by Gina Marchetti
Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 44-46
Even during the U.S. colonial period, in the years immediately preceding the Japanese occupation, the Philippines boasted a lively, if small, commercial film industry. After independence, the industry has continued to thrive in Hollywood's economic and aesthetic shadow and despite its antagonistic relationship with the Marcos government. Although the work of filmmakers like Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon and Eddie Romero have received enthusiastic critical attention at film festivals around the world, the bread and butter of this economically and geographically marginal industry remains the soft-core bomba film, the martial arts action-adventure, the cheap, quickly-made exploitation picture.
However, even though Third World cinemas like the Philippine industry have been sadly neglected by First World audiences and critics, information about these cinemas remains crucial to any understanding of how cinema functions internationally as an ideological and cultural institution. Certainly, U.S. media serve as a commercial and aesthetic norm; however, there are other important national cinemas that make popular and profitable films. Mexico, India and Hong Kong, for example, turn a profit in the film industry because they can efficiently crank out a product that will appeal to audiences at the edges of Hollywood's principal market concerns.
Therefore, even though the fact of Hollywood's control of Third World markets abroad and of new immigrant, black and other economically marginal cinema audiences at home in the U.S. can scarcely be disputed, that domination certainly does not remain monolithic. With post-WWII anti-trust directives, competition from television, a dramatic change in the demographics of the viewing audience, and the decline of the studio system and the classical Hollywood film, the exploitation film market, for example, blossomed. At home, American International, New World Pictures and a host of tiny, fleeting independent concerns came into their own in the bUs and 70s. These studios catered to the "exploitation circuit" - theatres in North American and European Black urban areas, cinemas in working-class (often new-immigrant or Spanish speaking) neighborhoods, drive-ins and low-budget houses for the youth market in suburban areas, and in slum cinemas hungry for a cheap entertainment product all over the world — from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia.
After the phenomenal success of Bruce Lee's films in the early 70s, the Hollywood exploitation industry was forced to compete with the likes of-Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest studios. However, the tried-and-true
Drawing on both elements of soft-core pornography and the martial arts genre, Cirio Santiago's Philippine-U.S. co-production FIRECRACKER (1981) comfortably conforms to the expectations of the exploitation film's audience. Suzie Carter (Jillian Kesner), a professional karate instructor from the U.S., goes to Olongapo to investigate the disappearance of her sister, Bonnie (a.k.a. Vanessa Goodman). Rooming at a place called the San Francisco Bar, Bonnie, a journalist, had been investigating a ring of thugs led by Eric Stockard. Aided by Pete, an U.S. bartender, and Rey (Reymond King), a Filipino waiter in the bar, Suzie manages to link her sister's disappearance with Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton), one of Stockard's employees. Impressed by her martial arts prowess and ignorant of her real reason for being in the Philippines, Chuck falls in love with Suzie. He allows her to watch martial-arts death-matches which Stockard stages as a sideline to his more lucrative drug business, and she becomes privy to the inner workings of the gang.
With the help of Rey, an undercover policewoman named Alice, who is later killed, and the rest of the Olongapo police force, Suzie eventually finds out that Chuck murdered Bonnie. While the others are occupied by Stockard and his minions, Suzie arranges for a death match with Chuck, and she kills him by driving two arnis sticks (traditional Philippine weapons) into his eye sockets.
At first glance, FIRECRACKER seems to be no different from its U.S. exploitation cousins. Exotic setting aside, FIRECRACKER relies on a standard action-adventure quest plot and uses Jillian Kesner's conventionally beautiful body to focus the male viewer's sexual interest on the nude or semi-clothed female form. Also, as in similar films made in Hollywood, displays of spectacular violence periodically grab the viewer's attention. However, the simplicity of the formula is deceptive. Made at the edges of the commercial film industry, FIRECRACKR's apparently straightforward plot hides a network of subtextual possibilities. In order to appeal to those outside the mainstream, the text must be polysemic or have multiple messages in order to survive commercially. Underneath the Hollywood norm lies the possibility of alternate readings. Those in the Philippine audience who daily suffer the burden of a neocolonial presence, as well as those in the international audience who suffer similar inequities, can enjoy the vanquishing of white, rich, U.S. villains on a level more profound than accepting the simple exigencies of a well-known formula.
Like all commercial film texts, however, FIRECRACKER both addresses and denies the needs of its audience, tacitly affirms the status quo and viciously attacks it. The film exposes social contradictions, displaces them and ultimately reburies them. FIRECRACKER presents a fantasy reflection of the ideological battleground the marginal audience inhabits. Justified hostility finds dream expression through an elaborate interaction of paradoxical narrative twists and spectacular displays of sexual gymnastics and martial contests.
By looking at FIRECRACKER within the context of contemporary Philippine life, seemingly insignificant plot elements take on a different significance. Similarly, the importance of the plot itself begins to come into question. The spectacles within the martial arts arena and the bedroom powerfully dramatize racial, cultural and sexual tensions and contradictions that are completely ignored by the main narrative. Anger, resistance and the possibility of change find a definite, if contained, expression. The commercial interests of the ruling classes are ironically served by the sale of bloodily subversive fantasies to those most oppressed by international capitalism, oppressed by that imperialism rooted in the unchecked expansionism of those national bourgeoisies in pursuit of the American Dream.
FIRECRACKER AND THE PHILIPPINES:
In a recent essay, "The Other Question — the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse," Homi K. Bhabha suggests that the colonial text is characterized by a split discourse. This discourse creates a fixed dualistic position for both the colonizer and the colonized, offering no alternative to the hierarchical relation. FIRECRACKER exemplifies this type of text and reflects the current condition of the popular neo-colonial imagination.
Although backed by U.S. money and distributed by New World Pictures, most of FIRECRACKER's creative energy — both behind and in front of the camera — comes from the Philippines. However, although set in the Philippines and directed by a Filipino, the film features U.S. actors in most of the major roles, deals with a clash between North Americans as its principal plot, and (with a few minor exceptions) is scripted completely in English. On one level, simple economic exigencies dictate this. Because English is the first or second language of most of the anticipated audience, less dubbing is required. U.S. acting styles are accepted as "natural" worldwide. And Hollywood cinematic form has become an aesthetic lingua franca.
As a Filipino, however, Cirio Santiago has roots that run deeper within the U.S. sensibility — roots which place him in an unique position to create a text that can accommodate the dual positions of colonizer and colonized. After all, since its days as an "official" U.S. colony, the Philippines has traditionally enjoyed a powerful and ambivalent bond with its former colonizer. As a recent article in the Chicago Tribune explains it:
The pervasiveness of U.S. products, language and, of course, neo-colonial ideology lead the late Benigno Aquino to remark: "You Americans, you smother us with Kisses; you kill us with Hershey Bars!"
For the Western viewer, FIRECRACKER presents a comfortably familiar picture of the U.S. presence abroad — a sort of visual Manifest Destiny. From the moment the heroine, Suzie Carter, arrives in the Philippines on a jet airline (an international image representing the domination of U.S. technology), she moves through a world filled with icons of the U.S. presence there. She checks in at a Holiday Inn-like hotel. She makes her home at the San Francisco Bar — operated by a stocky North American — and pursues her quest in similar venues (also owned and operated by North Americans). The villains' homes are filled with whisky, automobiles and North American English; the world seems in perfect order for the viewer weaned on U.S. chauvinism and a history of imperialism.
However, if everything is quite as it should be for those whose only glimpse of Asia has been through the actual or fantastical experience of the United States' WWII or Korea or Viet Nam, FIRECRACKER opens up an entirely different world for the Asian viewer. Picking at the edges of the text, looking for implications and innuendoes, piecing together in the imagination a world which actually may be daily encountered, a subtext offers the colonized another perspective. The U.S. presence remains "natural," virtually unquestioned. But other information and emotions begin to stick to the holes in the discourse - alluding to issues which appear, at first, to be absent.
Most of the events in FIRECRACKER, for example, take place in Olongapo. That city has come to symbolize the corrupting influences of the large U.S. military presence in the Philippines. Olongapo services military personnel looking for "a good time" from the Subic Bay Naval Base. According to an article in Mother Jones, there are more than 16,000 licensed prostitutes in Olongapo alone.
Although the U.S. military is only referred to once in the dialogue, when the heroine is warned that the bar she has entered is "off limits" to all military personnel, this military presence makes itself felt surely — if subtly — throughout the film. The criminal mastermind in FIRECRACKER, Eric Stockard, has the tone and deep voice of an army commander - an impression reinforced by his stiff posture, trim middle-aged physique, and hair neatly clipped in an outmoded crew-cut. He orders his underlings about like a general and is often shown in meetings plotting strategy or working at hand-to-hand combat (martial arts) exercises. Stockard represents the heart of evil in the film — he's a drug addict and pusher, a gambler, a murderer, a thief, and the head of a huge crime syndicate. His grey hairs, Anglo-Saxon features, and often paternalistic air present the viewer with a villain normally alien to the Hollywood screen — a villain who seems to epitomize white North American male power and control.
Moreover, there is no shortage of North Americans in Olongapo. The implication is that they live there to support the military. That is, former soldiers seemingly have stayed to turn a profit in drugs, gambling, liquor and prostitution. The nature of FIRECRACKER's subtext gradually becomes clearer. The film simultaneously critiques the U.S. presence in the Philippines and denies that critique. Stockard is eventually removed from Olongapo, but the U.S. remains.
THE NECESSARY CONFUSION OF FIRECRACKER'S PLOT
Under a guise of an unchanging power hierarchy, the colonial text hides a wealth of movement and contradiction, and thus also hides the potential for change and the inversion of the power structure. At first glance, FIRECRACKER's plot appears to be riddled with paradoxes. It meanders through a series of barely related incidents that link together the real meat of the exploitation genre — the sex scenes and martial arts battles. However, this confusion is actually generically deliberate. The principal narrative line masks a wealth of subtexts, which tip the moral economy of the film away from the realm of personal vendetta into the domain of racial, sexual and neo-colonial politics.
At first, the Olongapo setting, for example, appears incidental to the workings of the principal plot. Most of the action revolves around Suzie's search for her missing sister and around Eric's solidification of his drug empire. As a character, Chuck links these two narrative lines together, mediating between the two worlds as Suzie's lover and Eric's henchman. With the film's cast of North American characters, Olongapo appears to be very much in the background.
The plot, in fact, seems strictly Hollywood — THE SEARCHERS meets THE GODFATHER, with a little bit of THE DEERHUNTER thrown in for atmosphere. The hegemonic nature of the neocolonial fantasy comes to the surface. A female version of John Wayne, Suzie gallantly goes to a dangerous country filled with threatening non-Whites — a world which has swallowed up her sister and threatens her each step she takes. Implicitly, the Philippines has corrupted all those who have come into contact with it. Chuck and Eric are corrupted by drugs, gambling, and the thrill of death in the same way that the characters in THE DEERHUNTER are corrupted by their contact with Viet Nam. In the Hollywood imagination, contact with those of another race, another culture, translates into evil and death.
The moral economy of FIRECRACKER, however, not only provides this fantasy that affirms white U.S. power but simultaneously provides a fantasy which subverts it. An opposite reading can be teased out of the principal plot: The U.S. presence in the Philippines is analogous to the U.S. gangsters' presence in Olongapo. The North American is not corrupted by Asia, but has corrupted it. Like the gangster in films set closer to home, Eric, Chuck and their minions in FIRECRACKER represent the dark side of U.S. capitalism. They will do anything for a buck and will literally kill to consolidate their business empire. Like all North Americans, they are there for the profits — legal or illegal. In fact, their principal industry - drugs — has been used before in cinema as a particularly apt metaphor for capitalism and consumerism. Drugs after all consume the consumer in the same way capitalism consumes the worker; both represent exchanges based on profit.
FIRECRACKER also carefully shows that all the principal Filipino characters are on the side of the morally good. Eric's Asian partners, for example, are Chinese — a fact made clear by their dress, speech, fighting style, etc. This distinction is perhaps lost on the non-Asian viewer, but the Asian audience may be more likely to accept this stereotype of the Chinese merchant class in Southeast Asia. The Filipinos are aligned with the "good" North American, Suzie, who is also outside authority because of her gender, and the Filipinos symbolize law and order, native virtue as opposed to foreign vice.
The point is tacitly, but quite clearly, made in a scene which has only the slimmest motivation within the narrative. A tinny drum beat sounds; a native, wearing a feathered headband appears on the screen, spear in hand, on guard. A tracking shot reveals the splendid terraced rice gardens of central Luzon, the lush green landscape, and more people in native dress. The camera then rests on a group of huts and a native dance going on in the background. Blonde, light-skinned, tall, Chuck seems uncomfortably out of place. A helicopter arrives; the drugs and money are exchanged in one of the huts. The dance continues; the helicopter leaves. The drugs come from/ through the Philippines but are not part of the native land. The village seems poor and remote — benefiting little, if at all, from the foreign economic presence. Chuck and Griff, his Chinese drug contact, are literally dwarfed by the landscape. The dance goes on; life goes on with or without the foreigners.
In fact, it is at the edges of the text, in subplots and these kinds of nuances marginal to the main plot line, that the viewer can most strongly feel both the neo-colonial hegemony of the fantasy and the pleasure of resistance. Two subplots take on a wealth of significance: one revolves around Rey's loyalty to his U.S. friends, and the other focuses on Alice's identity as both heroine and spy.
The subplot involving Rey provides a particularly clear example of the dual movement of capitulation and resistance to white power in FIRECRACKER. A Filipino waiter in a U.S. establishment, Rey stands as a token in his own native country. He is like the Black soldier loyally saluting the French flag, which Roland Barthes wrote about as a classic example of how Paris Match perpetuated the neo-colonial myth. Rey has given his unconditional loyalty to his U.S. employers and friends.
This loyalty is made clear not only by Rey's willingness to help Suzie locate her sister but also by his involvement in a fight in the San Francisco Bar quite early in the film. Without any narrative motivation, a fight breaks out in the bar during the scene in which Suzie first comes to ask questions about her sister's disappearance. A number of dark-skinned thugs attack Pete, and Rey immediately joins in, followed by Suzie a few moments later. With his very dramatic high kicks, Rey outshines Pete and Suzie in his ability to put down his belligerent countrymen. Violently set apart from the rest of the population, Rey aligns himself with the North Americans, distancing himself from the common horde and tacitly rising in class standing as a "good native," i.e., U.S.-identified.
Rey plays Suzie's faithful Tonto — aiding and implicitly justifying her quest in a foreign land. He follows her when she begins to trail Chuck; he introduces her to arnis — the Philippine martial arts she will use to defeat Chuck. However, even though her love affair with the villain Chuck is taken for granted in the film as an expression of a quote "natural" attraction between two blonde Anglo-Saxons, the film never implies any possibility of love and/or sex between her and Rey. Rey remains an unsexed helper who will "naturally" risk his life for a North American in need.
Although Rey occupies a marginal place within the narrative proper, his position within the film is of central importance in the fight scenes. Part of the appeal of Southeast Asian martial arts films to the non-white and marginal audiences comes from the fact that these films provide a fantasy in which characters outside the mainstream of white U.S. power are allowed to express strength, intelligence, and moral fortitude — those qualities denied to them in daily life — and to do so in a spectacular fashion. In this light, Rey becomes a locus of identification and vicarious enjoyment for the marginal viewer. In fact, the actor who portrays Rey in FIRECRACKER, Reymond King, may De the only actor in the film to have a star following. Often billed as the "Filipino Bruce Lee," King enjoys a reputation not only in the Philippines but also in other Southeast Asian markets. Compared to the other actors in the film (particularly the star, Jillian Kesner, who only had a few karate lessons before taking the vole), King clearly has superior athletic ability and martial skills. As a matter of fact, he doubled as actor and martial arts choreographer/ instructor on this particular project.
Certainly, Rey represents a strength and knowledge the other characters do not come close to matching. Implicitly, this strength flows from his intimate contact with Filipino culture in the form of the indigenous martial arts — known as arnis, escrima, kali, and a variety of different names depending on style, regional origin, etc. In an article on Filipino martial artist Mike Inay in Inside Kung-Fu, Nate Defensor discusses the ancient and extensive roots the martial arts have in the Philippines:
In a key sequence, Rey takes Suzie into the Luzon highlands to meet an arnis master. The martial arts here are depicted noticeably differently from the way they function in the rest of the film. For the most part, the martial arts simply function in the film as survival tools in street fights or as the excuse for betting in a sports arena — one dominated by U.S. fighters, non-Filipino karate techniques, and a U.S. boss. If Stockard dominates the martial arts world in the Olongapo underworld, a Filipino guro takes charge in the countryside. For the Asian viewer, this teacher not only represents a "pure" national culture untouched by Western influence but also an explicitly martial culture — a military threat in the making. Rey translates for Suzie the words the teacher speaks in Tagalog: "The fruits of wisdom fall on different hands at different times." Knowledge and power can change hands, and when Suzie takes up and begins to use her two arnis sticks, she quite literally takes up Filipino arms to use against U.S. oppression. This is not merely a "school" (as a Western observer or one of Marcos' censors may think), but a hidden military encampment (with uniformed soldiers performing regimented drills). It is a possible source of a literal military threat, a fantasy of national, native power and strength.
The fact that Rey has access to this world contradicts his apparent unquestioning loyalty to his U.S. boss and friends. He allows Suzie into this world so that she can defeat Eric and Chuck, the symbols of U.S. corruption of Filipino life. In fact, the actual threat that Rey, ostensibly completely "Americanized," represents to the power structure only surfaces during the film's denouement. Throughout the film, Rey's loyalty seems personal — i.e., he simply wants to support and protect his friend Suzie. However, when Rey enters the sports arena building, supposedly to support Suzie in her quest for revenge during the final sequence, his battles eventually lead him to a direct confrontation with Eric Stockard. This confrontation lies outside the realm of Suzie's personal search for revenge. Rather, this battle is between North American and Filipino, corruption and moral justification, foreigner and native, oppressor and oppressed.
After killing off all Stockard's Asian henchmen, Rey manages to corner Stockard and is poised, ready to skewer Stockard with a sword, when a policeman stops him at gunpoint. If Rey had been allowed to kill Stockard, the boundaries within which the dominant ideology allows for and contains the expression of discontent would have been disrupted. The threat of his compatriot's gun recoups Rey into the system, making him again subservient to the "law." Whether or not that law, which allows for Stockard's survival, represents justice remains an open issue at the end of the film.
A second subplot — also relatively minor in terms of FIRECRACKER's overall narrative movement — revolves around Alice's exploits as an undercover policewoman. Alice is first presented as Eric's trusted companion and confidant. They are presumably lovers. The viewer comes to understand Eric's most secret plans and desires through his interaction with Alice. She caters to his vices, prepares liquor and heroin for his consumption, and silently stands by him, seemingly an ornament that pays tribute to his success. Ironically, although he remarks to her at one point, "I take nothing for granted," her services are taken completely for granted. Like most of the Filipino characters in the film, she seems invisible and thus privy to all his dealings. Like all spies, Alice embodies a moral dilemma. Although she is on the side of virtue, her tactics are duplicitous — she betrays a trust. Her death expiates this transgression and also punishes interracial love as her duplicity is transformed into martyrdom.
In many ways, Alice's position mirrors Suzie's. Just as Suzie cultivates her relationship with Chuck in order to get information about her sister's disappearance, Alice prostitutes herself in order to pass on information to her fellow police officers. Although the film presents both as essentially morally justified, Alice's and Suzie's duplicity plays into stereotypes of women and Asians as deceitful. If those in power have some notion of the anger of the oppressed, they must also fear the possible trickery of their servants and slaves. Ironically, the villains' only virtues — blind trust and romantic love — lead to their destruction. As in Rey's case, those who are happily subservient and ostensibly support the status quo may actually represent the greatest threat to that established power.
These two subplots also question the self-identity of the oppressed. This issue is an acute one for many in the exploitation film's audience. Suzie and Alice must mask their true intentions and identities in order to gain access to a world of power and corruption. Similarly, Rey's identity blends contradictory traits: identification with North Americans and their values, as well as an association with Filipino military culture and resistance. This issue of mapping out the moral pluses and minuses of disguise, deceit, confused loyalties, and espionage twists its way through the subplots of the film.
THE FEMALE AVENGER AND THE PORNOGRAPHIC SPECTACLE
In many ways, the above analysis of FIRECRACKER's plotline may be open to criticism as an elaborate analytical wild-goose chase since the plot itself and the issues raised by the plot are more or less marginal to the principal affective force of the film — the spectacle. As a hybrid of the martial arts and pornography genres, FIRECRACKER takes up the element of spectacle common to each with a vengeance. As in the musical genre in which the narrative often acts as a backdrop for the real pleasure of the song and dance routines, the plot in FIRECRACKER remains incidental to the real pleasure of the sexual and martial arts spectacles in the film. In no way does FIRECRACKER present the intricate plot twists and turns of the classic mystery or thriller. Rather, the pleasure of FIRECRACKER is visceral. Prowess of a sexual or martial nature makes the spectator gasp with excitement and anticipation.
This type of episodic narrative characterizes the exploitation film with good reason. It plays well in viewing situations that deviate from the commercial ideal of silence, darkness and individual involvement with the screen. Drive-ins, downtown Black cinemas, family-oriented ethnic Chinatown theatres all provide noisy, community-centered viewing situations in which as much drama and chatter take place off-screen as on. Films structured around a series of discrete bits of spectacular activity allow the viewer to enjoy a film without committing full attention to intricate verbal repartee or complex plots.
Moreover, the episodic structure provides a form which is certainly more open to the presentation of contradiction. Scenes depicting socially condemned fantasies of forbidden hostilities toward those in power, or a world of endless sexual adventures replacing meaningless work, may provide the real pleasure behind a film that ostensibly cautions against the evils of such indulgences.
The paradoxical nature of FIRECRACKER's fantasy world comes out most strongly in the physical presence of the film's protagonist - Suzie Carter. Suzie is both the locus of the voyeur's sexual fantasy, a sex object on display for the male viewer, and also a warrior, a martial artist, an independent force for the vindication of the rights of the oppressed. However, this central paradox of woman as sex object and victim as well as woman as fighter and victor poses no major problem of fantasy believability to the exploitation film's audience.
Both pornography and the martial arts-adventure film genres have a tradition of female-centered dramas. As a hybrid of the two genres, FIRECRACKER solidifies its hold on its audience by fusing two diametrically opposed notions of female characterization into the figure of Suzie Carter. Although not common, this generic fusion is not unprecedented in the Southeast Asian film industry. Hong Kong, for example, has come up with a series of films, mainly costume adventures, which feature the explicit sexual degradation of women and the victims' bloody exacting of revenge; THE INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN is only one example. The "tough broad" stereotype also appears in the U.S. exploitation market. Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL, KILL is simply one example from his oeuvre which represents the type.
In fact, those unfamiliar with the martial arts film and/or Southeast Asian popular culture and its themes may still find themselves perfectly at home with FIRECRACKER, viewing it as an example of soft-core pornography, where a female lead is an accepted convention of the formula.
At least since the publication of de Sade's pornographic epics Justine and Juliette, an important segment of Western pornography has been more or less dominated by the female-centered narrative. In "Pornographic Space: The Other Place") and "ANGEL ON FIRE: Three Texts of Desire," Dennis Giles points out that pornographic cinema necessitates a dual identification. This is because the male spectator must see events from the perspective of the female protagonist (because of the conventions of identification set up by classical Hollywood films) while also identifying with the male penetrator:
According to the psychoanalytic perspective Giles adopts to analyze this phenomenon, the viewer reaps a number of pleasurable benefits from this type of narrative organization: a dual hetero-/homo-sexual identification; the satisfaction of the sadistic, voyeuristic desire to expose and see the female fantasy Object as well as the masochistic need to be punished for that forbidden desire; the "polymorphously perverse" fun of identifying with all sorts of forbidden pleasures (including the joys of both male and female orgasms) and the smug certainty that the female (because of the viewer's privileged place of complete identification with her point-of-view) has enjoyed it all. This view of the female-centered pornographic narrative only takes into account the psychological implications of the phenomenon, however. Placing the film within a social-historical context and looking at the urban, working-class male spectator as the typical viewer, it seems clear that the identification with a person "getting fucked" may go beyond the purely sexual realm.
Pornography — like other film forms that revolve around the display of spectacles — rests on the physical: the dance, the contest, and the display of sexual prowess. In bourgeois society, women, working people, non-whites, and all those who are identified as "other" because they are outside a white, male, heterosexual norm are relegated to the physical realm, to "nature" rather than "culture." Within this system of hegemonic thought, if to rule means to be cerebral, cool, clean, and removed from physical labor and the animal side of life, then to be working class means to sweat, be dirty, and do physical labor. To be Black means to be "animalistic," carnal, close to the dark side of nature and sexuality; to be female means to be intuitive, not rational, to physically bear and nurse children. The brain is cut off from the body. A hierarchy is established. With the physical realm reserved for the oppressed group, cultural definition and stigma become physical. The oppressed can only excel in the physical realm, can only control and dominate this side of life. Thus, it is not surprising to find that most of the fantasies which FIRECRACKER offers this audience for its enjoyment involve the physical playing out of aggression. In the film, both the boxing ring and the bedroom evolve into privileged spaces.
In FIRECRACKER, Suzie Carter symbolizes such a mastery of the physical realm. Although coded as a sex object, i.e., a victim, she refuses to "get fucked." The male viewer can enjoy this refusal, this control that a female normally outside the mainstream of power can command, while still looking at her as an object of voyeuristic pleasure. The female viewer can enjoy the added pleasure of the representation of a woman who can defend herself against male aggression while remaining free to express her sexuality openly and without restraint. The dual position of the spectator as colonizer/ colonized redoubles itself so that the viewer becomes both male/ female, voyeur/ identified with a specular object, aggressor/ defender-avenger.
This dual positioning becomes here a literal cinematographic creation, and it is most obvious in those scenes devoted to the spectacle of combat. In FIRECRACKER, that spectacle often takes place in the bedroom. Thus two specular positions are established from the very first in the pre-credit and credit sequences. The pre-credit sequence features Chuck in the arena where people fight to the death. He chooses from among three challengers, defeats his opponent and is given the signal to kill him. During the moment of choice, the camera takes Chuck's point-of-view. Chuck then goes against a weaponed opponent and the spectator feels for Chuck as an underdog. Intercut with this combat, the viewer sees Bonnie taking photos as everyone else in the crowd bets or cheers for a favorite. She is quickly ushered away in the confusion, not to be seen again. While the narrative symbolically punishes her for usurping the male prerogative to look and to control through looking, the viewer remains tied to the action in the ring — tied to Chuck's point-of-view as an anchor of specular identification.
However, Suzie's introduction challenges this identification. Intercut with images of exploding firecrackers (symbols of good omen in Asia which help to combat evil influences), Suzie appears as the film's protagonist — deftly and strongly performing parts of her kata (a stylized karate exercise). Her presence as heroine upsets the audience's original identification with Chuck, and the film plays on this uneasy dual identification throughout.
The following sequence — narratively unmotivated, for the most part — introduces one of the principal visual ambiguities in the film. Suzie registers in a hotel after landing in Manila. She stands in the background of the composition, near a man at the desk. In the foreground, a dark, shadowy figure looks in her direction; the camera, i.e., the viewer, is positioned with him. The man in the background joins him. In the next scene, the two men break into a hotel room. Suzie emerges from the bathroom, dressed in a very skimpy nightgown, which exposes her legs and the tops of her breasts. Certainly she is dressed for the male spectator's sexual pleasure. However, just as the viewer begins to enjoy an exposed female body on display, the display turns into combat. Grabbed by one of the thieves, Suzie confidently kicks the other in the groin. After a flurry of kicks and blows, Suzie throws one thief against the room's television set and the other through a screen partition. If women are relegated to the bedroom in film as objects of male sexual pleasure, Suzie has managed to turn that bedroom into an arena for the display of her physical power. She takes over a part of the physical realm usually reserved for men, is tested in that realm, and found sound.
In fact, throughout the film, Suzie appears to be most powerful when she conforms most closely to our culture's notion of female sexual desirability. Before attacks, she wears her most transparent bedclothes, her shortest dresses, her lowest-cut blouses, her highest heels; her hair hangs loose and long, ready to be grabbed. Toward the end of the film, when Suzie has already proven her fighting mettle in scenes against attackers in the San Francisco Bar, against sundry villains and against Chuck himself in a practice match, she once again comes up against a pair of anonymous attackers.
This attack sequence is completely unmotivated by the plot and seems almost like an autonomous mini-slasher film within the larger film. After an evening at the death bouts, Suzie takes a cab back to the hotel but decides to get out and walk instead of riding all the way to her destination. Dressed in a flimsy white wrap-around dress, Suzie walks down a neon-lit Olongapo street and passes two dark-skinned men drinking in the mid-foreground. A key light accentuates her blonde hair. The camera tracks, following her long, nude legs. The men ask threateningly, "Hey, baby, what are you doing tonight?" The camera continues to follow Suzie's legs as the music intensifies, and she begins to run. As she runs, her dress slips, exposing a breast. After throwing both attackers, she continues to run. Her dress gets caught on a fence, and she is forced to rip it to continue her flight. A rape threat degenerates into a striptease. With each blow she strikes, another article of clothing disappears.
The male spectator enjoys the pursuit and the strip show. How dare a beautiful woman walk alone at night and not expect to e molested? The film establishes an uneasy specular bond between the attackers and the viewer. Suzie comes across a construction site guard and asks his help. However, this poor fellow is quickly dispatched by the two thugs, who push him against a sharp hook and drive his torso onto the blade until the bloody metal protrudes from his chest. Suzie cannot rely on men to save her "honor."
As Suzie's clothing diminishes, her self-confidence seems to increase. She spies her pursuers and beckons them on with a devilish smile that seems to say, "Come and get me." Suzie manages to dispatch one attacker by shoving him onto an electric saw, which splits open his head. His friend discovers the body and grabs a scythe-like tool. The sexual thrill of pursuing and exposing a woman continues. He lunges, and the blade rips open Suzie's bra, exposing her breasts. He swings at her several times, but she manages to avoid the blade and get in several kicks. She disarms him and kicks him down. Two extreme close-ups of their faces intensify the intimacy of the sexual violence of the scene. The attacker is forced to size Suzie up as an opponent rather than as a victim. The viewer, on the other hand, remains free to enjoy the spectacle of her half-nude body. With her opponent groggy, leaning against a post, Suzie reaches for a long stick, using it as a staff, to strike him at the head and at the groin. An extreme low angle shot shows her stabbing down at the attacker, who goes limp and presumably dies. Triumphant, Suzie throws down the stick and walks out of the frame.
Even in the act of justified self-defense, however, Suzie remains a beautiful nude object. Divorced from the film plot and functioning as a rather grotesque form of comic relief, this sequence manages to retain an element of humor because of the contrived way in which Suzie loses an article of clothing at every turn. Although Suzie is the protagonist and is presented as completely justified in killing her attackers as brutally as they killed the guard who came to her aid, she remains the target of a dirty joke, humiliated by each loss of clothing.
This scene effectively contains the fantasy of female power the film puts forward. She may act as an excellent and justified killer, but Suzie is still a woman, a threat to male authority, something to be kept down to insure the perpetuation of that authority. Although she represents justified revenge in the face of oppression, Suzie also provides sexual thrills. Thus, any viewer identification with her must be qualified so as to perpetuate the established order and secure a notion of male identity. She can represent a challenge, but, like Rey, Suzie must eventually be subsumed within the film's hegemonic fantasy.
A link between the sexist and racist elements in the film surfaces in these two scenes featuring anonymous attackers. In both the hotel and the construction site scenes, the film establishes Suzie's attackers as dark-skinned "natives." Particularly in the latter scene, the racial overtones become quite clear. The viewer fears for Suzie not simply as a woman, but as a white woman. A thrill of racial chauvinism snakes its way into the film. As a white, Suzie becomes threatened by but neatly triumphs over her dark-skinned attackers. A racial status quo is affirmed by her victory; a sexual status quo is reinforced by the humiliation of her nudity.
These two sequences of sexual exposure and martial vindication provide an interesting contrast with the sequence that crowns Suzie and Chuck's sexual relationship. If the two earlier sequences use martial artistry to disguise the fact of their sexual titillation, this sequence uses sex to expose the titillation at the root of the violence in the film.
The scene begins with an image of self-contained male sexuality. Half-naked, Chuck stares into a mirror and twirls two balisongs (the Philippine equivalent of the switchblade) while looking directly into his own eyes. He is adept at the use of the knives, and the viewer senses Chuck's self-sufficiency from this virtuoso control over implements of violence.
A doorbell rings; Suzie enters and is framed in the mirror with Chuck's image — symbolically entering a realm of reflection and fantasy. She is upset by the fact that she has just identified her sister's body. Concerned, Chuck caresses Suzie. A black kitten interrupts the embrace by loudly shattering a mirror.
A type of up-tempo serial pop music, often associated with pornographic films, swells on the soundtrack and is emotionally not in keeping with Suzie's mourning. Chuck picks Suzie up and carries her into his bedroom. As in traditional hard- and soft-core pornography, the camera lingers over shots of the objects which provide the setting for the sex act - colored lighting, a king-size bed, dumbbells, toiletries and other homages to Chuck's vanity, and, of course, huge mirrors which reduplicate from as many angles as possible each embrace. With this emphasis on the objects surrounding sex, Suzie herself becomes another visual object in the scene. For those on the edge of a consumer society, unable to buy the material happiness the dominant culture promises as a right, pornography presents a very satisfying fantasy of conspicuous consumption and material control. Everything is available in abundance — liquor, women and sexuality.
Moreover, the scene pays homage to male domination, particularly to its physical aspect, to male narcissism and control through physical, sexual force. Once again, for those with little power over their lives, the fact of male identity holds out a possibility for one last chance at power — superiority over women. The sequence continues, reinforcing this sense of male physical presence and power. Chuck takes out his balisongs and begins to cut away Suzie's pants, as she lies vulnerably on her back. She sits up, and Chuck cuts away her blouse and bra. Looking down from a high angle shot, we see Suzie look up imploringly at Chuck, caress his face, and then, in a gesture which begins with the adjustment of a lock of her hair, hit Chuck so hard with a back fist that he falls off the bed to the ground.
The tables are turned. Suzie now insists on getting some fun for herself. She has Chuck stand on the bed in front of her, takes the balisongs, and begins to cut his pants off. She lingers a bit with the knife as it reaches his groin. Framed, completely nude, between Chuck's legs as she does this, Suzie remains an object for the viewer's prurient contemplation. As Giles points out, the inversion of the sadomasochistic fantasy does not seem to interfere with the male viewer's enjoyment in the least. Identifying with both the male and female characters, the viewer actually enjoys the expression of sexuality as well as its symbolic punishment, the pleasure of exercising power as well as the control and containment of the sexual wish.
Indeed, the sequence ends with both Suzie and Chuck naked on the bed, Suzie literally on top. She holds Chuck's head in her hands and says, "I can feel the blood pulsing in your head. You're so good…" When viewed in relation to events that come later in the film, this scene and these lines take on particular significance. At the end of the film, Suzie releases that pulsating blood by killing Chuck with two sticks driven into his eye sockets. Then she holds his fate, instead of just his head, in her hands and uses that power to destroy him.
If part of an oppressed or marginal group, the male viewer may feel some hint of the anger women feel because of their position in a male-dominated society. Even if that bond of understanding is vehemently denied by some viewers because it questions traditional notions of male sexuality, the power of Suzie's warrior identity cannot be taken lightly. Not only does the female protagonist provide a comfortably familiar voyeuristic focal point for the habitué of the pornographic cinema, but she also takes on a special significance for those raised within the tradition of Asian drama and narrative art.
In many Asian narrative traditions, in fact, the female protagonist is the privileged protagonist. A majority of traditional Chinese operas, for example, feature female leads. Moreover, many of these leading female characters are martial characters — lady generals, fairy-spirits adept at all sorts of martial arts, women raised to be kung-fu experts by famous fathers. In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston artfully describes the imaginative importance the female martial heroine had for her as she grew up in Chinese-America:
These military heroines were also part of the narrative tradition of Viet Nam (e.g., the historical account of the Trung sisters' rebellion) and other countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. Dan Inosanto, in point of fact, concludes his book, The Filipino Martial Arts, with the following appreciation of the martial exploits of women in Filipino history:
Even though, in many ways, Suzie is the blonde sex-kitten of the U.S. pornographic imagination, she is also the female warrior-avenger of the Asian mold.
Many of these stories of both fictional and historical female fighters arose during times of colonial domination or the threat of that domination. If a woman, the lowest "weakest" rung in the social ladder, can find the strength to lead an army or seek personal vindication for a wrong, the cause of the oppressed group must be extremely justified. The female warrior also represents the penultimate symbol of hope. If she appears as a "last chance" for a conquered nation or an apparently lost cause, she always finds the strength to vanquish the enemy in the service of that cause. She symbolizes the hopes of the weak to find the moral and physical strength to prevail. Also, conveniently, she is not a very threatening symbol or one that will be too vigorously censored, because women seldom pose an actual physical threat to the established order. She remains very much a creature of fantasy or from half-fantastical historical roots.
If the conqueror emasculates/ feminizes the conquered, however, the female warrior reverses that process and denies it by emphasizing the strength of the female and her potential power. The viewer's relation to Suzie remains contradictory. Even though the male viewer's last hope for a somewhat secure position of control and power lies with a reaffirmation of male privilege, Suzie's presence violently shatters that fantasy. As a heroine, she kills her sister's murderer — even though he is her lover — and she remains in the right.
THE' SPECTACLE OF THE CONTEST:
FIRECRACKER begins and ends with a medium long shot of a large, rectangular, fenced-in arena — the "arena of death." This arena allows for the symbolic expression of conflicts that are marginal to the workings of the plot. Here issues of race, sex, colonialism, money, nationalism and power surface. Removed from the machinations of the plot, framed by a stage literally fenced-off from the fictional spectators as well as from the film spectators, the arena provides a symbolically safe, distanced domain for the expression of those contradictions so oppressively denied by the dominant ideology. Contained by a tacit set of martial arts rules of form as well as by the physical fact of the arena itself, this fenced-in combat area removes the viewer from the contest and allows him/her to witness a stylized spectacle within a spectacle, a safe expression of culturally taboo fantasies.
For the exploitation film's principal audience, the ring stands as a particularly powerful metaphor. Here one struggles and either wins or dies. The fight's brutality parallels other more mundane, but no less brutal, types of struggles. The powerful and the wealthy literally make money on this struggle — by gambling or sponsoring the matches. The combatants' blood makes others rich.
Although a metaphor for exploitation, the ring also represents a chance for individual excellence. It confirms the lie that no matter what one's background may be, one can always excel through hard work. If the road to success is blocked in terms of education, career advancement, etc., the ring offers the illusion of success through physical mastery, personal self-discipline, and individual control. If one has no power in the real world, one can exercise as much force and display as much strength as humanly possible in the ring. However, this display remains limited to the individual combatant and does not extend to the marginalized race, sex, class or ethnic group in general. The combatant remains an exception; the individual nature of the contest contains the fighter's violent anger. However, this containment only partially disguises the fact that the combatants are a particular race, a particular sex, or from a particular country.
These contradictions surface in the concluding combat. This sequence crosscuts between two battles — Suzie's contest with Chuck in the arena and Rey's with Eric in Eric's office hallway In his well-known essay on MARKED WOMAN, Charles Eckert pointed out that ideology in film fantasies operates according to the principles of condensation, displacement and disguise that Freud discovered. These psychological mechanisms regularly allow for the expression of socially unacceptable thoughts and feelings in dreams. And just as the psychic mechanisms of repression both disguise and express taboo wishes, the ideological structurings of a film fantasy allow for and mask class conflict, racial anger, and the potential rebelliousness of the dispossessed. Such a process, which Eckert traced in MARKED WOMAN, also seems to function here, disguising the true nature of the fantasy in FIRECRACKER.
For example, the emotional force of Suzie's victory over Chuck as a woman's victory over a male aggressor and a woman-killer dissipates. Her character has condensed within it elements which run counter to the affirmation of gender pride in her victory. First, her final combat is personalized; Suzie is not simply killing a "bad man," but the man who killed her sister. Blood-tie, rather than gender prerogative, justifies her action. Moreover, despite her victory, Suzie remains a large-breasted, blonde sex object; the way her body is coded dilutes the affective power of her martial abilities.
Similarly, displacement dampens the impact of the racial and class conflicts played within Rey's battle with Stockard. No personal vendetta, no sexual titillation obscures the fact that Rey, a Filipino working man, is battling a white, U.S. entrepreneur. Here, the film does not give the viewer the satisfaction of witnessing Stockard's more-than-justified demise. Rather, the police step in and bridle Rey's anger, so that the viewer must seek its expression elsewhere, namely in the far more ambivalent triumph of Suzie over Chuck.
In fact, the ambivalent positioning of the viewer, his/her alternating identification with Chuck and/or Suzie, comes to a head in the pair's final combat. There is an element of shock in the fact that Suzie can so bloodlessly kill the man with whom she had so recently made love. Similarly, Chuck's own bloodlust is softened. When challenged, he first tries to avoid the fight.
At one point, Chuck has Suzie cornered with two balisongs at her throat, posed to cut the jugular; then he relents and begins to walk away. Suzie attacks him when his back is turned. If part of the satisfaction of their contest comes from seeing the "weaker sex" win out over a man, that pleasure is certainly limited by the fact that Suzie wins not because of her superior martial artistry but because of her willingness to "fight dirty." She "plays dead" to strike at Chuck's knee. She attacks him when he is down or his back is turned. In fact, Suzie delivers the fatal blow when Chuck is already down on the mat, helpless. And since binding often represents castration in male fantasy, Suzie's killing Chuck by driving two arnis sticks through his eyes may appear to be particularly appalling or brutal to the male viewer. Chuck's fatal weakness was his desire not to kill Suzie. This weakness, when contrasted to Suzie's brutal determination, allows for viewer sympathy here for Chuck and a feeling of ambivalence about the moral justification for his murder.
As has been pointed out in a discussion among feminist film critics in New German Critique, the ambiguity at the heart of Hollywood narrative form is not accidental. A mass-produced product designed to be sold to the largest number of people possible, Hollywood narrative cultivates an ambiguity that allows a film to be all things to all people. A film like FIRECRACKER, which draws on the tried-and-true Hollywood form and molds it to the needs of the exploitation market, compounds this essential ambiguity. What at first appears to be a hopelessly convoluted plot crisscrossed by several unmotivated scenes of sexual and martial display turns out to be one of the key elements of FIRECRACKER's success. While maintaining a hegemonic fantasy of white, U.S. male domination in the Third World, the film also negotiates a number of spaces that allow the viewer to see the contradictory nature of that domination.
However, those positions simultaneously contradict one another: native Filipinos are strong because of their national martial skills and fervent upholders of neo-colonial rule; women are sex-kittens, victims of male violence, and strong avengers of wrongs done to other women; the U.S. drug dealers are evil entrepreneurs and envied symbols of the "good life," an image of the American Dream's promise of success. The Hollywood form allows these social contradictions to be expressed, then personalized and resolved within a drama that transposes these social concerns to the private realm — in this case, to Suzie's personal search for revenge. Lived contradictions are the stuff of the exploitation film's fantasy world. However, just as part of the pleasure of pornography comes from the limitation of sexuality, the stylized control of the sex act, and the punishment that the masochistic fantasy brings to bear on the expression of a taboo subject, part of the pleasure of these fantasies of explicit violent rebellion against the dominant order comes from their containment. The exploitation film remains a reaffirmation of an unchanging world for those who have a questionable place and a questionable identity within that order.
1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, March 30, 1984. I would like to thank Hildy Tow, Rob Gage, Marilyn Riederer, and Chuck Kleinhans for their comments and encouragement.
2. Homi K. Bhabha, "The Other Question — the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse," Screen, 24:6 (Nov.-Dec. 1983), pp. 18-36.
3. Jonathan Broder, "Love-Hate View of U.S Adds to Philippine Dilemma," Chicago Tribune, Oct. 2, 1983, p. 18, sec. 1.
4. James C. Thomson, Jr., Peter W. Stanley and John Curtis Perry, Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 270.
5. Mark Dowie, "Clark and Subic: Homes of the Brave," Mother Jones, Jan. 1984, p. 22.
6. Nate Defensor, "Inayan Escrima Seminar," Inside Kung-Fu, Feb. 1984, p. 98.
7. Dennis Giles, "Pornographic Space: The Other Place," Film: Historical-Theoretical Speculations, 1977 Film Studies Annual: Part Two (New York: Redgrave, 1977), pp. 52-66.
8. Dennis Giles, "ANGEL ON FIRE: Three Texts of Desire," The Velvet Light Trap, No. 16 (Fall 1976), pp. 41-45.
9. Ibid., p. 42.
10. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior:
11. Dan Inosanto, The Filipino Martial Arts (Los Angeles: Know Now, 1980J, p. 173.
12. Charles Eckert, "The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's MARKED WOMAN," Film Quarterly, 27:2 (1973-74).
13. Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, Anna Marie Taylor, Renny Harrigan, Helen Fehervary and Nancy Vedder-Shults, "Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics," New German Critique, No. 13 (Winter 1978), pp. 83-107.