“An emphasis on striking moments leads naturally to a scavenger aesthetic.” David Bordwell, commenting on Hong Kong films in Planet Hong Kong, p. 11
I found myself thinking of Bordwell’s quote when I watched Black Mask. I feel that this “scavenger aesthetic” is manifested and actually put to good use by this film’s constant referencing of a plethora of different movie styles, while still remaining essentially an action movie. Film noir elements such as the lighting and Black Mask’s coat and hat rub up against scenes that could have been lifted out of some modern, urban, gritty cops and robbers show. Squads of beefy blokes in army fatigues remind us of war movies, but these soldiers battle the lone character of Black Mask (Jet Li) who would not look out of place in anime. Squad 701 are the product of a scary science experiment gone wrong, and during the movie they seem to be able to call upon some pretty sophisticated high tech equipment including laser guns, which give these scenes of the movie a definite sci fi feel. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a hologram of Commander Hung (played by Patrick Lung Kong) appears to speak to Tsui Chik (Jet Li).
Without crossing the line into erotica or porn the film also has some S & M flourishes. This is most obvious during the scene with drug dealer King Kau (Anthony Wong). King is shown engaging in some kinky cavorting with a couple of women in a dripping wet underground car park (I am so vanilla in my sexual tastes that all I can think of is how smelly and cold it must be, especially
for the lady in the chain mail G-string bikini). One of the women, clad in leather, is gagged, bound and suspended from the ceiling. What is even more ‘off’ about King’s behavior is that this sex play is taking place while the bodies of his family, killed by other criminals, are hanging in body bags in a freezer nearby. A particularly nasty moment occurs when King opens a wooden case to display the amputated legs of his young daughter. He absent mindedly strokes these legs as he is talking and, maybe it’s just me, but I find the gesture disturbingly sensual. King is soon after severely injured when some rough sex leads to a gruesome assassination attempt (he has the misfortune to
be getting it on with a lady, played by Francoise Yip, who turns out to be from Squad 701, who are the film’s villains).
But I feel that the S & M theme doesn’t completely end with the finish of the King Kau scene. When Black Mask rescues / kidnaps Tracy (Karen Mok) there is a frisson of cave man sexuality evident. We are quite sure that Black Mask would never force himself on Tracy, and we know that it is necessary for her to be kept in a safe place away from Squad 701. Tracy has been depicted as being
totally unaware of the doings of Squad 701 and the threat they pose (and I feel that she comes across as a gormless twit, anyway) so apparently she has to be kept in a safe place, against her will if necessary, until she does understand. But even so, we see Black Mask shackle her in his home and, at one stage, bind her hands, gag her mouth and forcibly inject her with medicine. This is
ostensibly for her own good, but we are shown a dominant man physically over powering a little lady in a clingy dress and hurting her for her own good. Add to this that the man is masked – Tracy has no idea who he is – and speaks rather slightingly to Tracy in a gruff voice and I think that I can definitely argue that we have a cave man scenario going on here.
Another movie genre that I feel that Black Mask borrows from is the horror movie. Because they can feel no pain Squad 701 are able to fight on even when they are badly injured. This means that there is plenty of footage of these characters looking grotesque. In the hospital scene, for example, one member mounts an attack covered in his own gore. He finally goes down in a hail of gunfire, but he dies with a creepy smile on his face. Shortly after 2 other characters attack after setting themselves on fire in order to create a diversion. After the flames are out one of them fights on covered in disgustingly burnt flesh. This character eventually meets his demise in an explosion. There is a moment of dark humour here. After his body has disintegrated in a ball of flame, the only remnant is his hand clinging onto the shoulder of a police man. Francoise Yip’s character, Leuk Yan, also adds to the horror movie flavor of this scene. Classically beautiful, we are not shown
her bearing any scars but it is her behavior that is frightening. A policeman manages to inject her with anesthetic, but before she succumbs to it completely she staggers about looking crazed and laughing eerily. Fittingly, lightning flashes and thunder rumbles in the background. There is one very creepy moment for this character right at the end of the film. Tracy and Black Mask are being
stalked by Leuk Yan on a giant industrial tower. We see Tracy looking for Leuk Yan. Tracy moves slightly and we realize that Leuk Yan has been standing right behind her. Leuk Yan creates a gothic image at this point – dressed in black, long dark hair framing a pale face and a malevolent glower.
One thing that makes Squad 701 truly monstrous and inhuman is that they are hard to slow down, let alone kill. We are shown that they can be only stopped if their bodies are structurally damaged to the extent that they stop working, resulting in disability or death. One squad member sustains a severe back injury, and is euthanized by the Squad’s Commander Hung. The Commander does this by draining his blood. This, plus the Commander’s gothic appearance defined by long black hair and the wearing of an actual cape, suggests that he is some kind of a vampire. This constitutes another horror movie element in this film.
The referencing of these dark and / or tough film styles is interesting considering that one of the movie’s themes is innocence and vulnerability. I will be discussing the themes of Black Mask in my next blog.