Monday, July 15, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Yes, Madam!’

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I have been desperately searching for a copy of Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam! for almost a decade. It’s known as the Hong Kong action film which ignited the so-called “Girls with Guns” sub-genre. The wait was worth it. 

Like many Hong Kong movies of that time, there’s more than one title and it’s hard to peg down what the movie actually goes by. The film itself even opens up with a title card with, no joke, three titles: In the Line of Duty IIThe Super Cops, and at the bottom Yes Madam. No comma and no exclamation point. 

Heck, Michelle Yeoh isn’t even Michelle Yeoh yet; she’s billed as Michelle Khan. Yeoh is Inspector Ng, a hard-ass detective who is renowned for being one of the best detectives on the Hong Kong police force. As Yes, Madam! opens we see her arrest a flasher for indecent exposure and single-handedly stop an armored car robbery. 

Few images rival that of Yeoh, her slicked-back hair, with a few strands dangling over her face, sweat dripping from the tips, and smirking as she holds a bad guy in her sights with a handgun delivering a speech clearly inspired by Dirty Harry. Yeoh is an international movie star, but over here in the states, it always feels as if most of us don’t realize just how much of her fame sparked from her early action movies. Watching Yes, Madam! it becomes evident why she rocketed to fame. 

Yeoh has an effortless swagger to her presence matched by her 80’s styled short-cropped hair-do. She’s drop-dead gorgeous, yes, duh. But she’s also smart, funny, and seems to exude more machismo than most of her male counterparts. 

This is partially due to Yuen’s hyperactive outsized aesthetic. Yuen directed DOA: Dead or Alive which was a live-action cartoon. Watching Yes, Madam! it becomes clear that it’s just Yuen’s style. Though Hong Kong movies tend to be boisterous by nature, a result of the industry’s low budget, corner-cutting practices. 

Oftentimes, much like with Italian westerns, Hong Kong action filmmakers would film without sound, preferring to dub in the dialogue and sound effects, later after filming was done. This accounts for why the audio tracks always seem so loud and over the top. The soundtrack is then usually pumped with a pulsating electronica score to underline the action and match the hyperactive editing. 

All of this is a roundabout way of saying Yes, Madam! is a loud, fast-paced, action movie that just so happens to star two women. In other words, it’s amazing and I loved every second of it. The plot alone is like something out of a Hitchcock film. 

Though the script by James Clouse and Barry Wong does it best to be unconcerned with the story, which in any other film would be obsessed with it. It involves a bit of microfilm that proves that a local drug kingpin Henry Tin (James Tien) forged a lucrative government contract in a convoluted plot that isn’t that important. What is important is that Aspirin (Mang Hoi) and Strepsil (John Shum) accidentally steal the microfilm from the hotel room of a recently murdered accountant working for the UK government. The accountant was killed by Willie (Dick Shei) a hired killer for Tin. 

But wait there’s more! Yeoh’s Ng arrives at the hotel room to meet her old friend, the murdered accountant, only to find his body. Willie saw Aspirin steal the microfilm and Ng saw Aspirin leave the room of the murdered man. Aspirin and Strepsil both go to their friend’s apartment, a known forger, Panadol (Tsui Hark), who uses the stolen passport for another client, not realizing the microfilm is on the back of the picture of the murdered accountant he’s just removed.  

None of this ultimately matters because Yuen just uses all of this Dickensian plotting as a way to maneuver his characters into scenes where they can slap, yell, or fight with each other. A lesser movie, or perhaps, even a better one would have focused on the plot but in so doing we wouldn’t have Yes, Madam! and thus it wouldn’t be worth it. 

Ng is forced to work with a UK operative Inspector Carrie Morris (Cynthia Rothrock). Together, the two kick, punch and break as many bones as possible to find the microfilm and arrest Tin. If I have a gripe is that Yes, Madam! spends far too much time on Aspirin, Strepsil, and Panadol taking away time we could be spending with Ng and Carrie. Granted Yuen seems to be doing his best to make sure we have just enough time with each.

Not to mention though the plot may be convoluted, Yuen does a tremendous job of laying it all out in a relatively short amount of time. Yuen has a remarkable eye for scene detail as he and his stunt coordinators treat the action as both something that can be thrilling and hilarious. One fight scene between Panadol and Willie involves a sliding gate door and Panadol’s ability to always be on the right side of it.  

Yuen’s cinematographer Bill Wong seems to be, at times, channeling the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He sets up his scenes and action payoffs with a clean and distinct eye. More than most American action movies, Hong Kong action films seem to understand how to frame setup and payoff, while still cutting the film within an inch of its life. The energy is kinetic while always being clean and geographically comprehensible. 

Indeed, Shum, Hoi, and Hark are here to fulfill the Samo Hung or Jackie Chan role. The schlub who can fight but does so without looking cool. The three are the type of criminals that are never feared but always a nuisance. They are smart enough to get out of hot water but almost always end up turning up the heat on themselves before they can get clear of the boiling pot. 

Yuen balances the comedic trio out with Yeoh and Rothrock. Interestingly, Rothrock’s Carrie was originally supposed to be a male Bruce Lee type. 

Yes, Madam! is the debut of both Yeoh and Rothrock. Rothrock is the reason I had even stumbled upon this film’s existence in the first place. Cynthia Rothrock is one of the few women martial artists in American film. Yet, even though she made a slew of popular films in Hong Kong, she remains largely a cult figure.

Rothrock’s first scene involves her being taken hostage by a criminal being chased by Yeoh’s character. Considering no one knew either one, I can only imagine what it must have been like to see Rothrock’s Carrie go from hostage to attacker in a blink of an eye. She’s got a white-hot charisma that withstands even Yeoh’s own.

She has a way of smirking that is at once knowing and disarming. A bona fide star she has a way of commanding our attention merely by leaning. It helps that Yuen and Wong shoot both she and Yeoh not as something to ogle but as if they were the action stars, with respect and awe.

Yeoh’s outfits are a side character all their own. They are in a word,  spectacular. Though, one site mentioned how Yeoh dressed liked a member of the Go-Gos as if it was a bad thing. It is not. 

At one point she’s walking down the stairs in blue jeans and a dark green 80s Panama shirt with the collar popped and she is somehow cooler than the entire last decade of action star wannabes. Rothrock holds her own and compliments Yeoh’s cocky brashness with an American sized bravado and the two have a bromance of sorts rarely allowed for action heroines. 

Yes, Madam! is a movie where one of the henchmen is called Mad Dog (Chung Fat). He has big bushy dark eyebrows and an almost comically fake mustache. He’s a walking cartoon, everyone is, which makes Yeoh and Rothrock come off like larger than life heroines. It’s as if the celluloid itself is struggling to contain them from leaping off the screen. 

I couldn’t help but smile at the brutal honesty of Yes, Madam! It portrays the Hong Kong police force, not as some shining beacon of truth and justice so much as a cesspool of bullies, incompetents, and self-interested bureaucrats. The only thing that separates the criminals from the police is that the criminals are honest about their avarice and lowlife pursuits.   

Of course, Ng and Carrie are the exceptions. Except they’re not, really. They’re smarter and more virtuous in their pursuit of seeing the bad guy punished than most of their fellow officers. But they are also cavalier about beating up suspects and even joke about which ones are even worth beating.  

Either way, Yuen doesn’t even try to pretend there’s anything noble about the police. Only that the bad guy is bad and needs to be stopped because that’s how you get to your third act. The third act contains the fight between Ng, Carrie, and all of the bad guy’s henchmen. Wong’s camera and Yuen’s sensibilities combine to make it one of the best choreographed and joyous fight scenes ever committed to film.  

A gorgeous dance of shattered glass, bone-crunching kicks, and teeth loosening punches. Yeoh and Rothrock, of course, do their own stunts, allowing for a more visceral feel to each throw and dodge. Yuen doesn’t score the scene, instead, he allows for the breaking glass, typical screams and wails, and the thuds of bodies hitting the floor act as the soundtrack. The scene is a symphony of action that has quite frankly so few equals it’s a wonder it’s not more well known. 

The ending of the film however is abrupt and anti-climactic to the point of being comical. Suffice to say I sat there, open-mouthed, unable to believe that the movie was not only over, but that was how they decided to end it.

Nevertheless, hilariously bad ending aside, Yes, Madam! is a high caliber action movie. I’m mad at myself for taking so long to see this gem. At the same time, it makes me one to see more of Yeoh’s and Rothrocks Hong Kong films more than ever.  

Image courtesy of BCI Eclipse/Miramax /Tai Seng Entertainment

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