Pre-internet I did two things with my sorry ass: I played video games and watched films and those films were mostly martial arts films (I can already hear a lot of people reaching to close the tab that this page is on but please bear with me and read on).
I was right into martial arts back then and I hold a 1st Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate but the films always fascinated me with their stunning dance like choreography. Boy did I love me my martial arts films and I had quite a few favourites back in the day and one of those favourites was China O’ Brien.
China O’ Brien was made in 1988 (Not 1990 as Wikipedia and IMDB wrongly states as it clearly says 1988 at the end of the closing credits) and starred martial artist Cynthia Rothrock in the lead role. Rothrock had appeared in many Hong Kong productions before but the 1980s were starting to see many Western/Hong Kong collaborations for these types of films where American actors would star in English speaking films but with a Hong Kong crew. The first of these (in the 80s at least) was No Retreat No Surrender in 1983 although technically Enter The Dragon was the very first of it’s kind.
The idea was that it would widen the western appeal of the movies while still retaining the sharp fight scenes which made the Hong Kong films famous.
China O’ Brien was directed by Robert Clouse who had found immense fame by directing Bruce Lee in his final film Enter The Dragon in 1973 (one of the VHS taglines was even “From the producer and director of ENTER THE DRAGON”). The film was produced by Fred Weintraub (also Enter the Dragon) and the Legendary Golden Harvest studios who produced all of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s films up to that point with the head man himself Mr Raymond Chow at the top. It wasn’t the first film to feature a female martial artist or even a female martial arts lead (that honour goes to Angela Mao in Lady Whirlwind in 1972) but it certainly was the first to gain notoriety, almost cult status in the western world and the main character was even the inspiration for Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat some 4 years later.
The film follows a section of the life of one Lori “China” O’ Brien, a tough city cop who returns to her home town after a traumatic experience on the streets makes her quit the force. She finds that corruption has infiltrated her small mining hometown and sets about helping her Sheriff father clean the place up while keeping her vow to never touch a gun again. This cues a series of events which sees China O’ Brien beat the shit out of a bunch of guys using her finely tuned martial arts skills.
Interestingly enough this was the first ever film to feature the work of one miss Tori Amos and featured a song called “Distant Storm”. Amos is credited by the name “Ellen Amos” who does vocals for a seemingly non existent band named “Tess Makes Good” who did no other known work after this and is assumed to be staged given the unknown status of Amos at that time.
If Judging China O’ Brien in film terms then it’s pretty bad. Robert Clouse was never a great director and the whole thing has a very TV movie feel to it with porno bad acting and a paper thin plot. The film also suffers from the old problem of no real final challenge. The main bad guy is an old wrinkly white dude and so a final showdown would just be no threat at all to the super skilled China. Road House had this issue too but had the sense to put in a rather formidable henchman for Patrick Swayze to fight.
Where the film scores points is of course in its action. Cynthia Rothrock was a champion marital artist in no less than SEVEN styles before she got in to films and can 100% hold her own against anyone in that field. Being a Golden Harvest production the fight choreography is of course top notch and so has that wonderful super-dynamic, wide angle flow with glorious OTT sound effects that you just don’t get with western films and wouldn’t do until some 12 years later when “The Matrix” started to make it trendy to use Hong Kong fight directors. Rothrock is backed up by other martial arts actors Keith Cooke and Richard Norton. Cooke displays some phenomenal agility with this super fast kicks and Norton has a brawler style that is unique to himself.
This actually gives the film a very video game feel to it (A year or so before that became popular in games I might add) and it’s quite a cool touch.
The interesting thing about China O’ Brien is that it undoubtedly started off life as a male creation. Of course that’s no reason to immediately write it off….that would be sexist! The fascinating thing about it is that, although its not perfect, it presents what is a pretty strong role model.
Here we have a professional, college educated woman who works in a male dominated profession (law) and has skills in a male dominated world (martial arts) and is constantly shown to stand up to what most women suffer every day. There are scenes of groping and passive aggressive condescending vocabulary such as “little lady”, “You can sit right here!” and all other manner of leering behaviour from the typical (and not inaccurate) grunts of the world. The character even comes up against opposition in verbal form from other females. This is shown in a way that presents certain conditioning of said female from her environment and is later revealed to be the result of bullying.
The film also shows brief scenes of physical and sexual abuse of women by what looks like a “boys club” type deal. It’s never really explored much and was obviously put in as a message of “these people are bad to women and here comes a woman to kick their asses!”. Regardless it’s a more extreme touch that didn’t need to be in the film but hits a nerve right on point and that’s a good thing.
Of course if one were to dig deep, the suggestion that women only have the power and choice to do what they want if they posses a certain set of, let’s face it…..violent skills is suspect in itself. A women should have freedom and courtesy regardless of if she knows martial arts but thankfully this is only an extreme interpretation of what could be suggested and is in no way a central or indeed intentional message of the movie.
The cast is mostly male but make no mistake, the two main (good) men that feature mostly in the film are without a doubt working UNDER the main female lead and she is absolutely in charge. Of course they help her out on occasion in certain situations but it is presented as teamwork rather than a rescue. Even the man who is at first presented as a potential romantic attachment ends up in the role of a supporting friend and there are no indications of the insulting “emotional woman” shown from the lead bar perhaps the decision to quit the force but in my view that shows a trait of decent morals rather than anything gender specific.
The good thing (I feel) about China O’ Brien is that she carries herself in a way that doesn’t need much else bar her personality. None of the scenes see her wearing anything revealing or lewd which is refreshing in itself, particularly in the 80s yet she still carries herself off as being extremely feminine with her strength coming from years of training and her frame of mind. As such she doesn’t look like a bodybuilder (male ideal of strength) and if one examines her wardrobe (I know but bear with me) she’s seen in everything from skirts to stonewashed jeans and the great thing is it’s never a focus in itself, it’s always all about her rather than what she’s wearing.
There’s no pissing about with snide name wars either. Often a male co-star will receive a higher billing even though the main lead is female but Rothrock gets top billing and her name comes first before anyone else’s in the opening and closing credits. For a low budget film at that time to feature a female lead character who is not just an authority figure but THEE authority figure and the fact that it didn’t fall back on any sort of sleaze as a backup in order to boost sales deserves at least some kudos.
A sequel, China O Brien 2 was released in 1990 and was pretty much a case of “more of the same”. Most of the original characters return and there are a few more martial arts stars as Billy Blanks thrown in to the end scrap to make things a little interesting. The fights remain the same high quality as the previous film and the acting is just as bad.
China O’ Brien isn’t the worst film in the world but it’s pretty crap in movie terms. Cheap and cheesy with awful acting and cardboard pantomime characters. The pretty blonde female lead was obviously made as a bit of a novelty yet they actually seem to have done something with it and as such you get a film about a strong, intelligent woman who appears to have good support from friends and who doesn’t take any shit from anyone.
It’s not perfect. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test and the other females in the film are few and far between and are presented as victims or submissive. Rothrock herself went on to star in films that broke most of the good things about China O’ Brien. Regardless, given the timeframe of 1988 when women were still appearing on beer cans and such the fact that this film got made at all is a bit of a wonder in itself as even female leads in even Hollywood films were few and far between.
Look, no-one is saying that this shitty, low budget trash-a-thon should be regarded as an icon of feminist viewing. These kind of films are pap designed to entertain a very specific demographic and China O’Brien is no different but at the very least it does something kind of unique in a time that you wouldn’t expect. Even if you have zero interest in martial arts films I’d recommend checking it out at least once with the context of it’s era and genre in mind (both films can currently be found on YouTube).
Besides the fact that it’s entertaining enough to sit down with a bottle of booze and laugh at the atrocious acting, the very fact that it has such a kick ass protagonist and a camera that focuses on her skill rather than her tits is a bit of a gem.
Forgotten feminist hero? Probably not but certainly worthy of a mention.