The literal definition of a one-reel film is a work which lasts around about 11 minutes, the maximum length a single reel of film can store. But another more metaphorical definition of a one-reel film is a movie which has one absolutely jaw-dropping standout sequence which overshadows and, in certain cases when the rest of the movie has been rocky, makes up for everything else in it. For example: you try watching the first hour of The Italian Job recently? It is rough. But when the heist and subsequent car chase kicks off in the last half-hour or so, then it becomes one of the best movies of the late 60s!
It’s a similar deal with Yes, Madam!. Hong Kong legend Corey Yuen’s sophomore feature is, to put it mildly, a severely compromised product which barely hangs together a lot of the time and holds up better as a moment of historical significance than a movie in its own right.
Ostensibly, it’s a buddy-cop actioner following no-nonsense head-butting Senior Inspectors Ng (Michelle Yeoh) and Carrie Morris (Cynthia Rothrock) as they work to solve the mystery of Ng’s former mentor’s assassination. Whilst nowhere near the first action movie to have female leads, the wuxia pian movement made icons out of Cheng Pei-pei and Josephine Siao Fong-fong, it was one of the first to feature them as lead protagonists in a contemporary Hong Kong setting. It made immediate stars out of Yeoh and Rothrock, the former shooting to headline fame following her work in this and the latter making her acting debut; was considered a landmark achievement for women in cinema; and birthed a swarm of “Girls with Guns” imitators in the years that followed its box office success.
That’s the narrative history has written about Yes, Madam!. In reality, Ng and Carrie are borderline deuteragonists to the real leads; a pair of bumbling thieves named Asprin (co-lead action choreographer Mang Hoi), Strepsil (John Shum), and their equally-bumbling fence Panadol (Tsui Hark). They stumble upon the microfilm that led to the assassination in the first place which puts a target on their back from both the Inspectors and the assassins working on behalf of corrupt businessman Mr. Tin (James Tien just having the absolute time of his life if his constant maniacal laughter is anything to go by). Lots and lots and lots of wacky, occasionally misogynistic, often tangential hijinks ensue. Flashers, creepy pervert fake-outs, an extended cameo from a world-famous snooker player during a failed hustle, two traffic cops spar over who gets to ticket a car… Oh, and sometimes Ng and Carrie show up to kick some people in the face or roll their eyes at the childish men’s shit.
In so many words, it’s a Sammo Hung production. According to the pack-in essay by James Oliver, the film underwent a major rework and reshoot period in editing since Hung’s fledgling production company had a crisis of faith in the more serious female-centred cop flick Yuen originally turned in. With that additional knowledge, Yes, Madam!’s barely-together seams make a lot more sense even if they’re not exactly excusable.
The tone lurches wildly from scene-to-scene, the extreme broadness of the slapstick comedy not always gelling with the melodrama which makes this a precursor to the Heroic Bloodshed sub-genre. Ng and Carrie don’t really have a defined dynamic, a contrast of approaches or even a consistent idea of which one is Good Cop or Bad Cop, and their evolution from prickliness to ride-or-die never actually gets dramatised on-screen. The plot often lacks any forward momentum, most apparent in how neither Inspector does any actual police work instead relying on the thieves bumbling their way into the office to make them react to things.
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I’m telling you all this as an expectation corrective. When I first saw Yes, Madam! years ago, it was on the strength of that historical narrative assigned to it: Golden Age Hong Kong action with two of the most badass female stars ever kicking all the arse. Hell yes, inject that Yes, Madam! into my veins! But upon watching the film for myself I found out that I’d been sold a bill of goods, since the slapstick misfit comedy side of the equation grossly outweighed the badass women going on KO-sprees.
Couple that with my lack of prior Sammo Hung experience as to his type of action-comedy – important to note, Hung only produces and has a small cameo, but the reworked screenplay (by regular collaborator Barry Wong) is covered in the fingerprints of his own vehicles – and I bounced off every frame of this movie where death-defying stunt-work wasn’t involved. Returning nowadays with this new Eureka Entertainment restoration, I’m more able to appreciate the movie on its own terms. Some of the goofs are funny; the slapstick comedy is very well choreographed; and, even if it never forms a cohesive whole, the various personalities which make up the film do cause it to stand out memorably.
Ultimately, though, Yes, Madam! is still a one-reel film. But, my God, what a reel! In general, the action sequences that Yuen and Hoi stage are phenomenal, designed to make Yeoh and Rothrock look like a million bucks. The very opening scene featuring Yeoh sprinting down a street, pistol drawn, white overshirt flowing in the wind, right alongside a sports car being used for cover is the dictionary definition of iconic. The airport chase brawl which introduces Rothrock is full of gnarly landings, tight exchanges of fists and feet, and climaxes by demonstrating the power of Rothrock’s kicks. A great little back-alley on-foot/motorbike chase is one I feel doesn’t get talked about enough, particularly in the minuscule windows of timing required to not murder all participants.
But all of those are merely a prelude to the final showdown at Tin’s house, definitely one of, and quite possibly even the, greatest fight scene of all-time. Everything that makes 80s Hong Kong action such rarefied air is here. Balletic, lightning-fast choreography. Kicks and punches that, even when blocked or deflected, look and sound like shotgun blasts to the chest. Cleanly-composed cinematography with pacey but not-overbearing editing. Stuntmen bumping their arses off in wince-inducing ways. Moves, flips, and stunts that I struggle to remember seeing anywhere else before or since – Yeoh’s monkey-bar flip-dragging through glass of two goons off a balcony still blows my mind. A compelling story threaded throughout told entirely through physical language. Never mind this movie, the foundation Yeoh and Rothrock’s entire legends were built on this one sequence. From the moment they pop collars and low-five each other, nothing else matters.
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Eureka Entertainment evidently agree with that assessment, but they’ve also offered the rest of the film such a care and attention in their restoration. The last UK release of Yes, Madam! was a good 20 years ago on DVD under the non-sequitur title Police Assassins, so if nothing else this would be a long-overdue reprinting. But the quality of Eureka Entertainment’s work here is truly commendable. Image quality is pristine and sharp and colourful, lacking any of the muddiness in past releases, but without sacrificing the feel of a late-night VHS tape import viewing, warm and dusty yet lacking the deterioration. The audio tracks have also been cleaned up but not so much as to take away the post-sync charm so integral to 80s Hong Kong action. One need only look at the two vintage trailers listed in the bonus features, one for the original Hong Kong cinema release and another for the 2002 UK DVD transfer, to get undeniable night-and-day evidence as to the quality of Eureka!’s work.
A similar clean-up job has also been given to the exported re-edit Yes, Madam! originally received, In the Line of Duty 2, which mashed together the general plot of Yes, Madam! with sequences taken from other HK movies of the time. This curio has been included here in full with the original dub job. I can’t necessarily recommend it as anything other than a historical artefact which is fun to use as a compare-contrast for nerds like myself, but it’s really nice to have. Especially since, otherwise, this thing is lacking in major bonuses.
There are a pair of new video interviews with Rothrock and Hoi which are plainly-presented but feature a lot of interesting anecdotes, a two-scene commentary with Rothrock on her big action scenes that mostly restates bits from her interview, and the 2002 featurettes; a Yeoh interview which is great, though severely hampered by low-quality sound and a bad video transfer (watch the hands), and a super-early-2000s “Battling Babes” showreel of interviews with Hong Kong action actresses, also hampered by muddy sound and video.
We also have a pair of feature commentary tracks by Asian film experts yet, bizarrely, neither of them feature any women, let alone any Asian women. Coupled with the pack-in essay also being written by a man, it means that this landmark moment of history for women in contemporary action movies which is getting a long-overdue reprinting for that very reason… has no women involved in the writing or contextualising of its history. Yes, these are good essays and commentaries, but you’re really telling me that no women wanted to jump at the chance to shape the historical voice that Yes, Madam! will receive in film circles going forward? It’s very conspicuous, is what I’m saying, and borderline inexcusable.
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Of course, it’s also bitterly ironic given how Yes, Madam! arguably tried to minimise its own women in the panic-retool which led to the inconsistent and somewhat confused yet nonetheless successful movie presented before us. For all its flaws, for all its misrepresentation, for all its otherwise magnificent restoration, and that it drops the ball in not letting the very people it most spoke to get the chance to define its narrative, this release of Yes, Madam! is still a worthwhile pick-up.
Going in with the right expectations leads to a charming, goofy, and intermittently awesome time, and Yeoh and Rothrock still stand out today like the instant icons they were in 1985. But even if you do get caught up in the hype of “girls with guns” and find yourself interminably tapping your foot during yet another sequence of Strepsil and Asprin bumbling their way into trouble, it really is worth it for that final sequence. Like I said, when a one-reel film hits that magical reel, nothing else matters.