China Dolls (1992)
Director: Yeung Chi Kin
Writers: Brian Chung Wai Hung and Yeung Chi Kin
Starring: Amy Yip, Charlie Cho, and Wu Ma

The Plot: China Dolls tells the story of a young wife named May (played by Amy Yip) who is put in an awful position almost immediately after the birth of her first child. While breastfeeding her baby, one of her husband’s delinquent business partners peeps in on her. This leads to an altercation between May’s husband and the previously mentioned delinquent. The husband ends up killing the peeping gangster, and this puts the newly formed family on the run from both a collection of criminals as well as the local police. After leaving the mainland, the family is stopped by two cops in Hong Kong and the young husband is shot dead by one of the police officers (played by veteran actor Lam Ching Ying). As things progress from bad to worse, May’s child is taken from her by the Hong Kong government. May sets herself up as a maid working in a hotel, but she quickly hears about a gainful form of employment in Macau. May finds herself traveling by boat with some of her co-workers, but the trip goes from being a dream-come-true to being a living nightmare in a very short amount of time. May is locked away in a cage and forced to work as a prostitute, but all May really wants is to get her child back. Will she ever make enough money in this slave-like position or will her child remain out of her reach forever?

The Review
Although she is an actress who has a very strong fanbase, I am sure many readers out there are not entirely familiar with Amy Yip. Often a supporting character within the world of Category III (A harsh rating within Hong Kong cinema, usually relegated for true-crime stories and sexy movies) exploitation features, she is best known and remembered for her gigantic bosoms. Indeed, her breasts often led her to be the butt of many jokes within her career (bosoms and butts in the same sentence? Score!). In roles such as the ones she had in Sex & Zen as well as Robotrix, Yip used her bust as a means for comedy – but it was always apparent that she was a talented actress. Although few would mistake her for Meryl Streep, Yip was certainly capable of performing and she always delivered due to her screen presence. How well Amy Yip would do in a purely dramatic piece of work has been a question on my mind since first discovering her filmography. This was something that I had personally wondered while watching her in the past, and after watching China Dolls, I am happy to find that she could deliver in a way that I personally could have never imagined. I am also somewhat saddened to believe that she was also a very capable actress, because it shows that she was often a case of wasted talent. However, China Dolls is not your general run of the mill familial drama. Prepare for some rape, prostitution, and plenty of offensive material along the way. This is a CAT III title, afterall.

Similar to many Category III rated exploitation films, China Dolls is hardly singular in its genre archetypes. Being hard to pin down, this is a movie that pulls from the world of crime dramas, general exploitation, and campy sex comedies. The influence of comedy can be felt in numerous Hong Kong exploitation films, but China Dolls is one of the few titles that I have seen that manages to mix this ingredient without over-saturating it. The movie opens with a sequence that establishes both the dark drama that will surely unfold, but it also manages to demonstrate some of the over-the-top material that we can expect throughout the rest of the movie. The humor from this opening sequence is derived from some over-exaggerated lusting done by a ridiculous triad who stumbles upon Amy Yip’s open window. Inside of the open window is of course Amy Yip who is nursing her child, and while a glance at Amy Yip’s magnificently large breasts are enough to bring any man to his knees, most men would have the tact to not pull their pants down in the midst of an open alley and begin masturbating to another man’s wife. In fact, she is the wife of the man who invited this particular thug to his home. This leads to a large altercation that sets out plot into motion, and from this random bit of black humor we are introduced to a world of violence and insanity. The comedy stands out in the movie, but not enough that it becomes distracting. When your movie is dealing with the dark and terrible issues that this movie happens to tackle, the last thing the audience should be doing is having a laugh.

After the opening sequence, which features the previously mentioned masturbation scene, we follow Amy Yip’s character as she begins her new life away from her child. The film almost immediately begins teasing her distress over this loss, and there is a definite sense of melancholy felt in the movie. Yet, once this character agrees to travel for her new job, we are introduced to some very familiar waters for exploitation fans. We watch as a boat full of young women are lured onto the docks and into an abandoned boat yard. As our ladies are led like lambs to the slaughter, they find themselves in an empty warehouse that is without any form of lighting. When those lights do finally come on, we find that the women are all standing in a massive cage that resembles something one might encounter in either a pro-wrestling match or in a Filipino film produced by Roger Corman. In a classic piece of genre-film pastiche, these women are sprayed down with a massive burst of water from a gigantic fire hose. In true genre-film fashion, of course the women are all mostly wearing white pants and shirts. The camera lingers on and shows off the requisite nudity that can be seen through the transparent clothing, and by this time the audience knows full and well what they are getting into. It is also worth noting that within this classic scene Amy Yip seems to be the only woman who wears dark clothing. Yip is notorious for cleverly hiding her nipples during love scenes. Despite the large size of her bust, and the attention that is continually paid to it, Yip did well to hide herself throughout the majority of her career. She did this to the point where her actions were nicknamed “Yip teases,” taken from one of her own videos. China Dolls is a nice example of the “Yip tease,” but it is also one of Yip’s most accomplished acting performances, and so her aversion to nudity seems to make more sense and somehow lends itself well to the atmosphere of the movie.

The movie ultimately hinges on the performance of Amy Yip. The actress acquits herself quite well in the role and shows that she probably has more talent than many would give her credit for. Although her dramatic turns are the heart of the movie, China Dolls has to be known for its blatant exploitation. Charlie Cho, a Hong Kong actor who is best known for playing weaselly little perverts, steps up his game and portrays a ridiculously brutal villain. There is a scene in the movie where Charlie leads a group into gang-raping a girl, and it is a particularly brutal concoction that will most assuredly be remembered by those who watch the movie. Featuring butter, multiple males, and a frozen pop sickle… the scene has to be witnessed in order to process its horrors. Along with this instance of violence, the movie also features a decent amount of aggressive sex, further rapes, and even a climactic action sequence that features a surprisingly high bodycount. This final sequence gives the illusion that the movie had a much larger budget than it probably did. Featuring two sides of a major conflict, the movie looks to feature roughly one hundred extras who all carry heavy machine guns. This of course leads to some big stunts, tons of bloody squibs, and finally a series of explosions that rivals many other larger Hong Kong action titles. Although China Dolls is far from being perfect, the tremendous leaps that it takes makes it a fairly interesting project. However, the fact that each genre it tackles is done in such a perfected way is what makes the movie so good. The action sequences are superb during the final moments, the comedy is toned just perfect for the atmosphere that this movie evokes, the drama has true heart behind it, and the performances are pitch perfect.

The Conclusion
There are issues within the movie, there’s no denying this fact. Tonally the movie has some very strange shifts, and it can feel very rushed at times. With that said, the things that work really do work. A very nice piece of cinematic exploitation, China Dolls is a movie that runs all over the map but does itself well by conquering the areas that it attempts to cover. I give it a four out of five. Not all audiences will agree, but I say its worth checking out even for those who won’t love it as much as I do.