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The Stunt Woman

Though doubling as an entertaining look at Hong Kong action movies, Ann Hui's "The Stunt Woman" is at heart another of her studies of personal identity, here through the eyes of a stunt woman for whom work is a substitute for emotional fulfillment. But despite a terrif performance from real-life action star Michelle Yeoh (aka Khan), this uneven pic will get most viewer mileage from its first half, showing the inside workings of the territory's spills 'n' thrills industry, rather than from its unconvincing latter stages centered on the heroine's personal odyssey. Small-screen sales look more likely than theatrical. Film opens with a visual that sums up the artifice of its setting: a close-up of a grizzled man in historical Chinese garb who suddenly sticks a cigarette in his mouth and is revealed to be a movie extra. After an elaborate remote-control crane shot showing an outdoors studio set, pic proper begins with the first of its three segments, titled "The Chief" (gruff action director Tung, played by veteran Sammo Hung).

With:
Ah Kam ..... Michelle Yeoh Tung ..... Sammo Hung Sam ..... Jimmy Wong Ah Long ..... Ken Lo Copy ..... Mang Hoi Cop ..... Richard Ng Blackjack ..... Kent Cheng

Yeoh plays mainland emigre Ah Kam, who reports for work on behalf of a busy colleague and so impresses Tung that she’s entrusted with the action scenes on another movie when he and his team are hospitalized by a triad attack. She soon becomes part of an extended family that includes Tung’s streetwise son, Ah Long (Ken Lo), and his a.d. “Copy” (Mang Hoi).

Second seg (“Sam”) starts filling in the personal and emotional detail in Ah Kam’s character when she falls for the titular businessman (Jimmy Wong). She willingly quits the business when he asks her to manage a karaoke bar across the border in Shenzhen, but is soon back with Tung & Co. after discovering Sam has been two-timing her with another woman.

The more commercial elements that start to undo the movie’s realism in “Sam” enter with a vengeance in the final section, “Ah Long,” which spins on Ah Kam rescuing the kid from gangsters who’ve killed Tung and accompanying him to the mainland on a quest to find his grandfather in Shanxi. Tagged on at the very end, however, is the most indelible image of the movie: Yeoh almost fatally injured and being carried away in pain after a misfired stunt on Oct. 13, 1995, that held up the movie for many months.

Between the middle of the movie and that final sequence lies a missed opportunity that has all the hallmarks of hasty rewriting. After realistically detailing the camaraderie of Hong Kong’s stunt players, the underworld pressures on filmers and the bone-breaking dedication to work across long hours, pic suddenly dumps one of its major characters (Tung) and veers off into a sappy melodrama.

More’s the pity, as Yeoh gives the non-action performance of her career so far — a realistic portrait, sans makeup, of a dedicated but intensely lonely woman in search of another family to replace her lost parents. Adding further authenticity is the casting of Hung and Mang (both in real-life-based roles), plus the use of ace action director Ching Siu-tung for the action sequences. Hui’s mobile direction, very different from her previous “Summer Snow,” is intimately involving in the pic’s first half, and tech credits fine. A host of cameos by well-known personalities will keep H.K. aficionados on their toes. Film’s official English title is “Ah Kam.”

The Stunt Woman

Hong Kong

Production: A Golden Harvest release of a Daca Entertainment Co. production for Golden Harvest Entertainment Co. (International sales: Golden Harvest, Hong Kong.) Produced by Raymond Chow. Executive producers, David Lau, Catherine Hun. Directed by Ann Hui. Screenplay, Chan Man-keung, Chan Kin-chung.

Crew: Camera (color), Ardy Lam; editor, Wong Yee-shun; music, Yoshihide Otomo; art direction, Wong Yang-kwei; costume design, Lam Pui-yee; action direction, Ching Siu-tung; assistant director, Jupiter (ED: SIC). Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 18, 1997. Running time: 95 MIN. (Cantonese dialogue)

With: Ah Kam ..... Michelle Yeoh Tung ..... Sammo Hung Sam ..... Jimmy Wong Ah Long ..... Ken Lo Copy ..... Mang Hoi Cop ..... Richard Ng Blackjack ..... Kent ChengWith: Satoshi Okada, Nick Cheung, Michael Lam, Paco Yik, Crystal Kwok, Rain Lau, Lawrence Ahmon, Yim Ho, Manfred Wong.

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