Pleasure in the Ungovernable

November 16, 2021, 7:03pm

by Marylyn Tan

Lurid, lascivious and unfailingly brutal, Fatal & Fallen is a series that delves into the trope of the ‘fallen’ woman—often not disobedient on her own terms, but forced into wayward means of living by her circumstances. Curated by Jade Barget and Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee of XING, the film programme of Fatal & Fallen is comprised of nine films, eight of which are East Asian exploitation films[i]—two ‘Black Movies’ from Taiwan, as well as The Woman’s Revenge (2020), a short film by Su Hui Yu (based off of vintage marketing posters of Woman Revenger (1982), two girls-with-guns movies from Hong Kong, two sexploitation (‘pink films’) films from Japan, and a pair of hostess/thriller films from South Korea.

Still from The Women’s Revenge, a 2020 interpretation of Woman Revenger (1982)

Sexuality and sexual violence against women are recurring motifs in these exploitation films, jostling precariously with the premise of ‘strong’ female protagonists who must, more often than not, display physical prowess for causes such as patriotism, personal vengeance, or honour. Most fascinating to me, in viewing these eight films, was the idea of the ‘superficially empowered’ female protagonist embedded in exploitation narratives—in a cultural context which surely did not prioritise feminist ideologies, a kind of derived, ersatz feminism—feminism as-violent-power-structures-reinforced. In thinking about power, morality, cultural hegemony, violence, ‘fallen’-hood and redemption, how do we shape our sensibilities towards the body, pleasure and autonomy? How might we best make sense of the pleasures of the sensual, erotic, and attractive, while couched in the language of violence and brutality?

The chokehold of redemption

In the online discussion about the series, Dr Tingting Hu describes the figure of the femme fatale and other female perpetrators as players in a ‘post-feminist masquerade’, stating that in championing masculine gender norms and violence, one reproduces gender hierarchies. The narratives surrounding these ‘fallen’ women, in being less concerned with subverting normative ways of conceptualising gender, in turn reinforce gender inequalities with the value judgments that they present. The way in which these women are formidable always ties back to the idea of power as physical strength and skilled combat—which brings one back to traditionally patriarchal ways of framing power as violence. 

Invariably, women in exploitation films either finally submit to the higher authority of a man, the government, or ultimately find redemption through traditional heteropatriarchal norms such as marriage—or the failure thereof. For instance, in Black Cat (1988), where the titular protagonist, Catherine, chooses obedience to the CIA agency and her boss in order to save the man with whom she is romantically involved.

Black Cat (1988), in the ending scene where Catherine cuts ties with her romantic partner and leaves with the CIA.

In Woman Revenger (1982), after defeating the crime bosses of the sex and drug rings with which her childhood friend and said friend’s younger sister had become embroiled, the protagonist is still arrested by the Taiwanese police.

Similarly, in Yeong-ja’s Heydays (1975), a country girl who becomes a sex worker in the city only finds her redemption at the end of the film through marriage and motherhood, eclipsing the stigma of the sex work she was circumstantially forced into through a lack of options. The protagonists who do not have to be ‘rescued’ or ‘redeemed’ are the ones already working for men, such as in Iron Angels (1987), where the non-fallen (but still deadly) protagonists are on call as secret agents, working under the direction of their superior, a man, Charlie’s Angels-style. In fact, a scene in the beginning of the film where the character played by Moon Lee is treated in a summarily dismissive—and gendered—way by her boss at her day job. (The implication that a highly skilled mercenary must still submit to office culture, and capitalism, haunts me.)

This woman has a day job where her boss thinks she is incompetent. From Iron Angels (1987)

For me, this raises implicit statements about autonomy and redemption—if fallen-hood is derived from a failure to perform acquiescence to norms that prop up a gender hierarchy, then a continued refusal of those norms warrant a downfall, such as in the Iron Angels’ villainess, the leader of an international crime ring, where her unrepentant violence, sadism, self-serving actions and goals, and, indeed, her taking pleasure in excess, build up to her inevitable downfall. The villainess, played by Yukari Ōshima, is the ideal debauched, unscrupulous antagonist—she revels in food and drink, physical torture of her enemies, and flashes her breast in a successful attempt to distract someone holding her at gunpoint. At all points in the film, the antagonist is portrayed as a wanton, disobedient fallen woman who holds none of the structures of law, rationality or restraint in high regard. This total disrespect of the structures that are very clearly delineated as “upholding society’s mores and values” serves to cement her inevitable subdual and defeat at the hands of her pursuants. Because her excess is unmoldable into something that may be controlled, restrained and directed for the purposes of state and morality, as the Iron Angels’ talents are, it makes a statement about being permitted redemption only in very specific ways that must not threaten the chokehold of patriarchal power.

In this way, what is punished in the female protagonists of these exploitation films is a failure to be obedient, whether towards norms of morality (tied inextricably with restraint and discipline), or the heteropatriarchal. In Black Cat, Catherine is a trained assassin, recruited forcibly into the CIA while on trial for several murders. The audience is to understand that she is gloriously capable of fighting her way through armed guards and security details, but ultimately, is not permitted to claim that freedom and freewheeling spirit for herself. The story ends with her continuing to serve the CIA, severing her personal ties multiple times throughout the show, in order to realise her value as a sharply honed weapon. The message is clear: Catherine as a person, as the wayward, screaming, kicking, stabby stray girl-fallen-on-hard-times (an excess of sound, chaos, and disobedience!) that we are introduced to in the beginning of the film is less than valuable. However, Catherine, as the fully trained, weaponised, silent-but-lethal, brutally efficient, disciplined assassin under the absolute control of an implanted microchip, is.

This intolerance of disobedience is again reflected in the ending of Woman Revenger, whether because of the police institution’s insistence that the police not be portrayed as inept, or because a woman acting violently on her own interests—justified or otherwise—is destabilising to a heteropatriarchal status quo. In this way, state control and the apparatuses used to guarantee that control may never fully be divorced from the text of the film. The surrounding sociopolitical context and the exploitation film speak to each other in a ricochet that ultimately positions these films, whether judiciously apolitical or using sexual violence as a political metaphor, within the rhetoric of patriarchal or paternalistic power—and the way in which this power is concentrated.

The pleasure and abjection of having a body

What we gather, then, is that violence is permitted, but disobedience and undisciplined disorder is not. This draws, for me, a straight line to thinking about the exploitation film’s relationship to pleasure. If revelling in excess is punished, instinctively one knows that one’s pleasure must and will be policed, even in the context of a film that seems to take its entire reason for existence from the pleasure of consuming narratives and scenes of sensation and sensory titillation. Personally, pleasure is, and remains, the most radical and destabilising force under oppressive mechanisms that decree a drive towards discipline, order, efficiency, productivity, consumption, and conservative morality. Is it possible that the ‘fallen woman’ exploitation film, in its perceived low-brow medium, escapes this impulse to restrict pleasure?

A poster for Yeong-Ja’s Heydays (1975), a hostess film from South Korea.

When one delves into policed pleasure in media, one invariably arrives at the concept of censorship. It is important to remember that many of these films were created in a time when censorship was rampant and perhaps at peak vigilance to expose moral and/or political corruption—certainly, this did not stop pink films from being produced. Of course, the sensibilities of what was considered permissible varied from nation to nation—for instance, censorship in the 60s and 70s in South Korea was so rampant that it was impossible to show erotic scenes, other than in the context of rape and acts of brutality (Molly Kim, film scholar and critic, during the online discussion). This positioned rape as the only way in which sexual acts and eroticism could feasibly be shown, thus making it a recurrent motif—coupled with the fact that in South Korea, content that enquired towards political, class or race inequality was even more strictly limited—proving to give filmmakers little to no choice in subject matter.

Rape therefore became a de facto way to speak metaphorically of collective national or sociopolitical trauma, such as the People’s Republic of China and nationalist parties being largely abandoned on an international level in the 1960s, as well as Taiwanese activists being remanded or killed by the government (as explained by Dr Wafa Ghermani, during the online discussion). In Japan, the rise of ‘pink film’, a style of Japanese softcore pornographic cinema, coincided with the nation suddenly being gendered female, in their partnership with the US during the Cold War (expounded by Alexander Zahlten, during the online discussion)— giving rise to a kind of political emasculation, which played out as collective anxieties in the creation of these films. These were works that often depicted brutal, extended violence towards men, often by women. Zahlten raises the fascinating question of what pleasure is derived from making and watching these films, by men, for men, in highly gendered spaces where pink films are screened and women did not traditionally tread. Perhaps, then, an argument might be made that there is a certain pleasure in re-enacting these contestations and violences—if not exorcising them, then at least processing them, which further complicates the exercise of creating a sexual and sensual phantasm in the guise of the exploitation film.

It may be said that a deep suspicion of pleasure for pleasure’s sake has its roots in Confucian influence across East Asia, particularly in China and Korea. There is a discernible and deep-seated impulse to justify, sublimate, or otherwise render the human urge to move towards pleasure as less threatening, often through steadfast depictions of moral bankruptcy. For instance, in Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1983), the extended montage of the scantily-clad heroines working out in various positions intended to titillate and arouse, moaning and exerting themselves in rhythmic fashion, suggests that the eroticism of such a scene is justified because it is, in the film’s narrative, intended in the “service of the nation”.

Marketing poster for The Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1983)

On the other hand, in the same film, pleasure for pleasure’s sake is often seen as a source of downfall—it is one of the most prevalent themes of the movie that the undoing of the enemy (Japanese soldiers) is their lustful gaze, especially towards Chinese women. This allows the women, working in the service of their nation, to be able to seduce, disarm and ultimately kill their enemies. In addition, it is telling that a good section of the plot revolves around a sex worker, who, by way of introduction, memorably says, “What, a whore can’t love her country?” Her connections in the brothel where she works and her sexual prowess become indispensable to the resistance movement, and she is tasked to seduce and kill a high-ranking enemy. Recalling the redemption of the obedient woman, this seems to be a rescue of the fallen woman—in the upholding of patriotism, weaponising sexual and seductive prowess is subverted from the debauched to the heroic. Being skilled in providing, monetising—and weaponising—sexual pleasure thus becomes permissible when it is instrumental to national security. 

In contrast, the notion of unchecked desire—sexual or otherwise—its violent enactment, and its resulting trauma unravels attempts to protect moral virtue, eventually dissolving the nuclear family unit into disarray and destruction in Woman of Fire (1971). The protagonist, after being raped in her rural country hometown and killing her rapist, moves to Seoul to work as a housekeeper—she requests that her employer, wife to a composer, find her a good husband in lieu of payment. After overhearing her employer and her husband roleplay her sexual coercion (“Didn’t you say that if I want to keep things fresh in the bedroom, I need to know how to role-play? How about this? I’ll be the country girl.”), however, the housekeeper relives the trauma of being raped. Shortly after, she is instructed by her employer to stop her husband from sleeping with his student at all costs—which she does, successfully, but at the cost of being raped herself. This sets in motion a series of events that eventually lead to the double-suicide of the protagonist and the employer’s husband, and her murder of their infant child. The protagonist’s rape, resulting pregnancy and inescapable circumstances culminate in the exquisite frustration of her desires, specifically her desire to live like her employers: married, wealthy, respectable. Her desire becomes a death-trap, a debt that one must pay off or suffer the consequences. In the end, it seems as if being the recipient of sexual trauma tips her over the brink of insanity, creating a fallen, deranged, disorderly woman beyond discipline or redemption—and then, narratively speaking, is consequently punished for it. Women’s bodies, thus, become the site of metaphorical or real violence and brutality, whether as a metaphor for collective national trauma or a perversion of the pleasurable, erotic impulse.

Still from Woman of Fire (1971), where the protagonist ends up using rat poison to kill several people, including herself.

In addition, bodily trauma is often used as a visual and metaphorical shorthand for a change of moral state, or galvanising factor, in these exploitation films. The recurring motif of disability parallels the motif of rape in thinking of the woman’s body as a contested site to whom agency rarely, if ever, belongs. In Yeong-ja’s Heydays, the eponymous protagonist moves to the city to earn a living, but is raped by her employer’s son, and is turned out on the streets. She tries to make a living as a bus conductor, but due to the hostile working conditions and the overstuffed bus, meets with an accident and loses her arm. This, more than anything else, signals a propulsion into a downward spiral of ‘fallen-ness’ and misfortune, leading her to take on sex work and be abused by patrons. A loss of eyesight is also a recurring theme in many of the films—for instance, the protagonist in Woman Revenger is stabbed in the eye after a particularly vicious run-in with the yakuza criminals she is pursuing, forcing her to wear an eyepatch in the final climax and ultimate showdown of the film. In Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), the titular character was blinded by the protagonist in an earlier fight, causing her to seek vengeance. Consequently, we see the traumatised body’s change of state intensifying or creating a desire to seek vengeance, vindication or self-sufficiency. Embodied trauma, in this way, whether sexual or physical, seems to be a defining line between the unjustified violent female perpetrator and the fallen—but still redeemable—woman.

Still from Blind Woman’s Curse (1970, dir. Teruo Ishii)

Like the archetype of the fallen-and-redeemed woman, is there a way to rescue the exploitation film and frame its politics as radical? Academic interest in these films has peaked in recent years, and with it the respectability question—what is the intellectual merit of watching and turning a critical lens to these films, hitherto marked as lowbrow, trashy, or more recently, problematic? As critics and academics explore exploitation films as a microcosm of the anxieties and politics of their time, it may be the case that that process is akin to the redemption of the fallen female heroine—the temptation to straitjacket or otherwise constrain one’s subject to fit the boundaries of intellectual—and therefore moral—respectability. But perhaps the most radical thing about the figure of the fallen woman is a refusal of discipline—academic or otherwise—and taking pleasure in the ungovernable. In this way, the exploitation film as an object of study is fascinating because it straddles the same dichotomy as many of these femme fatales—the immoral, deviant, sadistic and disorderly, as opposed to the carefully contrived, restrained and disciplined. It would be equally intriguing, I think, to disintegrate the boundaries between the way we construct our discursive perceptions of the exploitation film—and, subsequently, how we construct an understanding of our bodies, pleasure, and sensuality, in a sociocultural context where brutality is all too often demanded of us.

Rows of chicken coops in the protagonist’s employer’s house in Woman of Fire. They later allude to using the chickens as a way to dispose of bodies.

[i] Woman of Fire (화녀)  (1971), dir. Kim Ki-young (M), South Korea

DOUBLE BILL: The Women’s Revenge (2020), dir. Su Hui-Yu (M) + Woman Revenger (女性的復仇) (The Nude Body Case in Tokyo) (1982), dir. Ouyang Chun (Tsai Yang-Ming) (M), Taiwan

Blind Woman’s Curse (怪談昇り竜) (1970), dir. Teruo Ishii (M), Japan

Iron Angels (天使行動) (1987), dir. Teresa Woo (M), Hong Kong

Black Cat (黑貓) (1988), dir: Stephen Shin (M), Hong Kong

The Challenge of the Lady Ninja (女忍者) (1983), dir. Lee Tso-Nam (M), Taiwan

Yeong-ja’s Heydays (영자의 전성시대) (1975), dir. Kim Ho-sun (M), South Korea

Ecstasy of the Angels (天使の恍惚) (1972), dir. Kōji Wakamatsu (M), Japan


About the Writer

Marylyn is a large-beasted, supple, queer, female Chinese Singaporean writer-artist whose proclivities are promiscuous and appetites indiscriminate. Her practice aims to subvert, revert and pervert, and works towards disrespecting respectability and reclaiming power. Her first bookchild, GAZE BACK (Ethos Books, 2018), is the lesbo trans-genre grimoire you never knew you needed, and made her the first woman poet (woet) to clinch the Singapore Literature Prize in 2020.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.