Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Lady on the Roof: KISS OF DEATH (1973)

As a female-revenge picture Ho Meng-Hua's movie for Shaw Bros. is closer in spirit to Burt Kennedy's Hannie Caulder than to contemporary pieces with similar subject matter like Act of Vengeance/Rape Squad. Like Raquel Welch's heroine in the western picture, Chen Ping needs to learn from an ambivalent master how to avenge herself, and her ability to do so always remains open to question. Chen plays Chu Ling, a textile factory worker cornered in the stairwell of an oppressive looking apartment block by a criminal gang of grotesques. They drag her to the roof to gang-rape her. Ho shoots the sequence with a blend of brutal objectivity in the location work, crass detail in the action and delirious abstraction as Chu Ling sinks into delirium and unconsciousness.

While dealing with rage issues -- she takes out her shame on some innocent textiles -- Chu Ling learns that one or more of the gang has effectively murdered her by infecting her with "Vietnam Rose," an especially virulent venereal disease. That makes it all the more imperative that she take revenge on the rapists. She takes a job as a bar girl in a sleazy district, hoping her enemies may come in at some point. It isn't really her kind of work but she has an indulgent employer. As Wong Ta, Lo Lieh sports a limp and a sword-cane, not to mention a compellingly noirish world-weary attitude, but with his kung fu skills he's a crippled master. Since getting a gun and shooting the rapists doesn't seem to be an option, Chu Ling begs Wong Ta to teach her kung fu. He's reluctant but increasingly sympathetic; in fact, he's falling for her, not realizing at first that she has but a short time to live. If the kung fu lessons aren't enough, head hostess Hung (Chen Ching) teaches her how to use razor-tipped playing cards as throwing weapons. They aren't lethal but they're pretty annoying and they'll buy you time in a fight.

As in Hannie CaulderKiss of Death emphasizes the inescapable limitations of the heroine in a nod to realism. While Chu Ling as a kung-fu avenger is a far less exceptional figure in Hong Kong cinema than a female gunfighter was in westerns, she hardly compares to the fantastical superwomen usually seen in martial-arts films. If outnumbered she's in big trouble until Wong Ta can bail her out so she can focus on her real targets. Initially she goes after them one by one, each kill a kind of set piece that also arguably makes Kiss of Death a reverse-giallo. In the most elaborate sequence she takes out a pimp -- he's even called "Pimp" -- who specializes in getting girls drunk and high, filming amateur porn without their knowledge, and blackmailing them into whoring for him. Like the others, he gets Chu Ling's specialty coup de grace -- a pair of scissors to the groin. In the most intense bit, she has it out with another rapist with a pickaxe in a graveyard.

An air of tragedy hangs over the seedy proceedings, since we know that Wong Ta's hopes of romancing and redeeming Chu Ling are in vain. Worse, Hung gets herself killed as collateral damage, having lent Chu Ling her deck of cards, when the surviving rapists invade their shared apartment. It's just more to avenge, for what it's worth, and I suppose it's to Ho's credit that he does little to romanticize revenge. Chu Ling's revenge is a punishing ordeal, and the film's blunt ending may leave you questioning whether there was a point to it all. It's definitely not your typical kung fu movie, and it's actually something more than that. It may still be unforgivably exploitative for some, but it's also uncompromising trash in perhaps the best possible sense of the term.

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