Warrior Women considers the significance of Chinese female action stars in martial arts films produced across a range of national and transnational contexts. Lisa Funnell examines the impact of the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule on the representation of Chinese identities—Hong Kong Chinese, mainland Chinese, Chinese American, Chinese Canadian—in action films produced domestically in Hong Kong and, increasingly, in cooperation with mainland China and Hollywood. Hong Kong cinema has offered space for the development of transnational Chinese screen identities that challenge the racial stereotypes historically associated with the Asian female body in the West. The ethnic/national differentiation of transnational Chinese female stars—such as Pei Pei Cheng, Charlene Choi, Gong Li, Lucy Liu, Shu Qi, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi—is considered part of the ongoing negotiation of social, cultural, and geopolitical identities in the Chinese-speaking world.
Funnell, Lisa. “Fighting for a Hong Kong/Chinese Female Identity: Michelle Yeoh, Body Performance, and Globalized Action Cinema.” Asian Popular Culture in Transition. Eds. Lorna Fitzsimmons and John Lent. London: Routledge, 2012. 171-185.
This chapter explores the development of Michelle Yeoh’s star persona in the global film market. In the early 1990s, Yeoh rose to East Asian superstardom by demonstrating “corporeal authenticity” in Hong Kong action-comedies and kung fu revival films. She enjoyed significant international exposure with roles in Tomorrow Never Dies (Spottiswoode 1997) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee 2000) before crossing over into Hollywood. With starring roles in Sunshine (Boyle 2007), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Cohen 2008), and Babylon A.D. (Kassovitz 2008), Yeoh has come to embody a particular impression of Hong Kong identity that centers on her characterization as a transnational mediator facilitating connections between “the East” and “the West.” Cast in the role of maternal hero, Yeoh appears to subvert the politics of representation in Hollywood which have historically “feminized” and fetishized the Asian female body.
While Hollywood action women of the 1980s and 1990s were understood purely in relation to white male heroic models governing the genre, female heroes emerging in the 2000s were stylistically modelled after the warrior women of “girls with guns,” a popular cycle of the Hong Kong gunplay film. Working in Hollywood, Hong Kong choreographers Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Cheung-Yan helped transcribe and assimilate the body performances of Hong Kong warrior women into two distinct generic versions suited to Hollywood models: the parodic Angels featured Charlie’s Angels (2000, 2003) and the Trinity warrior introduced in The Matrix (1999, 2003, 2003). As a form of asiaphilia, Hollywood’s transnational appropriation of Hong Kong action takes place on the surface level through the deterritorialization of images. Although inspired by “girls with guns,” Hollywood action women are distinctly American and relate American/Western ideals of gender, race and heroism.