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Plot: Royal Hong Kong Police officer takes down gang of assassins

Madam City Hunter was the second of three directorial features by frequent Kar-Wai Wong assistant director Johnnie Kong. As expected it is as far removed from the work of Kar-Wai Wong as you’d imagine. The most direct forebear for Madam City Hunter is the Sammo Hung produced Yes, Madam! (1985) with Michelle Yeoh. Like its forebear Madam City Hunter mixes fast-paced martial arts action with humour that frequently misses the mark and a family plot worthy of a syndicated daytime soap opera. The humor is above average and better than most Jing Wong. It isn’t high art and it never aspires to be. Its sexual politics are confused, the plot is scattered and barely threadbare at best, but it manages to deliver exactly what it promises: Cynthia Khan kicking everybody's ass with her balletic martial arts.

The plot concerns tough, no-nonsense Royal Hong Kong Police officer Yang Ching (Yang Li-Tsing, as Cynthia Khan) taking down a vicious gang of assassins known as the Five Fingers. Framed for the murder of a group of teens Ching is pulled off the case but encouraged by the smitten Commissioner Kwong (Kwong Leung Wong, as Tommy Kwong-Leung Wong) to clandestinely continue the investigation while he orders protection in the form of bumbling, goofy private investigator Charlie Chang (Anthony Wong) and his hyperactive girlfriend Blackie (Sheila Chan). On the homefront Ching’s wealthy father (Fung Woo) has a new fiancée in Siu-Hung (Kara Hui, as Chare Wai Eng Hong). Ching suspects she has ulterior motives but has nothing to substantiate the claim. Will Ching be able to stop Five Fingers leader Thumb (Yau Gin-Gwok) and his reign of terror across the city?

For Cynthia Khan Madam City Hunter was hardly her first venture into action. Khan was born Yang Li-Tsing in Taiwan and was a practitioner of taekwondo and ballet dancing. In 1985 she won a national talent contest run by a Taiwanese television station. Two years later, in 1987, she signed a contract with Hong Kong production company D & B Films Co., Ltd. to replace their star Michelle Yeoh (then still Kahn) in the third installment of the In the Line Of Duty series (1985-1991), a sequel franchise that arose from the box office success of the martial arts actioner Yes, Madam! (1985). At the urging of her contractors Yang Li-Tsing was given an Anglicized alias, in this case a portmanteau of her two favorite Hong Kong martial arts inspirations and D & B favorites: Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Kahn (later Yeoh). Thus came to be Cynthia Kahn, a reliable second-tier performer who made up her lack of acting talent in sheer athleticism, acrobacy and elegance of movement. As Michelle Yeoh’s star rose with appearances in the Bond episode Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and the period wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Cynthia Khan was summarily (and unjustly) relegated to obscurity.

The remainder of the cast was a gathering of talent, old and new. Kara Hui was a Chinese actress that grew up in the shanty town of Tiu Keng Leng (or Rennie’s Mill as it is more popularly known) before being discovered by director Lau Kar-leung. Hui made a name for herself for her numerous kung fu roles in Shaw Bros productions all through the 1970s and 80s. In 1993 Anthony Wong was a rising star with appearances in Hong Kong actioners as Hard Boiled (1992), and The Heroic Trio (1993), as well as Cat. III productions as The Untold Story (1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996). Sheila Chan was Miss Photogenic and the first runner-up at the 1988 Miss Hong Kong Pageant. Chan earlier had played a character named Blackie in the actioner Lady Hunter: Prelude to Murder (1992), the directorial debut of Takashi Miike. Fung Woo was an elder statesmen of Hong Kong cinema. He was a known matinee idol in the 1950s and 1960s and famous for his frequent collaborations with Josephine Siao in 1960s musicals. He was nicknamed the “Dance King” for his legendary dancing skills.

As expected with low budget romps like this the writing is hit-and-miss. In the beginning it spents far too long on a subplot concerning one of the kids for whose murder Ching is framed for. Another subplot concerns the financial woes of private investigator Charlie Chan and his girlfriend Blackie. The dinner scene with Blackie constantly toasting and getting ever drunker in the process gets on the nerves quick. In fact Blackie’s entire character seems to be based around endless screaming and pseudo-funny skits. The connect-the-dots screenplay exists as a showcase for the fight choreography. Said choreography is pretty good considering on how small of a budget this was produced. Khan is elegant in all of her martial arts routines, and even Anthony Wong throws in a few select moves towards the end. Madam City Hunter works around its budgetary limitations with frequent martial arts routines and comedic overkill. Not all the humor hits the mark, but things could be far worse. Cynthia Khan’s filmography is littered with low-budget outings like this, and Madam City Hunter is among the better entries in a considerable body of work that wildly fluxuates in terms of quality.

The action choreography by Cheung-Yan Yuen sells Madam City Hunter even when the screenplay doesn’t. It starts with an extended shootout in a building holding a bunch of heavily-armed gangsters, Khan bursts in and makes short work of any assailants she encounters by relentlessly high-kicking, punching, or shooting the life out of them. Known for her no-nonsense cop roles Cynthia Khan here shows a more gentle, humane side to her character as Royal Hong Kong Police officer Yang Ching is fallible too – and Madam City Hunter has her partying, being lovesick, sad, and getting drunk. The one-on-one fights are fast-paced, hard-hitting and energetic to a fault. Khan takes as much damage as she metes out. The confrontation with the head goon takes her across his hideout, and sees her fighting him with bamboo sticks. When he tries to take off Khan continues her pursuit across rooftops. The entire sequence climaxes as Khan battles her katana-wielding opponent unarmed hanging suspended from a bamboo scaffolding and into an adjacent room where he is finally defeated and arrested. Khan’s graceful balletic moves, athleticism, and martial arts chops are what sells the scene.

Madam City Hunter is strangely enjoyable action nonsense that obviously capitalized on Jackie Chan’s City Hunter (1993) from Hong Kong cultural zeitgeist - and exploitation institution Jing Wong and Michelle Yeoh's Yes, Madam! (1985). It caters to the same audience from Khan’s In the Line Of Duty series even though the humor, often lowbrow and juvenile, frequently gravitates into The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) territory. The comedy takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Whether it’s Anthony Wong’s incessant mugging and bumbling in front of the camera, Sheila Chan’s infectious-cum-annoying hyperactivity, the prequisite cross-dressing assassin, and a pre-Viagra herbal extract joke that is mistaken for poison (with the expected results). The middle section drags somewhat with its numerous romantic misadventures that could've come out of Bollywood production. Sheila Chan looks pretty cute in her little maid outfit. Cynthia Khan and Kara Hui regularly steam up the screen with their mini-skirts and the fight choreography by Cheung-Yan Yuen is frenetic, elegant and frequently impressive thanks to its sheer can-do attitude. Madam City Hunter is far better than it has any right to be, and low-budget HK action regularly doesn't always aspire to the standards that Madam City Hunter sets for itself. As far as Hong Kong action nonsense goes you could do far worse than Madam City Hunter.

Plot: adolescent misfit plays interactive videogame

It is well established that the 90s were a particularly dark decade for the horror genre. Horror descended into nothing but overly comedic, self-aware, and pretentious genre deconstructions that abided by the same conventions they were supposedly mocking. In other words, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) happened. Two years before, however, there was a Canadian production that commented in a similar condescending, moralizing, holier-than-thou tone on the vices and youth counterculture of the day: heavy rock music, horror cinema and/or violent video games. Brainscan, for all its 90s cultural sensibilities that ultimately end up defanging it, is actually a surprisingly effective little genre effort is one is willing to meet it halfway. It never quite pushes the envelope the way you would want it to, but it tries. It is far more intellectually honest than Craven too.

Michael Bower (Edward Furlong) is a typical 90s social pariah, a product of childhood trauma and parental abandonment. Bower lost his mother in a roadside collision that left him with a nasty scar and a limp as reminder, and an absentee businessman father. Having never properly dealt with the loss of his mother and spoilt rotten by his overcompensating absentee father Michael is a socially handicapped doofus that immerses himself in ungodly amounts of heavy metal, horror, and video games as a cry for someone, anyone, to love him. If only that someone would be Kimberly Keller (Amy Hargreaves), who he surreptitiously spies on in ways that the Twilight novel (2005) and its subsequent screen adaptation (2008) would enshrine as the apex of romance. When his only friend Kylie (Jamie Marsh) reads him an ad in Fangoria about Brainscan, a literal murder simulator, Michael’s interest in piqued. As a seasoned veteran of all things weird, one that has “seen it all, played them allBrainscan offers an experience like no other. When a murder committed in the game occurs in the real world, Michael’s life starts to unravel, and before long he fears of losing possession of the one thing he still has control over, himself. All the while detective Hayden (Frank Langella) is investigating the murder case. The more Brower plays Brainscan the more the gameworld and his own bleed together. With only the macabre and devious Trickster (T. Ryder Smith) as his guide only one question remains: what is real, and what is not?

Brainscan very much wants to be a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies. Figures of authority, specifically principal Fromberg (David Hemblen), at one point or another, voice their disapproval of Bower’s extracurricular interests. Likewise does Walker’s script demonize Michael for engaging in videogames and horror by making him a social outcast and forcing him into murdering his friends as punishment. Since Brainscan is a thriller masquerading as a horror-movie-with-a-message Michael needs to have the prequisite love interest which is where the underutilized Amy Hargreaves comes in. Hargreaves, who was in her mid-twenties, has a few scenes of implied nudity – but since this was released in 1994 and more of a thriller that will be the extent of what is deemed permissable. Once Brainscan is done moralizing it rewards Michael with a fresh view on on life, the possibility of Kimberly as a girlfriend (she shows reserved interest, and never outright declines his advances) while pushing the Trickster to the back as a mere video game host. It even gives complete cipher Kyle a girlfriend in Stacie (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier). The rank hypocrisy of Brainscan’s screenplay knows no bounds.

For all the things it does right Brainscan shortchanges itself by abiding to the sanitization the horror genre was subject to in the 90s. There are but two slayings that occur over the course of the movie, one of which happens offscreen. After the wild 1970s and the excesses of the eighties, the 90s pushed horror into the self-reflective, self-referential, and the comedic. As horror became shunned and considered a non-legitimate genre, many movies referred to themselves as thrillers instead to avoid the stigma. Brainscan both wants to be a horror movie all while disassociating itself from the genre at every turn. The ambiguity of Brainscan, and the ambivalence of its screenplay, ultimately work against it. There’s nary a drop of blood anywhere in Brainscan, and it is completely bereft of nudity, the very things that horror was decried for in the decades prior. It will have its protagonist showing León Klimovsky’s gothic horror potboiler The Dracula Saga (1973) to the Horror Club attendees, but then will have Michael sarcastically refer to it as Death, Death, Death, Part II just to spite the principal. To its credit at least the makers of Brainscan knew their Mediterranean Eurocult classics, Spanish or otherwise.

Brainscan is also custodian to one of the greatest 90s horror villains, the enigmatic Trickster. In the gameworld the Trickster acts as a master of ceremonies, and with his red mohawk skullet the long-nailed, sharply dressed apparition comes off as a combination of a pre-Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992) Pinhead, a heavy metal frontman, and a 1970s gothic horror villain complete with the snark of earliest Freddie Krueger. In short, the Trickster is the embodiment of the darkness of whoever plays the game. The screenplay never reveals exactly what the Trickster is; whether he is a spectral manifestation of the player’s vices, or the physical incarnation of a sentient program. T. Ryder Smith revels in playing up the red mohawked fiend’s ambiguous loyalties. The Trickster is for the nineties what Freddie Krueger was for the eighties. In a delicious slice of life imitating art T. Ryder Smith ended up lending his voice talents to video games Manhunt 2 (2007), BioShock (2007), BioShock Infinite (2013) and its DLC expansion pack Burial At Sea (2014). The Trickster has done well for himself.

The screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, later of Se7en (1995) and 8MM (1999) fame and a script doctor on The Game (1997), Stir Of Echoes (1999) and Fight Club (1999). Walker’s screenplay tries very hard to pass Brainscan off as an adolescent version of The Lawnmower Man (1992), or similarly themed David Cronenberg movies as Videodrome (1983) or ExistenZ (1999) without any of the body horror or pathos. The script’s cardinal sin is that it is never follows up on what it promises. It puts its protagonist in a literal murder simulator (exactly what certain detractors called videogames at the time) and exacts swift punishment by having him murder his best friend and love interest. The role of Trickster starts out as a guide for Michael in the gaming world only to turn him in a Freddie Krueger styled antagonist since the script lacks a real opponent to square him off against. Michael defeats Trickster in the gameworld, but the sequence is rendered moot as Trickster materializes in the corporeal realm where Michael can see him in the event of Brainscan becoming profitable enough to warrant a follow-up. Thankfully, the essence of Brainscan remains untarnished by unnecessary sequels.

Frank Langella and Amy Hargreaves do their best with the little they are given to do. Langella is the closest thing to an antagonist during the first half whereas Trickster becomes the antagonist during the second half. Hargreaves is given little else to do besides looking misty-eyed, pouting, or strutting around in lingerie. For reasons that will remain largely unexplained, Kimberly shows reserved interest in Michael at the end. Hargreaves has the prettiest smile but there isn’t an inkling of chemistry between her and Furlong, who by this point had perfected his troubled youth shtick. Hargreaves’ character is of no significance, and much of the running time Kimberly is a complete nonentity until Furlong’s character arc requires a Hollywood-mandated love interest. Langella and Hargreaves maintained a steady career in television and movies while Furlong fell into obscurity due to his puzzling professional choices and a private life that matched Lindsay Lohan’s in sheer dysfunctionality and drug abuse. All the promise that Furlong showed early on in the Aerosmith music video ‘Livin’ On the Edge’ and James Cameron’s blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) was squandered all too quickly. The career revival that American History X (1998) and the Metallica music video ‘The Unnamed Feeling’ lend Furlong failed to cement his potential as an actor.

As a product of its time Brainscan is both frustratingly middle of the road and agonizingly afraid of its own implications. Lacking in both scares and grue it’s exactly the sort of thing Hollywood would try to pass off as genuine horror. Obviously it’s anything but. As a thriller Brainscan never puts its protagonist in deep enough trouble to warrant the classification. Even as evidence and corpses mount there always seems to be an exit waiting for Michael. As a proxy-horror exercise it fails not only because it lacks the scares and grue, but because it never truly ventures into the territory. To the untrained eye Brainscan indeed looks as a fairly typical horror movie of the day, but beyond the superficial ties with the genre are practically non-existent. Brainscan was a timecapsule of 90s counterculture. Michael’s room is adorned with posters from Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, Metallica, and Fangoria. The soundtrack features, among others, OLD, White Zombie, Primus, Pitchshifter, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, and Wade. It’s strange that Furlong chose this Canadian co-production after the high-profile Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) from James Cameron. Brainscan is woefully banal and if it wasn’t for Furlong it would have fallen into much-deserved obscurity ages ago.