Film Reviews

Lady Reporter (1989) – Blu-ray Review

1980’s Hong Kong was home to some of the most death-defying, inventive, breathless and exciting action not only of the era but in all of cinema.  It made both crossover mega-stars (Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat) and cult cinema icons (Cynthia Khan, Andy Lau, Richard Norton).  Several of its directors – John Woo, Corey Yeun, Godfrey Ho (to his own dubious extent) – would lay the groundwork for a much-needed reshaping of western action cinema throughout the 90s, a few outright jumping across the Pacific to continue their work behind the camera.  There are classics upon classics to choose from (several of which we’ve covered already here).

There was also a lot of mercenary schlock.  The vast majority of these films, even the great ones, were made quickly on the relative cheap with actors often having no idea what movie they were actually going to appear in until they walked on-set.  D & B Films Co. and Golden Harvest, the studios most often linked to this boom period, would crank these things out by the truckload based on little more than gimmick hooks and a few key action scenes to pop a crowd.  And they also weren’t above outright taking the movie away from the initial creative team to order a total overhaul which would be stitched together (often inelegantly) if the film wasn’t looking like it would sell.

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To be clear – and particularly since a lot of the biggest western media conglomerates, at time of writing, are going full slash-and-burn with the works they feel underperform, causing them to become outright lost media – this mercenary schlock has historical value.  In fact, it’s often through the schlock that we are able to understand and respect the true classics of the medium.  The little breakthroughs found in the forgotten copper, the works which went wrong to contrast the ones which went so very right, or even just the cult fun in seeing a protagonist’s hair blatantly change length and volume from shot-to-shot.  It’s undeniably a good thing to see even the lower tier of this era for Hong Kong cinema get carefully restored for preservation’s sake decades on from release.  That, however, doesn’t mean the film is always worth watching.

Which brings us to Lady Reporter.  Or The Blonde Fury.  Or Righting Wrongs II.  Or Big Sister Rules.  Or whatever the actual title of stunt coordinator and actor Mang Hoi’s 1989 directorial debut is.  Lady Reporter (the title we’ll go with since Hoi insists it was always the name he envisioned for it) has, as its claim to fame, the distinction of being the first full-fledged Hong Kong actioner with a westerner as the lead protagonist, that being Cynthia Rothrock.  Rothrock was already a proven commodity by this point in her Hong Kong career, bursting onto the scene in the runaway smash Yes, Madam! alongside Michelle Yeoh, then having both scene-stealing and deuteragonist roles in works like Millionaires Express, The Inspector Wears Skirts, and the first Righting Wrongs.  Naturally, and since Golden Harvest were looking to break her in America too, it made sense to give her top-billing.  For the novelty, if nothing else.

As such, Rothrock plays Inspector Cindy (no relation to the “Inspector Cindy” from Righting Wrongs maybe), an undercover FBI agent sent back to Hong Kong to infiltrate a counterfeiting operation ran by corrupt newspaper mogul Wong Dak (Ronny Yu having some laughs).  This begins with Cindy taking a new position at said mogul’s newspaper but is quickly abandoned about 20 minutes and one cool scaffolding fight later to instead just sorta have things happen around her.

There are about half-a-dozen different goons who crop up for a fight and then, even if they’re only escaped instead of defeated, never seen again.  There’s a pair of Chinese police officers wanting to bust the case for themselves, one of whom is played by Chin Siu-ho and whose character is only credited as “CID Officer.”  There’s a goofy photojournalist for a failing newspaper who hits upon the idea of just following Cindy around and catching whatever stories fall into his lap that way (played by Mang Hoi in a semi-redo of his Yes, Madam! character).  There’s the prosecutor (Roy Chaio) trying to also takedown Wong Dak who gets drugged to think he’s He-Man.  And there’s Cindy’s close friend Judy (Elizabeth Lee) who is… also around, I guess?

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Fundamentally, Lady Reporter is a dead-simple cop story whose premise is laid out plainly at the very top of the film by two deeply-awkward American FBI agents: evil baddie running counterfeit money operation through his newspaper printing press, Cynthia Rothrock must find a way to take them down.  But in execution, the telling of this story is such a convoluted mess with little rhythm or reason to its development.  The bonus features are all up front about it, but even just a casual watch of the movie with no outside knowledge can tell you this thing was retooled, reshot, and re-edited to within an inch of its life.  Even by the often-flimsy standards of 80’s Hong Kong action storytelling, Lady Reporter is the kind of film which brains itself on the bare-minimum-quality bar rather than attempt to clear it.

Which wouldn’t be a problem if a] the action were constant and b] the connective tissue were at least fun in its own way.  I noted that Yes, Madam! bore the scars of a tortured creation and a narrative that often lacked key character beats, but the action arrived at a relentless pace and the comedy could be genuinely funny.  Neither of those ends up being the case with Lady Reporter.

Undoubtedly a victim of the minuscule $5 million budget initially granted (according to Hoi’s Blu-ray interview), there’s actually very little action compared to its contemporaries which causes the pace to slow to a deadening crawl.  And, partly a result of the haphazard editing which cycles characters and plots and themes in and out like a rocket-propelled merry-go-round, the non-action isn’t compelling to any degree.  Characters aren’t entertaining, most of the comedy doesn’t land because the dialogue is piss-poor (more resembling parodies of Hong Kong action films in their non-sequitur approach) and little physical showmanship to make up for it, and themes of shady journalism practices or American imperialism are discarded as quickly as they’re introduced.

When action does arrive, at least, it is good.  Whilst she can campily mug in the story scenes (since Cindy isn’t entirely the no-nonsense badass we usually see her actress as), Rothrock’s physical presence during the fights remains top-notch.  When she kicks people, you fully believe that someone just got their chest caved in.  When she’s getting punted in the chest through plate glass shower doors and winces before regaining her composure, you fully believe she might be vulnerable, adding tension to the fight.

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Much of the most famous action scenes were infamously handled by Yes, Madam! director, and friend of Mang Hoi, Corey Yuen in studio-mandated reshoots – the mad scaffolding fight which never stops being vicariously terrifying no matter how many times I see it, and the ropes-based warehouse melee of the finale are specifically tagged in bonuses as Yuen pieces.  But it’s a testament to Hoi’s choreography that, for me, I’m more taken by the two one-on-one fights Rothrock has at the film’s midpoint, one in her apartment fending off a hitman and the other in a different warehouse with an uncredited Muay Thai champion.  Their physical brutality, making great economical usage of the space, and straightforward storytelling a reminder that even the schlockiest of Hong Kong films from this period could still boast some golden moments.

So, though it may not be a canonised piece of film history like Yes, Madam! or an overlooked gem like Royal Warriors, it is heartening to see Eureka Entertainment give Lady Reporter the same lovingly cared-for restoration treatment.  Much like those prior releases, they’ve cleaned up the visual dirt, the low-quality blur and obscuring darkness, and audio scratchiness without fully sacrificing the late-80s/early-90s VHS warmth inherent to the filmmaking of the time.  Post-sync lines can still cut in or cut out with inelegance, different shots can see their brightness quality fluctuate betraying the haphazard quick-shot nature of much of the movie, and the garish fashions are still authentically 80s.  Like those prior films, this careful restoration job has also been paid to the dubbed export version of Lady Reporter, making for a fun historical compare-contrast if you’re an avid Hong Kong cineaste.

Aside from those, you also get two new interviews with Cynthia Rothrock and Mang Hoi – seemingly filmed at the same time as the ones for Madam! – which are illuminating if a tad threadbare to stand on their own.  There’s a select-scene commentary with Rothrock and Asian film historian Frank Djeng that, similar to the one on the Madam release, is quite awkward but not without its fun fact charms.  Lastly, commentary tracks for both versions of Lady Reporter, one for the main film by Djeng and Henchman #2 (as he’s credited) Vincent Lyn, one for the dubbed export by frequent Eureka! collaborators Mike Leeder & Arne Venema.  The pack-in essay by James Oliver adds some helpful context to how the movie turned out the way it did, but struggles in its efforts to big up Lady Reporter’s importance and cultural value since it’s not like the film provides much in the way of material for such an argument.

After all, 80’s Hong Kong produced a lot of cheap schlock.  Lady Reporter, in spite of its seeming groundbreaking moment for gwei lo in HK cinema, is a quintessential example of such schlock.  An overcomplicated mess of a film that’s mostly just really boring until the action scenes finally arrive, which in this case is nowhere near often enough.  I’m glad it’s being preserved in the best quality condition, but this is one for Cynthia Rothrock and Hong Kong action completionists only.

Lady Reporter is out now on Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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