Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Brigitte Lin's Eyes

The happy day is here at last: the Action Heroine Blog-a-thon, at Film Experience. Here on this humble blog, let us pay tribute to the possessor of the best stare on the planet: Ms. Brigitte Lin.

Brigitte Lin is a classic movie star. She has the kind of screen presence women had in the 30s - she's more Barbara Stanwyck or Marlene Dietrich than anyone in this day and age. She's almost a silent film star - doing almost everything with her eyes, the tilt of her head, a gesture. It's a quality filmmakers have recognized and used: it's hard to think of any recent star who has provided more iconic images that Lin: in Peking Opera Blues, in The Bride with White Hair, in Chungking Express and Ashes of Time - and especially, in the second and third installation of the Swordsman series, where she plays one of the screen's great monsters, Asia the Invincible.

Asia the Invincible starts life as the brother of one Wu, head of a highlander group called the Sun Moon Sect. The first Swordsman film is about the machinations of a host of heroes looking for the Sacred Scroll, which offers unlimited powers to whoever uses it. At the end of this, Jacky Cheung, playing (in grand style) a completely faithless sniveling courtier, seems to get away with the scroll - whether he is supposed to be Asia or not, it's Asia who has the scroll and who reads it and follows its formula for unlimited power. This requires a certain sacrifice - though since the sacrifice turns him into Brigitte Lin, it has its mitigations.

The third film of the series, The East is Red, is (almost) all Asia's, and all Lin's. But the second film, Swordsman II, gives us Asia in transition - and that gives Lin a chance to use all her skills. Swordsman II is still, really, about the swordsman - played here by Jet Li - trying to retire from martial arts but constantly dragged back in by the complications of the troubled world. Asia is the ultimate villain in the story. But one of the complications Ling (the swordsman) faces is a strange, beautiful, silent woman who shares his taste for wine - none other than Asia the Invincible, mid-transformation, her voice still a man's, her face and body, Brigitte Lin.

Silence is no impediment for Brigitte Lin. She has the presence of a silent film star - she has the eyes of a silent film star. She controls the screen with her eyes, her gestures, the way she stands. The premise of Swordsman II, Asia mid-transformation, moving back and forth between appearing as a man and a woman, with her voice separate from her body, lets her play across her range. Dressed as a man, she bullies her underlings and enemies, caresses her concubines and her weapons, all the while smirking at what she knows and they don't....

Dressed as a woman, she flirts with Jet Li, let's him seduce her and protect her, but never without maintaining complete control.

It's all in the eyes: if the crux of feminist theory (grossly simplified) is that women are made the object of the male gaze, then Lin - like Barbara Stanwyck and her peers - resists that misogyny in the most obvious way: she never relinquishes her gaze. There is no doubt about the power of Brigitte Lin's eyes - filmmakers know, and the good ones exploit it - even when they hide her eyes, they know, there is no escape - she is never just an object to be looked at, she is always the one doing the looking.

And she is in control, of herself, if nothing else. She conveys, in Swordsman II (and indeed, in most of her greatest films), a strong sense of her awareness - she conveys curiosity, her sense of the strangeness of her situation. A man becoming a woman, and a person gaining unlimited power, at the same time - she toys with herself, what her body is doing these days, what her will can do, how people react to her, she tests herself and others, and takes palpable delight in it all. Awareness, consciousness, thought, in films, is often shown as a function of a character looking - Lin looks at the world, at other people in it, and she judges them, with those eyes.

And - I haven't forgotten that this is an action heroine blogathon - and we can't forget that Asia the Invincible is, after all, a supervillain. If you go against her, she will kill you with a flick of the wrist (and that glare):

There's a lot more of that in the next film - Asia wreaking havoc. Here, she only rarely has to muster much of the power of the Sacred Scroll - more often, she just keeps doing her needlework -

- until Jet Li starts trying - then, well, she becomes wrathy....

...I suppose the rest would be a spoiler - even knowing there's another Asia the Invincible film doesn't really tell you how this one ends. But I'll risk it far enough to say that the the ending of this film, and much of the premise of the next, depends on the kind of ambivalence and curiosity (for lack of a better word) Lin gives the character. She becomes a judge of sorts - testing the world, usually, though not always, finding it lacking. (That's quite explicit in The East is Red.) When you are, in fact, invincible, you can sometimes afford to let the good guys off the hook - you can even look away for a moment (maybe the only moment of the film she isn't staring something down).... Asia is a great character: Lin, a great actress, who makes the most of it.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Pretty awesome movie. Brigitte is simply magnificent