Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cynthia Khan Steps In and Takes Over in “In the Line of Duty”

In 1985, Michelle Yeoh rose quickly to stardom, along with American actress Cynthia Rothrock, in the Hong Kong action film, Yes, Madam! Yeoh’s equally successful follow-up, Royal Warriors (1986), was released in other territories as In the Line of Duty, while Yes, Madam! was, interestingly enough, given a sequel title, In the Line of Duty 2. D & B Films retained the title to continue as a series, but by 1988, Yeoh had retired to marry producer Dickson Poon (the “D” in D & B).

Looking for a new leading lady, D & B Films chose Cynthia Khan. Born Yang Li-Ching in Taiwan, the actress’ stage name is an amalgamation of Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Khan (Yeoh’s screen credit before her retirement). Like other female action stars, she’d previously trained in dance. Though Khan was taking over the lead, she was not portraying the same character as Yeoh, who played two different characters in Yes, Madam! and Royal Warriors.

The plot to 1988’s In the Line of Duty III is similar to Royal Warriors: vengeance-minded Japanese criminals (Stuart Ong and Michiko Nishiwaki) are targeting Madam Yeung (Khan) and others, while a Japanese cop (Hiroshi Fujioka) is looking for retribution against the villains. Both movies have an additional villain who enters the plot midway through, action scenes set in night clubs, and end in warehouses with the female protagonist fighting alone and various tools as weapons. Khan even looks like Michelle Yeoh, in similar Don Johnson-inspired outfits and matching boyish haircut. Fortunately, the series progressed, and by the sixth film (before Yeoh’s return to cinema screens), Khan’s hair is considerably longer and she’s taken to wearing short skirts or shorts and knee-high boots.

Though setting up Khan as a replacement for Yeoh, In the Line of Duty III does establish Khan’s character as a strong woman. A man at the beginning mocks Madam Yeung when she tries to write him a ticket. Though he degrades police officers in general, the implication is that he’s questioning her authority as a female. When a robber runs past, Yeung chases him, but her knee-length skirt (part of her police uniform) is so constricted that she tears it along the side. This allows her to run faster and, more importantly, use her legs freely against the criminal. It’s almost as if Yeung is freeing herself from the limitations that some may associate with working women. But it’s also the woman utilizing unconventional methods to capture the robber: she is unable to retrieve a pistol from another officer (a male cop who proves to be a hindrance), due to the lanyard tied to the weapon, and so an unarmed woman must stop an armed criminal.

In the Line of Duty III was an entertaining action film and a grand introduction to Khan’s female cop protagonist. In her subsequent film, In the Line of Duty IV (1989), a man, Luk (Yuen Yat-Choh), is sought by criminals for having photographic evidence of a CIA operative’s involvement in selling drugs, unaware that Luk lost the film almost immediately. Madam Yeung teams up with another officer (Donnie Yen) to protect Luk, also marked for death simply for being a witness. Michael Wong, who starred in Royal Warriors with Yeoh (he’s playing a different character), co-stars as a CIA agent.

Generally considered the favorite of Khan’s In the Line of Duty films, the fourth entry, in addition to allowing Khan to break away from Yeoh’s cinematic persona, was directed by famed Hong Kong filmmaker Yuen Woo-Ping and featured an early performance from future superstar Donnie Yen. Though he’s only known in the U.S. for choreography (the Wachowski Bros.’ The Matrix in 1999, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies in 2003-04, etc.), Yuen was a successful director in Hong Kong, directing and choreographing such stars as Jackie Chan (in his first legitimate hit), Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. Yen has been popular for a number of years, for films including Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and Iron Monkey (1993/directed by Yuen), but his productivity in the last several years has been amazing, appearing in a host of award-winning films. He has also proven himself a competent action director, earning a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography for The Twins Effect (Vampire Effect in the U.S.) in 2004, SPL: Sha Po Lang (Kill Zone in the U.S.) in 2006, and Flash Point (also a Taiwan Golden Horse Film Award) in 2008. (Yuen won in said category for the years in between, 2005 and 2007.)

Next in the series was In the Line of Duty V: Middle Man (1990). In this film, Madam Yeung’s cousin, David (David Wu), is on leave from the Navy. When David’s criminal friend, Alan, is killed from a botched drug deal, his ties to the selling of U.S. intel convinces the CIA that David is equally guilty of espionage. Yeung must keep her cousin out of prison, as well as protect David from men who believe he possesses an incriminating diary that belonged to Alan. Though not as good as its predecessor, Middle Man is an admirable film and yet another showcase for Khan’s talents.

Cynthia Khan, along with actresses such as Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima, is known for frequently appearing in films of the “Girls with Guns” subgenre. However, the In the Line of Duty films focus on hand-to-hand combat. Many of the times, Khan’s character (as well as other police officers) is outgunned, armed with a police-issued revolver while dodging bullets from automatic weapons. Ultimately the villains run out of bullets, and it comes down to physical prowess, of which Madam Yeung is more than capable.

Two more sequels followed, both released in 1991 (though the latter film was apparently produced in 1990). Despite neither movie utilizing the In the Line of Duty title, Khan is reprising her character in each film. In Forbidden Arsenal, Khan and her team halt a transaction of illegal arms, ensnaring two of the men (Waise Lee and Do Siu-Chun) in the process. Both men, however, claim to be police officers -- one from Taiwan, the other from mainland China -- working in Hong Kong. The men are not authorized to work the case, which doesn’t stop them from attempting to do exactly that. Yeung spends much of the time babysitting the two, who occasionally come across as oafish: one has a penchant for perusing adult magazines, while another learns the hard way that tin cans should not be heated in a microwave. This not only expresses Yeung’s superiority over the two as a woman, but also as a Hong Kong cop. A unique quality of this film is the first (and only) sign of romantic interest for Madam Yeung. It seems out of place, but at least her potential suitor earns it (e.g., he has a long wait until the closing credits).

Sea Wolves begins with Vietnam refugees attacked at sea, murdered for their valuables. John (Simon Yam), part of the thieving, murderous crew (and brother to the ship’s captain), recognizes a refugee, Gary (Gary Chow, who was also in Forbidden Arsenal), and saves him from a similar fate. Gary is injured and subsequently develops amnesia. Once the ship reaches the shores of Hong Kong, he escapes, and John does what he can to keep his brothers in crime from killing his friend. Unfortunately, Khan is a supporting player in this entry, as there are stretches of time without Madam Yeung, while most of her scenes act as reminders of an ongoing investigation. On its own, Sea Wolves is an adequate action thriller, but as In the Line of Duty 7, it’s a disappointing conclusion to the series. Philip Kwok of Chang Cheh’s Venoms was the martial arts director of the sixth and seventh films (co-credited in Forbidden Arsenal). He also had roles in both films.

Though they are loosely connected -- the common denominators being Khan’s Madam Yeung and D & B Films as producers -- these films are generally considered the In the Line of Duty series. Various alternate titles, however, cause a great deal of confusion. Khan plays a vengeful bride sporting an uzi in Queen’s High (1991), which has also been called In the Line of Duty 5: In the Beginning. In the Line of Duty IV was released on UK DVD as In the Line of Duty, while Middle Man is sometimes known as In the Line of Duty 2. The series entries additionally have varying Yes Madam titles, with Khan appearing in the unrelated films, Yes Madam (1995), Yes Madam 5 (1996) -- she does play a cop named Yeung -- and A Serious Shock! Yes Madam! (1993/aka Death Triangle) with Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima.

Attempting to link the seven In the Line of Duty movies (or even just the five starring Cynthia Khan) with anything concerning a plot is irrelevant. Audiences were just happy to see a familiar face, and Kahn made the series her own before the credits of her first film even rolled. Loyalty in action films lies with the protagonist. So as the storyline falls by the wayside, viewers will focus all their love and energy on the character who’s still standing at the end. One of the most vital ingredients to any film’s success is the star, and Cynthia Khan was one of the brightest.


  1. Sark, this is a great write-up of what sounds like a fascinating series. There aren't many series that undergo a change in star and (in most territories, I suspect) title and still be successful...much less continue for five more films. I'm sure some of the credit belongs to Yuen Woo-Ping, who is an amazing action director. The climatic fight he choreographed for IRON MONKEY still rates among my all-time faves. Cynthia Khan looks awesome in your pics. I will definitely check out some of these films, probably starting with the fourth installment. By the way, I noticed how your kung fu film reviews for this month have some nifty connections--from strong female characters to actors who performed in the VENOMS movies!

  2. Wow, Sark, there were a lot of In The Line of Duty films! LOL! I've not seen any in the series, but I am a big fan of Yuen Woo-Ping, so I might enjoy watching a few in the group. You put a lot of work into this article and it shows. Nice read.

  3. Sark, my son loves these movies as much as you, and he highly recommends looking for the Yuen Woo-Ping connection in picking one.

    I have to say I liked your assessment of Khan's physical change from short hair and pants to "Khan’s hair is considerably longer and she’s taken to wearing short skirts or shorts and knee-high boots" -- you call it fortunate. Uh huh, easy to see your preference. LOL!

    Good point about Khan's character in the ticket-writing scene. Your thought that the tearing of her skirt along the side being a symbol of freedom from classic female limitations was insightful. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that, as in your wonderful picture of the scene, Khan shows some seriously great leg!

    Another fascinating, well-done review,Sark.

  4. Sark, you are in your element on these films. Excellent review!