When does a trashy movie stop being fun and start being repulsive? I’ve been asking myself this question ever since I saw Ching Siu-Tung’s Hong Kong action film Naked Weapon (赤裸特工, 2002). Ching is one of my favorite action directors. His credits include the underrated gem The Terra-Cotta Warrior (秦俑, 1989) and better-known actioners like The East Is Red (東方不敗 - 風雲再起, 1993). He also provided the fight choreography for several of Tsui Hark’s action films and all three of Zhang Yimou’s high-profile martial-arts movies. So, seeing Ching’s name on the credits of Naked Weapon instantly told me that the film would be a quality product. But I was not only disappointed — I was revolted.
Now, I don’t automatically fault a film for being a bit on the junky side. Cult cinema certainly has its place, and so-called “trash” aesthetics can have their own positive properties that are as intriguing as the more “respectable” ones employed by more prestigious films. So, just because some filmmakers might not take their subject matter seriously, or just because they might revel in the artificiality of their medium, that is not reason enough to condemn a movie. Films that utilize trash aesthetics include many of John Waters' intriguing works and several enjoyable romps from Hong Kong like Luk Kim-Ming’s Robotrix (女机械人, 1993).
But Naked Weapon crossed the line from trashy action movie to something more disturbing. Perhaps we're not supposed to take the film’s premise — a secret Darwinian “school” for female assassins where the “pupils” must kill each other to “graduate” — at face value, but the subject is viewed with a solemnly straight face, not with a cartoonish or ironic distance. Coupled with Ching’s fierce fight choreography, the bloody, nerve-racking events faced by the main character, Charlene (Maggie Q), are harrowing in an unpleasant way. Like other films I detest — such as Masaru Konuma’s Wife to Be Sacrificed (生贄夫人, 1974) or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, 1975) — Naked Weapon seems to encourage its audience to take sadistic delight in its lead character's misfortunes.
This unsettling element reaches its pinnacle mid-way in the film when the “school’s” cold-blooded leader, Madame M (Almen Wong), drugs her surviving graduates (presumably virgins) and has them raped by her male guards. The scene is utterly gratuitous, and its gut-wrenching realism erases any ability to view the moment simply as a make-believe fiction. The making-of documentary that is included on Naked Weapon’s DVD interviews Maggie Q and the other actresses after the rape scene was shot, and the women seem somewhat traumatized by the experience. Why would a director want to put his actresses through such an ordeal? For what purpose? Furthermore, I would submit that the scene wants the viewer to identify with the rapists, rather than the women being raped.
Now, let me be clear: I am not arguing against all depictions of rape per se. The aquatic rape scene in Erotic Ghost Story II (聊斋艳谭 II, 1991) and the invisible rape scene in The Eternal Evil of Asia (南洋十大邪术, 1995) were too over-the-top to take seriously as portrayals of violence against women, as anything other than bizarre performances staged for the camera. And there are more substantial films about rape where the viewer is made to indentify with the victim. Naked Weapon’s rape scene is in a different class entirely: a humorless, realistic moment where the (presumably male) viewer is allowed to relish the sexual suffering of beautiful women. Moreover, Madame M never gets her comeuppance in the story (suggesting that the rape didn’t warrant punishment), and Charlene’s climatic battle with an out-of-left-field villain implies that it was her ordeals with Madame M — including the rape — that enable her to prevail. Rape, the movie implies, is a relatively positive stepping stone toward female “empowerment.”
Some comments elsewhere on the Internet say that the rape scene in Naked Weapon shouldn’t be taken seriously. But the moment is played very seriously in this very serious film. Others say that the scene should be taken within the context of the action genre. I disagree: Naked Weapon is already a very grueling film about scantily clad women inflicting pain on each other in order to survive. The action genre mandates neither the Darwinian violence of the “student” assassins against each other (I kept waiting for the girls to rise up against Madame M) nor the male viewer’s pleasure in female suffering. I’m appalled that anyone — especially a director I respect — would find this sadistic portrayal of rape and violence entertaining.
‘Naked Weapon’ Trailer
Originally published at Amazon.com in 2005