This 1998 film directed by Yip Wai Man traces a tomboyish teenager's rise to power as a Chinese triad leader. Sandra Ng plays the tomboy gangster Sister 13. The actress received the Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Critic Association's 4th Annual Golden Bauhinia Awards in 1999.
Portland Street Blues (known in Cantonese as Sister 13 of Hung Hing) was shown in the US and Japan at Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. Sister 13 was hailed as a credible lesbian action hero, a strong heroine, a woman of power. I went to watch this film with great anticipation and went away disappointed.
First, just how real is Sister 13's lesbian realness? The main love of her life is a man. When Sister 13 was a teenager, she developed a crush on a male boxer from a rival gang. The fighter, however, only has eyes for Sister 13's pretty femme friend Yun. Yun in turn, is in love with Sister 13, but Sister 13 is too hung up on the hunky gangster to notice. Yun goes through a desperate phase of making passes at the boxer, presumably to get Sister 13's attention, but her effort backfires. When Sister 13 suspects Yun of sleeping with her crush, she asks Yun to leave her life altogether. So the two close childhood friends broke up over a man.
Years later, the two meet again. Sister 13 still wants to know if Yun slept with her crush. Yun finally says that she had loved Sister 13 all along, and not the man. Although Sister 13 is manly in dress and appearance, and Yun has become a femme actress and gotten engaged to a man, I'll rate Yun higher on the lesbian realness scale than Sister 13.
In a voiceover, Sister 13 says she's always known she primarily likes women. Other people in her life, both enemies and friends, also identify her as tomboy and lesbian. But somehow, her primary long-lasting love is for a man. The women in her life come and go. After her betrayal by a girlfriend whom she promptly ditches, she said to her deputy, "So the current girlfriend is gone. What is there to do except to go out and find another?"
Secondly, does Sister 13 qualify as a real self-made heroine? Her rise to the top was almost entirely facilitated by other people. Sister 13 starts off as the daughter of a low-ranking triad member of the Hung Hing gang. She was uninvolved in criminal activity until her father was murdered by a fellow triad member, Ham Sap. Sister 13 confronts Ham Sap to avenge her father. She would have been beaten to death if not for the intervention of a former gang moll, Scarface, to whom Ham Sap had to "give face".
When the leaders of Hung Hing announced they would give the command of a sub-branch of the gang to whoever kills a certain rival gang leader, Sister 13 sees her chance. She enlists the help of Scarface, the gang moll who rescued her from Ham Sap. Scarface distracts the rival gang's men while Sister 13 sneaks in and kills their leader. Scarface ends up being shot dead by the rival gang members while Sister 13 gets home free. Sister 13 does not appear to give much thought to her friend's ultimate sacrifice in her bid for power. As promised, Sister 13 inherits the leadership of the gang for her efforts. (or should we say Scarface's efforts?)
An Asian lesbian who watched the movie told me how appalled she was by the turn of events. She observed how Sister 13 "never really did anything, but depended on others". While I think the character of Sister 13 does have its strengths, I have to agree she fails to come across as a compelling heroine.
Sister 13 did not have the opportunity to avenge her father. Her crushee, a rival gang member, killed Ham Sap for gang-related reasons. Thus Sister 13 acquires a male hero whom she swears to "serve for the rest of [her] life".
In the opening scene of the movie, a rival gang leader threatens Sister 13 and her cohorts with gang rape during a meeting between 2 gangs. Sister 13 puts on a brave front (without kicking ass) but what actually helped her walk out of the meeting unharmed was a phone call from the grand boss of the rival gang (her uncle) telling his subordinates not to give her trouble.
Sister 13's deputy is a man who seems to be in love with her. (too much tender mood music playing as he gazes at her with concern, and he even buys her an engagement ring which she swears to give away) In Sister 13's final showdown with the rival gang, all seems lost as she stands alone surrounded by enemy gang members, until her trusted deputy shows up with a vanload of her own men. Apparently, he had already figured out the rival gang's plan to isolate and crush Sister 13, and he was one step ahead of the game. So he had it all figured out and she didn't, duh! An old friend from the rival gang had tricked sister 13 into the ambush by telling her the man she loved had been killed. This hardly dispels the stereotypes of the emotional woman who lets her feelings cloud her judgment, and the strong, rational man who makes the right decisions.
Sister 13 executes the friend who betrayed her. Her hand falls to her side after she discharges the fatal gunshot to his head. Her trusted male deputy steps in to physically support her and gently remove the gun from her hand. Another male gang member steps up and says, "After all, she is still a woman." The movie ends on this note. This hardly feels empowering to women. The story plays more like a condescending male perspective on how women should be.