber (although the rest of the film goes a long way to proving just that), one really has to wonder what an all-female commando unit is going to accomplish.

There's lipstick on this glass and it ain't mine What can be more romantic than a free local call telephone love?

Beyond making the uniforms look good, that is. Well, the superiors want to train them to escort visiting sheiks from Saudi Arabia because those camel-riders can't bear to let a man touch any of their multiple wives. Or something. The logic was lost on me, and so it is on the men training at the same camp. They are the Flying Tigers and their drill sergeant Kan (Stanley Fung) is immediately taken with Madame Wu but being the 40-something balding and insecure man, ends up resorting to all sorts of stratagems to convey his feelings indirectly. Naturally, they all backfire in something that almost approached comedy. But the true content of the film is not this touching love story between two tough as nails drill instructors (well, at least one tough and the other being Stanley).

Does this look like a deadly commando to you? Gratuitous shot of Kara Hui toting a gun

The film is about two things. The grueling training sessions in which Madame Wu makes for a such an impressively histrionic drill sergeant that she could put even that guy from Full Metal Jacket to shame. Of course, we see some rivalry among the girls, some of them are taught important lessons that will doubtless make them better human beings, and so on. But mostly it's just an excuse to have a squad of pretty women march around the plaza, tote weapons, and run around with nary a purpose in sight. Second, to underscore the point that these women, while being deadly with guns and hands, remain quite feminine, the film shows them pining after men, reading (and falling for) embarrassingly bad love poetry, and generally having little more than sex on their minds. (This message not approved by NOW.)

Ok, girls, I will read the damn Dworkin essay, I swear The intrepid female commandos storming their own dorm

Lest one think the film is somehow demeaning to women, the director went to great lengths to show that the guys are essentially at the social development level of a 12-year old. When they don't ogle girls, they plot to gain their affections with some avoidance-avoidance tactics that only work if one is emotionally retarded. In this case, they are bullet-proof. Some of the guys get their comeuppance. In fact, they get a lot more than they deserve. Case in point is Peter (Michael Chow) who manages to use the same horrible lines on two girls. When one of them, Karen (Ann Bridgewater), shares this with the other, they quickly establish the identity of the villain and decide to punish him. The punishment involves ganging up on the guy, beating him to a pulp, and then even tricking him into grabbing a white-hot iron pipe. Yes, the permanent burn on his hand will forever remind him not to pen doggerel for police chicks. I, for one, found the punishment a bit excessive.

Sibelle Hu will make a credible drill sergeant A draw in the Battle of the Sexes

At any rate, the Flying Tigers taste the fruits of their own stupidity on a skating rink, and then generally settle down to trying to seduce the girls separately rather then en masse. Most of it works, too. At this point, the training is rudely interrupted by Madame Lo (Cynthia) who arrives to sneer at the girls' incompetence and show them how to handle big guns. This is all meant to demonstrate that the girls are capable of much more than what they had been delivering thus far. I guess it's also a comment on Madame Wu's training methods which are too quaint to elicit best performance. Madame Lo literally lights the fire behind them, thereby making the female commandos pretty good candidates for a half-marathon. It's all so unbelievably stupid, one tends to ignore it and just go with the flow.

I wish my gun was that much longer Raw recruits receive additional motivation for training

The flow leads us to the finale which somehow has to justify the other two-thirds of the film. In fact, it mostly does. Some terrorist organization decides to fund their activities by stealing some jewelry. The Flying Tigers and the girls' squad are assigned as security. Naturally, the professionals that they are, the men spend their time peeping under women's mini-skirts (I am not kidding, see screen cap for proof). The girls are, of course, put to good use as models, so most of them get to do the catwalk with terrible music but at least the torture is soon over. Mr Kan and Madame Wu get caught by the terrorists along with all Flying Tigers. Naturally, it's up to the remaining girls to save the day. The fighting sequence between the perennial villain Jeffrey Falcon and a combination of Ellen Chan, Kara Hui, and Cynthia, is a sight to behold. There are some excellent stunts too: I was especially fond of two girls taking Falcon on both sides and jumping toward a column, with the two of them bypassing it on each side and Falcon... well, not bypassing it.

Heart-throb hostage takers get blown to smithereens Legitimate police business

This last fight almost made me forget the karaoke musical number on the skating rink. (What? I did not mention it earlier? I guess I almost succeeded in blocking it! Darn, now I remember it again!) Yes, I am talking about that piece where a bunch of guys on roller-skates perform something that could have been a rock number if it weren't so horribly overwhelmed by the syntho so typical of Cantopop. I don't know about them, but I would have been embarrassed to film this. As it was, I was embarrassed to watch it. After seeing this, I honestly developed some serious doubts about the so-called male dominance in Chinese culture: a society that can unabashedly put a number like this in a film must have in mind qualities we do not normally consider stereotypically male. There were only two negative reactions to this: Ellen Chan was unhappy because Alex To seemed to prefer Kara Hui (which he was only doing to enhance his standing with Ellen), and Sandra Ng was unhappy because the only one who wanted to enhance his standing with her was Billy Lau, and he did it in the rather unconventional manner of slapping her nearly senseless.

Stanley Fung about to spill the beans Dastardly gweilo hiding behind Ellen Chan

The acting... what? Are you kidding me? Let's just say that Sibelle Hu gets to show up both in the usual tomboy outfit and then in full female regalia which finally explains why Stanley Fung was so hot on her. The other girls are mostly eye-candy although Kara Hui's character was more obnoxious than strictly necessary, and Regina Kent was way too flimsy as a commando to make us believe she could have been hand-picked for this unit. Cynthia, at least, was all there and doing what she's supposed to do: from opening a whole pantry of whoopass on Falcon to running around with guns so big they nearly unbalanced her. My only regret after watching this is that Sibelle was excluded from the final action scene completely. Let's hope they fix that in the sequel.

Why don't we do this without guns? Cynthia Rothrock shows 'em how it's done

The Universe DVD presents the film letterboxed at 1.85:1 on a region-free disc. I watched it with Cantonese dub (DD 5.1, like the Mandarin) and the optional English subtitles (readable and understandable despite all non-idiomatic expressions). The quality is pretty decent considering the age of the film and the general disrepute of Hong Kong film preservation methods. It's not HKL, but it's not a mainland bootleg either. The extras include brief talent files and trailers. This DVD is now out-of-print, so I am quite happy I picked it up way back when for $4.99 I just can't see anyone releasing again it anytime soon.

January 21, 2007