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COVER STORY

Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough

Female warriors are kicking their way to Hollywood heights--thanks to a pair of masters who teach actresses how to fight in style.

November 19, 2000|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

Standing in a wind-swept Chinese desert, Michelle Yeoh is stared down by a fiendish, thin-whiskered man who snidely remarks, "When it comes to martial arts, men are better than women. When it comes to having children, well, that's another matter. Go home and bear some children."

Within seconds, she lets loose a blitzkrieg of furious kicks, punches and somersaults, not only proving him wrong, but also leaving him a yelping, helpless heap.

So much for his theory on a woman's place in martial arts.

If you missed Yeoh in that 1994 Hong Kong film, "Wing Chun," don't worry, you can watch her prowess next month in Ang Lee's much anticipated "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The film, a martial arts romantic fantasy, features three generations of women--Yeoh, Cheng Pei Pei, the first female martial arts star in Hong Kong, and newcomer Zhang Ziyi--flying in the air, scaling walls, leaping buildings and dueling with 40-pound swords.

Women kicking butt--stylishly, charmingly and, yes, lethally--is very much in vogue now. "Crouching Tiger" is one of a number of recent movies and TV shows featuring women as the action heroines. From Carrie-Anne Moss of "The Matrix" to the trio (Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu) of the new blockbuster hit "Charlie's Angels" to TV's "Dark Angel" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"--being strong, athletic and feminine are no longer seen as contradictions.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 24, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Directing credit--Tsui Hark received sole director credit for the 1991 film "Once Upon a Time in China." A story in last Sunday's Calendar erroneously gave credit to more than one director.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 26, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong credit--Tsui Hark received sole director credit for the 1991 film "Once Upon a Time in China." A story in the Nov. 19 Sunday Calendar erroneously gave credit to more than one director.

But in Hong Kong, tough and attractive women have long been a staple of cinema. Before Jackie Chan, Jet Li--even Bruce Lee--women like Cheng Pei Pei were igniting the silver screen with their martial arts wizardry, often running circles around their hapless male counterparts. Known as "the Queen of Martial Arts," Cheng starred in the groundbreaking 1965 film "Come Drink With Me." That film paved the way for scores of other Hong Kong movies starring women, including "The Heroic Trio"--a 1992 Hong Kong version of "Charlie's Angels"--and the supernatural "Bride With White Hair" in 1993. "In the classic martial arts movies, you needed to show not only the soft and pretty side, but also an energy. That is the mix people love to watch," Cheng said recently on a visit to Los Angeles, reflecting on her many action films and her career as a martial arts maven. "If you only act tough, then it's like you are a man. Women came in and did things differently. Martial arts uses women really well, but you have to make people think that you can really fight. You can't just put sexy bodies there."

Sexy bodies, of course, help. But the true female warrior must be fear-inspiring, and that takes a lot of training.

"We had to be brought to a [top] physical level to do the martial arts," said Diaz, who plays Natalie in "Charlie's Angels." "After practicing hundreds of kicks, we just kept building our strength, and it became more about how high and how powerful we could kick."

Initially, Yuen Cheung Yan, the famed Hong Kong martial arts choreographer who worked on "Charlie's Angels," didn't think the actresses could pull it off.

"In the beginning, I really had doubts," said Cheung Yan. "They were in such pain that I thought, 'Oh God, could they do this while shooting?' But after one month, I saw the heart in these girls and that they really wanted to improve for me. I realized they even had the physical potential for it."

The timing of a female breakthrough in action films couldn't be better. In the U.S., the popularity of female athletes, such as the women's soccer team players and Olympic track star Marion Jones, showed that women could appeal to the public as much for their physical ability as their feminine attributes.

Meanwhile, male action stars who had dominated in the '80s, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, were aging. Their style of bloody, high-body-count action was losing favor--especially in post-Columbine Hollywood. (Indeed, one of the prerequisites of Barrymore and Diaz's involvement in "Charlie's Angels" was that the women not use guns.)

With the success of "Charlie's Angels," it seems likely that more women will be cast in leading action roles. There's talk of Jennifer Lopez starring in the film "Enough" as a battered wife who defends herself from her abusive husband by learning martial arts.

"It was bound to happen," said producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who produced "X-Men" and, along with husband Richard Donner, the "Lethal Weapon" series. "Don't forget Sigourney Weaver ['Aliens'] and Linda Hamilton ['The Terminator'] were two of the first. I know studios feel we need a male action lead but . . . it's a matter of time before they realize that given a strong female lead, audiences will go and see it."

With "Crouching Tiger," director Ang Lee said he wanted to move away from what had become a "macho genre" and transform it into a story-driven action fantasy led by women.

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