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 prerequisite 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.