AS SHIRLEY MacLaine put it recently, ''it's been a lousy year for the ladies''. Academy Awards nominations will be announced this week and the word round Hollywood is there will not be much of a fight for the category of Best Actress - rumoured to be slated for Emma Thompson for her role in Howards End - following a dearth of major roles for females this year. And while top US actresses like Meryl Streep point out women's raw deal financially and professionally, the debate over what some regard as ''sexploitation'' is now starting to gain ground here in Hongkong. While beauty pageant contestants still seek a seat on the Category III train to fame, seasoned, more professional actresses are begging the question: ''Why can't we get more serious roles?'' The answer, of course, lies at the box office. A few films stand out like beacons. The rest plunder well-worn scripts and situations that sometimes take them close to soft porn - or even beyond - to keep a cut-throat industry commercial. And the professionals who feel the pressure most are the female stars. Film-maker Nansun Shi, one of Hongkong's few women of power in the industry, said although she was not fond of some of the female caricatures in films, market preference dominated. ''Basically, if there's a market for sexually stereotyped characters or 'bimbos', then films with these characteristics will sell. Some people have a taste for martial arts, some for comedies and others for these films,'' she said. The most successful movies are by director Wong Jing, whose name is synonymous with a portrayal of women as virtual nymphomaniacs. With Stephen Chiau Sing-chi seduced by a virginal Lin Ching-hsia in Royal Tramp II and Jackie Chan smothered by bikini-clad beauties in City Hunter, Wong has created a virtual ''sex-ploit'' genre. But Wong's reign could be eroded, with the director soon to start work with one of the territory's most prominent actresses, Do Do Cheng Yue-ling. Cheng is known for her strong character and her battle for a better environment for Hongkong's actresses. ''Wong knows better than to offer me a sexist part, he knows I wouldn't appreciate it,'' she said. ''I'm in this film mainly for the comic relief, so he'll have to leave sexist parts to the other actresses.'' A critic of the un-artistic aspects of Hongkong's film industry, Cheng surprisingly stands by Wong's work. She said she respected Wong's ability to please the masses but, like Shi, emphasised there were other ways to do so than by exploiting women. ''Because he's such a commercial director, he'll keep on doing what the audience wants. He admits to not being very artistic, so he's left to use more commercial methods to make his films, such as 'takeoffs' from other films and sex,'' Cheng said. But the sexism does not stop at the screen. Crazy comic Chiau, famed for his mo lei tau (nonsense) dialogue, brings in more than $10 million a film, while kung fu superstar Jackie Chan can make more than $20 million at a go. The highest paid actress to date, Michelle Yeoh, landed $4.5 million for her latest work, The Heroic Trio. But Yeoh's pay cheque is unique. Her co-stars, fellow superstars Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Anita Mui Yim-fong, are only in the $1 million to $2 million bracket, as is Cheng. ''I'm pretty much in the same category as Maggie and Anita as far as payment is concerned. I feel Michelle's salary is quite high because she's a big attraction in Singapore and her native Malaysia, so that elevates box office sales regionally. Also, shedoes a lot of her stunt work which is quite risky,'' Cheng said. Shi agreed: ''Many factors contribute to the salary you're offered, but usually it depends on your crowd pulling power.'' The crowd puller argument is also heard in Hollywood, where the Kevin Costners are assumed to sell more cinema tickets than any woman star. Cheng and other local actresses are still waiting for a professional, big box office film centred around a female character. Strong roles for women in Hongkong productions are few and far between. Full Moon in New York and Centre Stage, both showcasing Cheung, can be counted among films with quality women's parts. Lindzay Chan's To Liv(e) was a strong effort and Cheng came close with films such as last year's cop comedy/thriller Once a Black Sheep. There are signs women may be starting to take on more important roles behind the camera. But in an industry where female directors, producers and writers are rare, there is a long way to go. Mr Quinton Fong, from the Film Workshop, said it often hired women scriptwriters but generally only on a part time basis. ''We have a number of ladies in the script department at the moment working on a future film, but they're not working for us full time. They are on a project basis and only work when we need them. There aren't many female scriptwriters in Hongkong,'' Mr Fong said. What does a woman behind the scenes offer to a film that a man cannot? Former television presenter Crystal Kwok explained why she wanted to join directors Ann Hui and Mable Cheung. ''Women can really add a touch of the right emotion to a scene. This sometimes can't be gained by other directors,'' Kwok said. ''My ultimate goal is to get into directing. Not big budget commercial films, but something more emotional in 'domestic' type settings.'' Actresses who want to work behind the scenes are starting to head into areas such as art direction and scriptwriting - but they are only a precious few. ''It's very tough in this male-dominated industry for the women to stand up and prove themselves,'' Kwok said. ''Many are capable of handling the production jobs but few are able to see the light. ''I don't think there's a new revolution of female film-makers, but it is growing slowly.''