Chinese Ms .45
Revenge is a dish best served… twice?
Brorsson, Kenneth, and John Charles. “Taiwan Noir 4: Girl With A Gun & Exposed To Danger.” Review. Audio blog post. Podcast on Fire Network. N.p., 10 Oct. 2012. Web.
Li, Daoming. Historical Dictionary of Taiwan Cinema. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013. Print.
Taiwan Black Movies. Shih Kuang Creative, 2005. Film.
The 1980s. An overcrowded, uncaring metropolis. A vicious assault on an innocent, mute seamstress. And her subsequent brutal revenge through the barrel of a .45 caliber pistol.
It sounds like the plot of Abel Ferrara’s “Ms .45.” But this copycat is made in Taiwan.
We’re taking aim at a deadly case of Deja View.
“Ms .45” is perhaps the essential example of the rape-revenge film, a subgenre that came into its own in the 1970s. A varying mixture of sexual violence, gender politics, and exploitation, these films have garnered a great deal of critical attention, positive and negative, ever since. Riding on the genre’s popularity, 1981’s “Ms .45” just happened to coincide with the beginning of a similar film trend overseas. The timing was perfect, and the entire plot of the film was transplanted to new soil.
In “Girl with a Gun,” Pi-Ho, a mute dressmaker living in Hong Kong, is the tragic victim of a brutal double rape. Broken by her experience and surrounded by a sea of scummy and potentially violent men, she forges herself into a vigilante. A sort of lady Charles Bronson, she stalks the streets at night gunning down any man she even suspects may try to take advantage of her.
By 1982 a new movie genre had emerged in Taiwan: the euphemistically-labeled “social realist” film. Taiwan’s 1979’s true crime thriller “Never Too Late to Repent” set off a wave of copycats with lurid stories ripped from the headlines. And producers quickly discovered that audiences were responding more to occasional glimpses of a woman’s breast than to the social or political content.
They adjusted accordingly. Their bread and butter became female avenger movies, with tough yet sexy women enacting savage justice against the sleazeball men who violated them. Abel Ferrara’s “Ms .45,” then, was a kindred spirit, even if it wasn’t an international Hollywood blockbuster.
Indeed, “Girl with a Gun” painstakingly recreates “Ms .45,” sometimes shot-for-shot. But director Yao-chi Chen couldn’t simply Xerox the film with different actors. He was to a certain extent hamstrung by Taiwan’s rigorous and often arbitrary censorship standards. Some changes were still necessary. The result is a curiously whitewashed version of the story.
Tampering is most evident in the gory scenes. We see dismemberment and severed body parts only as a negative image, preserving the plot while obscuring the bloodshed. It’s such a distinct change from the original that it seems to be the director’s creative solution to censorship. Other filmmakers whose work was flagged by the censors resorted to the much simpler method of yanking out the offending frames, resulting in jarring jump-cuts.
The film even adds new material in an effort to pass the censors. We’re presented with original bookends to the story through which we learn that following her killing spree Pi-Ho has been committed to a mental hospital. We see newspaper headlines proclaiming the rise in mental illness in Hong Kong. Her doctors discuss her case as one of social injustice. It’s a framing device that cleverly presents the story — at least at first blush — as a cautionary tale.
Other new scenes follow the police’s attempts to solve Pi-Ho’s murders. They add almost nothing to the story, but may have been included to give the film a moral compass not present in the original. This subplot does however provide a novel use of “Ms .45’s” iconic nun costume when a police woman dons the habit for a stakeout.
Even the location may have been tied into making “Girl with a Gun” more acceptable. Setting films in Hong Kong permitted Taiwanese filmmakers to show prohibitive levels of crime by justifying, “it couldn’t happen here, but anything could happen over there.” As an added bonus, shifting the action to a cosmopolitan stage made these films more attractive to foreign markets.
On its own merits “Girl with a Gun” is a solid thriller. Helmed by the veteran director Yao-chi Chen, it has no difficulty staying tense and moody for its entire runtime. But even more importantly, it answers a very interesting question: How do you remake a film when you’re not even really allowed to tell that story? Very carefully.
“Girl with a Gun” was distributed internationally by IFD Films and Arts in Hong Kong. They also produced a second version that spliced in new scenes featuring Caucasian actors and an inexplicable satanic cult. This was ironically sold back to the West as “American Commando 5: Fury in Red.”
As you can imagine, it was a film of a lesser caliber.
Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.