If you are a movie producer anywhere in the world and you’re looking to make an action movie, there’s someone I need to make sure you know about: Julie Estelle, an Indonesian actress. Now, like many other American filmgoers, I first saw Julie Estelle in The Raid 2: Berandal, in which she played Hammer Girl. The Raid 2 is great movie, and Hammer Girl was a wonderful addition to the cast. But while she was an important supporting role, there is more to roles than even being extremely interesting.
I think it’s The Operator in The Night Comes for Us that seals the deal. I’m not alone here; this open letter to filmmakers everywhere is essentially an echo of statements already made. Kieran Fisher writes this for Film School Rejects: “Not only is Estelle #legit when it comes to throwing down and getting her knuckles bruised and bloody, but she feels like a rock star. The moment she showed up in The Raid 2 and punctured throats with a tool epitomized that captivating appeal. The Night Comes for Us has only solidified it. That’s the type of star filmmakers should be building their movies around, and they should be willing to fight each other to the death to have her in their movies.” Well said, Mr. Fisher. I could not agree more.
What The Operator provides me is the vision of a leading lady in the action genre like we’ve never seen. While I’m not wedded to her being silent, it’s not unheard of (think, the Man with No Name). And she’s far from the first woman to do martial arts. I mean, there’s Cheng Pei-pei, Hsu Feng, Sue Shiomi, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, Zhang Ziyi, even Carrie Ann-Moss and now Jurnee Smollett-Bell. I’ve loved every second I’ve seen of these actresses in action, but what Julie Estelle’s Operator does which has no precedent is the brutality. When I saw her put a blade through the throat of that female assassin, I knew I had to see more. As a moviegoer, I’ve been content for a long time with what I’m given; I’m a huge fan of the Alien movies, and yet I welcomed Alien: Covenant with open arms — Prometheus, not so much. I don’t need another classic like Aliens, I have a very low bar. But with this? Fuck the bar.
And I should be clearer about this. What I’m really asking for is that Julie Estelle be able to do whatever the hell she wants. Take any role. She’s not just good at action, she’s a genuinely great actress, and there is danger even I can see in becoming typecast as an action star. But if Julie Estelle wants to play those roles, they should be open to her. And I think, for her part, that interest is there. Granted, I don’t know why actors choose the roles they do, so it’s unfair to make conclusions based on looking at filmographies, even if they surface patterns and trends. For the purpose of this open letter, I am assuming Julie Estelle would want to play lead roles in action movies. And if she does, I will not allow you, Hollywood or anyone else, to fail her like you’ve failed so many before. Oh, don’t give me that look; you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Case number one: Chiaki Kuriyama. She made her American debut in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 1, and everyone loved her. In fact, there never should have been a Kill Bill Vol. 2 because she should’ve won that fight. After Kill Bill, she continued acting, but not in the same high-profile movies widely seen in America. I didn’t even recognize her in Blade of the Immortal because I haven’t seen her in over ten years. Now, she might have returned to Japan for any number of reasons. Maybe Kill Bill was always supposed to be a one-time thing and she wasn’t interested in American film. In the early 2000s, who could really blame her? But I missed out on her, and her absence also meant she wasn’t there to not get cast as the Major.
Still, an ambiguous scenario, at least from my limited vantage. Case number two: Jeeja Yanin, who we might even think of as the direct antecedent to Julie Estelle, as first we had the emergence of Thailand’s international success and then Indonesia’s. While Yanin was in Triple Threat, she was not in fact one of the three, and Quadruple Threat would be even less alliterative. I know there’s already a barrier for Asians in American movies, I mean after a number of embarrassing false starts for Donnie Yen, we’re only now starting to pay attention. But Yanin used to headline movies, and if we’d been paying attention, we might have had a more faithful Cassandra Cain.
Alright, but I don’t want to downplay the work that these actresses have done just because they aren’t centered at the highest stage in global cinema — they give an Oscar for supporting parts — but you have to admit there’s something going on here. Why hasn’t Sofia Boutella played a lead role in one of her many genre films? Why was Soderbergh the only A-list director interested in Gina Carnano until Jon Favreau ten years later? Why does M-Rod go direct-to-video if she’s not being underused in any given Robert Rodriguez movie? Why is Luc Besson the only one — scratch that — why is Luc Besson, and for that matter, why is Joss Whedon? How come there’s no more Black Lagoon? Why does the Major keep losing fights? Why is it only three out of 12 Assassin’s Creed games? Why do people want Lara Croft to murder less people?
This brings us to case number three, our last and maybe most significant: Rhona Mitra. One of my favorite movies from the 2000s is Doomsday, directed by Neil Marshall. It’s basically Escape from New York 3, but so much more LA than New York, which is my personal preference. And this time, Snake Plissken is played by Rhona Mitra. But when Neil Marshall isn’t doing an ‘80s throwback ten years before it was in-style, where does Rhona Mitra go if she wants to kick ass? Direct-to-video. Note also, Scott Adkins, the poor guy. I can’t help but read a rejection narrative into Rhona Mitra’s career, that the message we send is: your brand of action heroine isn’t acceptable. The R-rated kind, the physical kind. When Charlize Theron was doing Atomic Blonde, it was kind of shocking. And part of the surprise with that film is a consequence of us having overlooked Rhona Mitra and people like her, Charlize Theron probably included. Again, I can’t know for certain why these actresses take on these roles. But if I assume they do so because they want to do action, the problem is that there’s no market for them the way there is for men. And that creates a cycle which arrests our thinking. We don’t write characters for these people because we can’t imagine those characters.
And I reiterate the qualification about actress’s interest because it’s true that just because women are kept out of these roles, that doesn’t mean all women necessarily want them. On the day Birds of Prey was released, actress and indie filmmaker Brit Marling wrote a powerful piece in The New York Times describing her discomfort with the strong female character. Not just that when you’re granted strength by the screenwriter, it’s at the expense of complexity, not only that there’s sexual objectification, but that violence is intrinsic, and she’s dealt with violence in her life. When I think about the sorts of violent movies I wish could be gender-bent, like I Saw the Devil, Rambo, or the Death Wish movies (but take out the racism), I totally get that. Do we really need characters like Paul Kersey and John Rambo? We’re beginning to see more nuanced depictions of masculinity in film, including in action heroes. Wouldn’t it speak to progress that as a society we’ve moved on from ultraviolence?
Take a look at a movie like A Vigilante, which wants you to understand the consequences of violence. It is woman-starring and woman-directed and tells the story of a reality I am not otherwise witness to. Violence is horrible, and media violence absolutely influences our perception of it. Studies on either side of the aisle frantically work to prove that media violence does or does not make us violent, but that isn’t the question that interests me. What interests me is the limiting and normalization of verbs, and the strong female character has only one: kill.
But that is why I really like The Operator. And she doesn’t just kill, she overkills. From what I understand, the sequel to The Night Comes for Us will be about The Operator — I mean, who else would it be about — and with a starring role, the character probably will speak and develop some complexity. The Vietnamese movie Furie mixed R-rated action with a character’s journey, though the resulting cocktail wasn’t exactly to my ludicrous tastes. So much to say it’s possible, but The Night Comes for Us 2 starring The Operator probably won’t be able or even attempt to resolve the problem of cinema violence. Quite the opposite.
In a better world, I don’t need this character. I don’t need to see people blow each other up or punch through their faces. In fact, it’s pretty fucked up I delight in this shit. But we’re not there yet, and I don’t want to dismantle cinema violence before women have had the chance to partake in this big, bold way. For the foreseeable future, they’re gonna keep making John Wick — and thank God — as well as action movies with any number of familiar faces, so Julie Estelle has got to be among them — if she wants to. I’m addressing this open letter to future screenwriters, but I hope it finds well my fellow moviegoers. I’m asking you to embrace this vision of the action heroine.