Poison Girls

This article was going to be in my English translation of Wong Jing’s tell-all, but there is a word-count rule as stipulated by literary agencies and print publishers. It was hardly a dilemma about what to excise, because I want to keep the emphasis on his directorial career. The article’s title is a translation of the Japanese title, which is preferable to the official English title – Naked Killer. The Chinese title (Red Lamb, Bare Sheep) has been mistranslated with having cake in it, but that’s because cake and lamb have similar spellings. The film would’ve been taken more seriously had the title been Sapphic Pain or Nubile Assassins. The film has often been described as nothing more than a mixture of Basic Instinct and Nikita, but it is mostly imbued with elements taken from other Chinese films and even a Japanese comic book that the director had adapted before directing Naked Killer two years later. The irony is that the comic book was considerably more erotic than both the adaptation and Naked Killer.

It was Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (a 1972 period film) that provided the guideline for Naked Killer. That was more to do with Chor influencing the director (Clarence Fok) than the writer and producer (Wong Jing). The irony being that Chor was the mentor for the latter when they worked at the Shaw Brothers film studio. A greater irony – Chor’s film inspired an American movie called The Vixens of Kung Fu (1975). The greatest irony is that Chor’s film only had Kung Fu because S.B. wanted to cash in on the trend instigated by Bruce Lee. Naked Killer has more in common with John Woo’s The Killer than Nikita, much like how Chor’s film provided more of a blueprint than Basic Instinct. The Japanese comic book that I was alluding to was Crying Freeman. The plot points that were followed by the remakers is as follows: a person falls in love with someone who then gets kidnapped by an assassin because of witnessing an assassination. The assassin trains the captive, but the lover is disappointed by the captive failing to remember their history.

What distinguishes Naked Killer is that it’s a combination of a French film and a Japanese cartoon – right down to the inclusion of the Yakuza (when usually a Triad would suffice). With the exception of love scenes, slow motion is not used as would normally be the case of a H.K. action movie following in the footsteps of Woo. The use of the accordion and Dutch camera angles impart a European flavour that’s different from H.K. action movies, which tend to be more American in flavour when they’re not distinctively Chinese. The recurring accordion melody is a recreation of the poignant guitar melody in Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung. Coincidentally, it is Jing’s favourite S.B. film. Thematically, the accordion motif is relevant in that both films are about someone who goes from being a laboring commoner to a gangster with an affinity for cigarette holders. What happens to the fashionable mentor and the disciple by the end are similar in both films. The meaningful motif of cigarette holders is reminiscent to what they meant in The Story of O (1975).

Before the making of Naked Killer, Clarence Fok (a.k.a. Ford) had returned to the H.K. Polytechnic (in September of 1990) after the franchise-cancelling box office of the Crying Freeman adaptation known as The Dragon from Russia. Revealingly, he decided to learn Japanese. He also learned how to speak English. On top of this, he studied I.T. and pottery (the latter was mastered by the titular character of Crying Freeman). During that year in academic exile, he had read books about Taiwanese politics and gangsters. Tsui Hark, Wong Kar-Wai (who Clarence had worked with as an assistant director at TVB) and Jing were surprised that he had quit film-making. The latter’s response to Clarence’s exit was: “What’s wrong with you? You’ve gone off to study?!”

After that year of the academic lifestyle, Clarence moved to Taiwan for three months. While he was living there, he was approached by an actor named Alan Tang. He had produced a face-losing flop titled Days of Being Wild and was looking for a way to gain face by attaching his name to a successful movie. He convinced Clarence to direct Gun and Rose. When it came out in June, Jing was convinced that he found someone to direct a unique take on the girls with guns genre. However, it was Clarence who provided the sexual femme fatale aspects. Clarence bluntly, if not curtly, recalls: “Jing told me that he wanted to do a female killer movie. I told him that Chingmy had to do some sex scenes or nobody would want to see it.”

Jing was smart enough to realize that it usually takes five months for a U.S. film to be released in H.K. cinemas, so he had gone to the U.S. to see Basic Instinct in March of 1992. He wanted to capitalize on the U.S. success by making Naked Killer. What could have been a rip-off is instead a loose remake. It puts Spider Woman (1995) and Evil Instinct (1996) to shame. Jing spoofed Basic Instinct in Fight Back to School III (1993) before Clifton Ko did in All’s Well, End’s Well, Too (1993). Not only is Jing’s spoof better but it also makes slight of the parody in Dangerous Duty (1994). The best Basic Instinct spoof from anywhere is Fight Back to School III (which also manages to find the time to lampoon Naked Killer). Had Michelle Yeoh (the first choice) accepted the lead role, Naked Killer would’ve been released in August (seeing as how Yeoh had just finished working on Police Story 3 in June). Basic Instinct was released in H.K. cinemas on August 27 and finished its run by October 20. The box office result was H.K.$ 29,200,227. By comparison, Naked Killer was unleashed upon audiences on December 3, finished by December 18 and earned H.K.$ 9,678,959.

However, Chingmy was the sixth choice for the lead role. The other choices were Anita Mui (who would later reject what ended up being Flora Montgomery’s role of Michelle Broadwin in Basic Instinct 2), Carina Lau, Joey Wong and Veronica Yip. Jing elaborates on the latter: “The rejection was troubling because she was the most erotic It girl. She was poised to take over from Amy Yip, who was overworked to the extent that there were rumours about herself wanting to retire. Because of acting in a 1994 film, it was assumed that she had been on hiatus. In reality, it was a one-off return. As for the other Yip, it’s only with the benefit of being in a future position that I realized that it was a narrow escape. In 1992, there were three movies which Veronica had starred in that had grossed 8 million dollars. 8 is a lucky number but only if the box office is 88 million. People ask me why I never cast Amy. It is because Queen of the Underworld grossed H.K.$ 7,327,503 in 1991. I wrote and produced it.”

In April of 1992, Chingmy was signed on to do the role but she had to undertake three months of martial arts training. If Michelle Yeoh agreed to be the lead, Basic Instinct would have looked like a pale imitation and not grossed that much money. Timing makes all the difference! This is why the production schedule was pushed back and rushed. A quarter of a year spent on martial arts training resulted in the release date being a third of a year after the H.K. release date of the American production. What Jing wasn’t slow on capitalizing was the would-be success of Sliver (another erotic thriller starring Sharon Stone). That movie was due for a U.S. release in May of 1993. He considered doing what he calls a “pre-emptive strike” where the H.K. and Japanese titles are opposite to what Sliver would be known as in those territories (i.e. his version would have been known as The Glass Tower in H.K. but Voyeur in Japan).

Instead, he was content with audiences seeing Naked Killer as being an influence on the bath masturbation scene. Of course, this is damning with faint praise. He examines the actress who won his heart as well as the role: “I was daily supervising her transformation. I had a strict rule that I use for other actresses – if you show your breasts, the journey to see more of your movies is relinquished by the destination of your current film. Showing cleavage is good because it is like a pit-stop. With Chingmy, Naked Killer grossed an extra million more than the average Veronica Yip movie because she was convincing as someone who makes the transition from an innocent woman to someone who is new to the world of high-end fashion, violence and lesbian eroticism.”

Jing muses over the director and the editing process: “We were both disappointed by the film for different reasons. Clarence felt that the movie would have been more successful if he had filmed all of his ideas. I feel that the movie was lopsided because the fans never get to see Kitty and Cindy have sex. The distributor wanted to quicken the pace by removing their homosexual relationship. As a result, I overcompensated by removing many of the heterosexual sex shots because I wanted the lesbianism to be more memorable. This wouldn’t have happened if Josephine Siao hadn’t dropped out, because her popularity would justify a longer running time. This is why John Woo and I can make our longest movies with Chow Yun-Fat.”

Jing ruminates on the movie’s success and what he could have done better: “I still feel that the movie would have been more successful if it was sexier. After watching Slave of the Sword in 1993, I felt like I should have replaced Carrie Ng with Joyce Ngai or Pauline Chan (who would have been 19 in 1992). Also, the movie would have been more successful had Josephine not dropped out faster than a high-school drop-out who has found out that she is too pregnant to study. It was like Maria Schneider having second thoughts about That Obscure Object of Desire and Caligula. For what it already is, Naked Killer was middle of the road. It wasn’t mainstream enough nor alternative enough. Of course, I’m strictly talking about the reception that it got in Hong Kong. In Taiwan, the movie had more momentum. Speaking of momentum, Naked Killer took 18 days to film. 24 hours non-stop. This is why it’s good to have assistant directors and stunt guys to step in so that the main director can sleep.”

It would’ve been better had Jing produced a BDSM take on the training scenes in old Kung Fu movies. Jing reveals why Naked Killer is more memorable than other erotic Category III movies: “Chingmy’s charisma is such that many other actresses started to strip in front of the camera, but no-one packaged the result as strongly nor duplicated our effectiveness. Clarence glorifies the female form like Woo does with violence. Veronica went on to do more soft porn movies but there was no fantastic fashion, pose panache or riveting restraint. It was purely stripping. The effect is akin to a woman who goes to bed on a summer night without any of the flair of one who strips. Even the poster was better, I hired a renowned female Playboy photographer – Huo Yiu-Liang. We also spent more money on the clothes. Sex has more impact if a woman is willing to shed costly clothes in a measured manner. Amy Yip had bigger breasts, but Chingmy had the better face and fashion, so it was more than even.”

One has to wonder if the avid anticipation for the movie was based on famous names having rejected it. For instance, Loletta Lee and Fennie Yuen (who is bisexual) were considered for another role – Baby (who would be played by a Japanese actress named Sugawara Madoka). The budget was U.S.$ 1 million yet Jing thought the director (a.k.a. Fok Yiu-Leung) shouldn’t have exceeded the proposed budget i.e. U.S.$ 484,531 (H.K.$ 3,759,937). Luckily, it grossed more than twice its cost in Taiwan and thrice its cost in other parts of Asia. Jing’s influence on Naked Killer is the same as Steven Spielberg’s influence on Poltergeist. Still, Naked Killer made Clarence become more of a legendary director. This is saying something, since he was already famous enough that his name was lampooned in a 1991 movie titled Temptation Summary II (i.e. there is a character named Fok Kin-Yiu). Back to Naked Killer, the car sex scene between the female killer and the policeman foreshadowed a vaguely similar scene between Willem Dafoe and Madonna in Body of Evidence.

Similarly, Chingmy’s image as well as her behaviour in Raped by an Angel (a 1993 Jing production) foreshadowed the visage that Demi Moore had adopted in both Disclosure and Striptease. Yau was officially a fashion icon, even if Hollywood casting calls failed to beckon. Naked Killer would’ve been taken more seriously by martial arts movie fans had Moon Lee Choi-Fung played Kitty (a righteous termagant), Kara Hui Ying-Hung (or even Yeung Ching-Ching) played Cindy (Kitty’s teacher-cum-lover), Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan played Princess (Cindy’s lover-cum-enemy) and Yukari Oshima (or even Michiko Nishiwaki – who has modelled for Playboy) played Baby (student-cum-lover of Princess). Regardless of what may have been missed opportunities, Naked Killer is the best erotic thriller to be made by a Chinese film company due to a combination of storytelling, action and production values. I’m surprised that Jing never made a movie with this title – A Touch of Sex & Zen. This would’ve been a parody of A Touch of Zen (not a Category 3 movie) and Sex & Zen.

It should’ve been made after the influential success of Naked Killer, which is notable for no sexual shots of genitalia like other erotic CAT III movies. Instead, Jing became the producer, writer and co-director for a movie which was retitled in the U.K. as Naked Killer 2. Unfair comparisons have been made between Naked Killer and what was originally titled Raped by an Angel (which out-grossed Dustin Hoffman’s Accidental Hero). Similarly, The Last Blood (1991) was retitled in the U.K. as Hard-Boiled 2 despite the fact that John’s movie was released a year later in H.K. In England, Hard-Boiled was released in 1993, whereas The Last Blood was released in 1994. The latter was wrongly criticized for lacking the spectacle of John’s most popular H.K. movie. Such criticisms were pointless because Sam Peckinpah was the only director whose shootouts could truly be comparable to the phenomenal quality of John’s gun fights.

Still, this didn’t soften the impact that Naked Killer had left in Europe. Jing had defended its reputation in H.K. for being a trashy film by the simple fact that it was perceived in Europe as a cultured film. He is not wrong. The film is the classiest erotic thriller. It is artsy enough for someone to imagine it being screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first Category III film to be given a theatrical screening in New York. Chingmy noted that the mid-nineties were the most exciting part of her film career because of European and American film buyers inviting her to go on publicity tours. Most memorably was 1996, when buyers from England had approached her to promote Naked Killer. She told the H.K. press: “The buyers there are the most interested in my erotic action films because those films attract audiences easier.”

In fact, Naked Killer was so popular in the West that an earlier film not made by Jing was released as Naked Assassins. This was The Pearl of Oriental (1991). From the early-to-mid nineties, the cult following of Naked Killer grew enough for there to be a 1996 Taiwanese cash-in titled Naked Angel (a.k.a. Nude Killer). It was made by both a first-time producer and first-time writer/director. The production manager had enough experience to guide them both. The star of Naked Angel, Vivian Hsu, would go on to be one of the stars in Jing’s We’re No Bad Guys (a post-handover 1997 movie) and even Jackie Chan’s The Accidental Spy (2001). She was concerned with how her sordid past might affect the innocuous image that she worked so hard to create in Japan. What made her particularly conscious of her image was the July photo shoot for the poster of We’re No Bad Guys. Jordan Chan had to place his head on Vivian’s bosom while she holds a banana.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s