“Don’t you realize by now that no one man could be dangerous to us?” – Dr. Tsu (Nancy Kwan), Wonder Women
“I didn’t ask for it to happen. I just did something about it.” – Christine Holloway (Nancy Kwan), Walking the Edge
Exploitation films and women have not always had the greatest of relationships. Many of them have a largess of sexual violence, epic mistreatment, and horrendous tortures that go beyond the imagination of any sane individual. That said many of the men in the same films don’t fare too well either. They are rarely depicted as stable or reliable so any “rules of human normalcy” are wickedly askew within the genre and perhaps would be better to be thrown out the window. It is hard to watch many of these films, however, without noticing that women do end up getting the short end of the stick sometimes. Sometimes.
This month is Thanksgiving. And we can give thanks to the New Beverly Cinema for highlighting some interesting women who have worked in the exploitation genre. The films being screened this month not only feature significant actresses but also explore the concept of what a nuanced performance in an exploitation film might look like. Not only are these women kickass broads, but also their anarchic presence in a genre that is male dominated gives them a nuclear glow- glorious, hot and deadly to the touch. Total devastation. Exploitation films are fun. Exploitation films with female leads are really fun!
Kim Morgan’s piece on Jackie Brown sets the tone for the month, as the film plays on the 4th and the 25th. She handles Pam Grier as a figure of power and as the character of Jackie Brown completely. In Morgan’s words, the reader can easily locate a strong desire to visit (or revisit) not only Tarantino’s excellent work but also Grier’s oeuvre, as it clearly is a point of reference for Jackie Brown and for Grier herself – as a woman and as an actress.
That’s not the end of the Jackie Brown references, however. Robert Forster, who plays Max Cherry in Jackie Brown, also stars in Walking the Edge (Norbert Meisel, 1985) the second of two films playing in the Nancy Kwan-spolitation double bill on November 15th. Walking the Edge is a wonderful partner film to Jackie Brown as Jason Walk (Robert Forster) certainly reads as an early iteration of Max Cherry. Jackie Brown and Christine Holloway (Nancy Kwan) would have made an interesting pairing but clearly are birds (chicks?) of a feather. Holloway, like Brown, is forced into a corner where she decides that revenge is her only option, come hell or high water. Hell seems to come first, which is where the film’s magnificently seedy Joe Spinell exists in his masterful glory alongside some of the most personality-laden Los Angeles hookers, great car chases and bitterly nail-biting torture sequences!
The locations should look awfully familiar to those who spend a lot of time around the New Beverly. Of note: La Brea Blvd. has likely never been as dangerous as it was in this film (look out for a cameo by the Regent Showcase Theater on N. La Brea) and Larchmont Village? Wow. That place was teeming with crime! If the Hancock Park Ladies Club only knew…
Walking the Edge is also tender and complex. It examines a woman’s limits and how much she can take until she hits the breaking point and never underestimates the fact that yes, a woman can get really pissed off. Jason Walk is almost the polar opposite. Wrong place, wrong time guy who gets caught up in Christine’s hurricane. His idea of dinner is a glass of wine and McDonald’s. But it makes him happy. And he believes in three hugs a day. When the two are drawn together it is under the greater umbrella of “crime thriller” or “exploitation film” but the forces that are at work within the narrative are far greater and Nancy Kwan and Forster’s performances show this, even if the screen is dripping with sleaze for much of the film.
The ultimate feminist superhero film was made in 1973 and starred Nancy Kwan as Dr. Tsu, the “mad scientist” who deals in the kidnapping and selling of high-caliber male body parts, such as those of sports figures. Dr. Tsu and her team of expert gunwomen/martial artists defend her private island in Manila clad in super hip outfits while grindhouse actor supreme, Sid Haig, plays Dr. Tsu’s advisor and “body parts-client wrangler.” If this all sounds labyrinthine and slightly insane… it is. With a dynamic soundtrack, to boot!
Nancy Kwan’s character in Wonder Women is narratively coded as insane. Yet she does not act that way. In fact, her demeanor is grounded and she behaves in a cool and collected manner, coming off as scientifically organized, even when displaying some “botched” experiments. Her procedures (which include a rather unorthodox sex scene that must be seen to be believed) combine a bizarre kind of eugenics with male body evaluation and economic distribution. Male interlopers like Insurance Investigator Mike Haber (Ross Hagen) sent to Manila to investigate the disappearance of a highly valuable sports player are meddlesome, especially since it is clear that his intent is questionable due to his…libido.
The rules of the exploitation genre state that Nancy Kwan’s Dr. Tsu character must be the villainess and her band of beautiful women “partners in crime.” But the label of “evil” is a misnomer for this team. It is not that simple. These women are flipping that script in Wonder Women, which is what makes this film so thoroughly enjoyable!
Men have historically made a habit of evaluating women based upon their physical attributes, sexualizing them, breaking them down to a sequence of parts – legs, breasts, hips – rather than seeing them as a whole. Dr. Tsu and her Wonder Women have simply make a business of doing what men do to women, just in reality. This film is exploiting the idea of exploitation. Dr. Tsu and her badass bitches are shamelessly using these men for their best physical qualities or body parts and have built an economy and an entire island off of it. Sid Haig’s Gregorious character seems to have gotten in while the getting was good, knows his place, and certainly sees where his bread is buttered.
Nancy Kwan’s oeuvre is varied and dynamic. She can play anything from romantic or dramatic leads to comediennes. Her television work is legendary and her role in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (Rob Cohen, 1993) was informed by her own deep relationship with Bruce Lee. But this double feature really platforms Kwan’s ability to play strong independent women who can stand on their own and exist on their own terms. Her performance in these films is stunning and proactive, enunciating the best parts of “Women In Exploitation Cinema” and why it is critical to not blow off the genre entirely as a movement that worked against vibrant and critically impressive female film characters and women in film.
There’s a lot to see this month at the New Beverly. But put this one on the “must see” list.