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Monday, January 16, 2012

Shaw Brothers Spy Thrillers, Capers & Crime Pictures Part 1


Hong Kong will likely forever be famous in the movie world for its literally thousands of martial arts movies that seemed to crop up every week most prominently between the 1960s through the 1980s. Kung Fu and Swordplay features might have been their chief cinematic export, but Hong Kong had actioners of another sort as well. What's interesting about this cycle of Asian cinema is how it changed between the latter part of the 1960s and on into the 1970s. This change didn't necessarily spring from audience disinterest, or the starting of a new trend, but drastic societal upheaval led to the fanciful, the fantastic and the Hitchcockian suspense thriller mutating into something far more visceral and disturbing during the early years of the 1970s.

Spread for OPERATION LIPSTICK (1967), a spy actioner about yet another criminal organization out to capture a reputable scientist and a secret microfilm.

This multi-part article will cover these oft overlooked and seldom discussed movies from the Shaw Brothers studio over the course of a twenty year period between 1965 and 1985, many of which are extremely rare and remain unseen outside of their original theatrical releases. Despite importing Korean and Japanese technicians to work on their movies (in addition to partaking in numerous co-productions), the Shaw Brothers patterned many of their ventures on old Hollywood studio pictures. Everything from their musicals to their 30s/40s serial style adventure films, there was much to admire in the art decor of a Shaw production. Most of these other types of pictures they made were seldom seen outside of Asian territories. The few that were released on Chinese videotape found homes among collectors till the bulk of Shaw's library was finally unleashed in the early 2000s on DVD.

Above and below: Some examples of gadgets in Shaw spy movies

When the James Bond craze hit with the release of DR. NO in 1962, the fad spread to Asia and Shaw Brothers capitalized on it with their own brand of spy thrillers all with varying results in quality. One thing that will be noticeably different between foreign imitations of the Bond series is that there are very little (if any) changes in locations. Despite the monetary clout the Shaw's had at their disposal (they were untouchable in Asia in terms of their resources as a filmmaking empire not to mention the honor of possessing the largest privately owned film studio in the world at one time), for the most part, these pictures never strayed outside of Asian locales. The spy films had grandly kitschy credits sequences that aped those seen in the Bonds, but also brought to mind Italian westerns with the same sounds of gunfire going off in the background.

The gadgets were ported over--albeit on a smaller scale--as were the suave and sexy leads and also a playful ludicrousness that was indigenous to Asian cinema. You had a bevy of disguises, bombs, guns, infrared sunglasses, hidden transmitters and other assorted gadgets, but nothing too extravagant. Some of these films are a good deal of fun, some are rather bland and others have a lot of potential if only a bit more care and time were put into them. For their time, these pictures are a lot of gaudy fun and sometimes had the audacity to surpass their budgetary constraints for the sake of entertainment.


While Chinese spy movies followed the blueprint laid down by the burgeoning Bond series (copied even more closely in Italy at the time), they differed in that they also had their fair share of female spies headlining several of these garish, heavily color saturated thrillers. The lead villains weren't always men, either. This showcasing of strong women of action was vastly different from anything being seen at the time in just about any part of the world. In America, the 1970s brought with it a lot of red hot sex symbols as 'B' action stars. In Asia, that sort of seductive feminine strength wasn't as sexually graphic as the less mannered examples that would erupt in the coming years overseas. Women took their clothes off in HK films during this time, only it wasn't the sole attraction. The ladies in modern Chinese action pictures were generally all business.


Actresses like Lily Ho and Tina Chin Fei had their own starring vehicles playing feisty female fighters with a license to kill. Lily Ho headlined both ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS (1967) and its sequel ANGEL STRIKES AGAIN (1968). She also starred in the obscure and sought after THE BRAIN STEALERS (1968) as well as the more serious THE LADY PROFESSIONAL from 1971. HK cinema was the first to showcase strong female fighting roles whether in swordplay films (such as COME DRINK WITH ME [1966]) or in fist and kick flicks like THE CHAMPION from 1973. The casting and popularity of women in movies was the preference of moviegoers in Asia back in those days till scriptwriter turned director, Chang Cheh changed all that with the release of the groundbreaking THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN in 1967. This change didn't occur overnight, however. For a time, even when a film had a male lead, the credits would still top bill the female co-star or supporting role.

Lily Ho was particularly in high demand at the time. After appearing in a small capacity in Shaw's THE SHEPHERD GIRL (1964), she became a basic player in 1965 appearing in a couple of big ticket dramatic features before mixing it up in swordplay films. She pops up briefly at the end of the lackluster INTERPOL 009 (1967) to make Tang Ching's interminably horny agent swoon as she's boarding a plane. She was already in the process of headlining her own ambitious outing with ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS. Boasting a title card of "Shaw Brothers Proudly Presents", the film itself is entertaining if moderately disappointing due to a lack of action. There's lots of gadgets, secret lairs, death traps and occasional shoot outs and karate style tussles, but the bulk of the running time is mostly sneaking around and intrigue. The sequel upped the action considerably. Granted, this genre was represented best with MGM's James Bond series, but kudos to Shaw for branching out into a style of film not normally associated with Asian cinema and one that hasn't been explored to such a degree since.

Tina Chin Fei was another starlet who was popular with audiences during the late 1960s and into the early 70s. Along with Lily Ho, Tina was among a dozen lovely ladies picked from Shaw's Southern Drama Group in 1965 to grace movie screens across Asia. No sooner than she had been picked as a potential movie star, a Bangkok film company spotted her obvious physical talents. Shaw's temporarily loaned her out for the feature which no doubt made her an even more lucrative talent. Lily Ho is on a par with Tina in the spy game. Both co-starred together in the influential ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS (where Tina played the leader of the Dark Angels criminal organization) and both got their own star spy vehicles. However, Tina did a couple more secret agent movies such as the elusive KISS & KILL (1967) and the star packed OPERATION LIPSTICK (1967) starring Paul Chang Chung and Cheng Pei Pei. Tina's TEMPTRESS OF A THOUSAND FACES (1969) was a big breakthrough for her. Like Ling Yun in GUN BROTHERS (1968), Tina plays a dual role--one as the title Temptress super thief--and another role as the detective who becomes obsessed with finding her.

Also, if one Shaw actress deserved the crown of Sexy Spy Queen it's Tina Chin Fei. She was adept at playing both a heroine and a villainess topped off with sex kitten aura that permeates the screen whenever she's present. In one of her most well known pictures, the aforementioned semi-spy thriller TEMPTRESS OF A THOUSAND FACES (1969), Tina pushed some boundaries by performing a fight sequence in her underwear. While nude kung fu fights would crop up in later HK exploitation pictures like VIRGINS OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1974) and most graphically in NINJA THE FINAL DUEL (1984), Roger Corman did a similar sequence in both his Filipino lensed TNT JACKSON (1974) and the later FIRECRACKER (1981).

Behind the scenes on the set of THE BRAIN STEALERS (1968)

Unlike anglo territories at the time, Women had strong lead roles in HK action pictures that surely laid the groundwork for the later 'Girls With Guns' sub genre popularized in the mid 1980s. The short-lived Chinese spy craze of the late 1960s presented their women as tough and tender all at the same time; yet they were highly skilled fighters who would kill if they had to (or if they were paid to). Shaw Brothers were partial to exploitation elements in their movies and these films showed traces of them at times. Granted, the reigns were pulled in to a degree to maintain a level of respectability. By the time these types of action films died in Asia, they were replaced with more gritty, socio-political realism. But until then, women weren't necessarily the victims. They were the heroines as well as the villains that lead a diabolical crime syndicate, or some devious sex bomb with designs on the hero's death. One director at Shaw's was responsible for helming a few of the more memorable movies of the spy thriller canon. While he was evidently a commercial director, he nonetheless showed a good deal of flair while he was at the famed HK movie facility.


Lo Wei (second from left) departs to Bangkok with cast from THE GOLDEN BUDDHA including lead star, Paul Chang Chung (far right)

Lo Wei, the director most famous for directing (or not directing) some of Bruce Lee's movies, was the guiding hand behind both the aforementioned ANGEL films that starred Lily Ho. So many of Lo Wei's directorial efforts are lifeless, static and devoid of interest. However, his work for Shaw Brothers are among the best on his resume and he apparently had a fondness for the Bondian style spy pictures. He directed four of them during his tenure at Shaw Brothers before heading for the pastures at Shaw's chief rival, Golden Harvest and finally with his own production company.

Spread promoting THE GOLDEN BUDDHA. Note the image at the lower right. That's director Lo Wei as the sunglasses wearing villain.

Lo's other spy films are the average THE GOLDEN BUDDHA (1966) starring Paul Chang Chung who was a popular actor at the time. He also headlined some other spy pictures and action thrillers such as KISS & KILL, OPERATION LIPSTICK and THE BLACK FALCON (all 1967). Compared with THE GOLDEN BUDDHA, SUMMONS TO DEATH (1967) starring leading man, Tang Ching is far more entertaining. Watching Lo's spy adventures, its clear he and his scriptwriter have paid a great deal of attention to the then wildly popular secret agent series that starred Sean Connery as agent 007. Even though these Asian variants were rarely comparable to their Anglo counterparts, Lo imbued his spy films with an overtly fantasy element that, while derivative, at least made for some semi engaging popcorn entertainment.

Tang Ching was a big star at the time and when the brief spy craze died down in HK, he effortlessly made the transition to swordplay epics. Prior to partaking in period pictures, though, Tang definitely showcased his charisma playing suave characters such as the spy in SUMMONS TO DEATH from 1967. This movie (which started filming as THE CHASE) is a great deal of fun and has a wild plot with elements--the search for two halves of a medal--that would be recycled for the kung fu genre several years later. There's pirates, buried treasure and numerous hardware including a house with all sorts of groovy gadgets like something out of one of those 'Homes of the Future' cartoons from Warner or MGM. This was yet another Lo Wei production. He shows a good deal of skill here and an ability to wring as much entertainment value as the budget and hectic shooting schedules of HK would allow at the time.

Promotional spread for the lackluster INTERPOL 009 (1967)

Tang also played the lead in the inferior fluff that was INTERPOL 009 (1967). This is the nadir of the Shaw spy cycle (of what is available to us) and is a bland tale of a secret agent and his bumbling comic relief attempting to bust a counterfeit money ring. Tang's character is the sort who will rush to answer a ringing phone only to grab the nearest bottle of brandy first. This nonsense is Bond-Lite for the most part and has a couple decent action sequences. The director Yang Shu-hsi (real name Koh Nakahira) was one of several Japanese imports brought over to help enhance Shaw's talent pool. Needless to say, this movie isn't one of their crowning achievements. Nakahira made four films for Shaw before returning to Japan. Three of them were remakes of his Nipponese resume including this film and the superior DIARY OF A LADY KILLER (1969). His last film for Shaw was the dramatic feature TRAPEZE GIRL starring Lo Lieh.

ASIA-POL from 1967 is another semi spy/secret agent adventure, this time starring mega star, Jimmy Wang Yu. This is a Shaw-Nikkatsu co-production with a very slick look. Directed by Matsuo Akinori, the picture deals with the Asian Secret Police Force. Wang Yu is one of the members attempting to bust a Japanese smuggling ring. Peppered with various Japanese stars (the Japanese cut features different scenes), this movie differs from the more over the top Shaw spy productions. For instance, the tone is far more serious. The villains, while far from flamboyant, enjoy blowing up their intended targets whether in cars or in buildings. The opening helicopter attack is well staged as are the other action sequences. Akinori directed one other Shaw film--THE LADY PROFESSIONAL--which came out in 1971 and starred Lily Ho.

From left to right: Shen Yi, Shu Pei-pei, Wang Yu, Lily Ho, Chiao Chuang, Ching Li

After a string of back to back hits, Wang Yu was also in high demand in the late 1960s. In January of 1968, he (along with Lily Ho and others) won the coveted Lai Sing Gold Cup for most popular actor in the Mandarin film world. It was his first time winning this award as was Lily's. Wang Yu's star would continue to rise as would his temperament which would lead to bad blood between he and his movie mogul employer. His last Shaw pictures were the action drama, MY SON (1970) and his directorial debut, THE CHINESE BOXER (1970). Wang Yu would break his contract, abruptly leaving the Shaw empire in early 1970 and would head to Taiwan to make films there.

This photo above gives you an idea at how the popularity of HK stars of the day was very similar to the adoration afforded stars in America.

Shaw Brothers attempted to sue him in March of 1970, but were unable to do so. From here on out, Wang Yu made it his mission to pepper his repertoire with cheap knock-offs of potential Shaw Brothers hits that were in production at the time, or make his own quickie version of a Shaw film currently enjoying popularity. In the interim, Wang Yu found time to co-star with Shintaro Katsu in the Japanese co-production, ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971), which no doubt infuriated Shaw even more. Failing to sue him in Japan, Shaw was finally successful in stopping Wang Yu from shooting movies or appearing on television in Hong Kong till January of 1973 when his contract at Shaw was set to expire.

Almost as soon as they had surfaced, the spy pictures were replaced by more adult oriented thrillers such as detective and murder mysteries. Some of these bordered on horror and others managed to import elements of the spy movies, but without the same degree of lovable gaudiness that made those films so memorable in ways both good and bad. Many of these detective thrillers owed as much to Hitchcock as the spy sub genre owed to James Bond. These suspensers ramped up the sexuality considerably branching off into adult territory for a couple of years before this type of film would morph yet again; this time into something far more visceral. This time period would also soon end the tenure between Shaw and Japan in relation to the importing of talent to aid in local productions.



Jay Shatzer said...

Great write up Brian! Thanks so much for all the info on these Asiaspy flicks and I can't wait for the next part.

I've been dying to check these films out, but they're so damn hard to get a hold of. The only one that I actually own is The Golden Buddha VCD, which average at best, was still pretty damn cool in the visuals and campiness department.

Any inside tips on how I can get a hold of some more or even some of the Toho Company productions?

I really don't understand why these films don't have a bigger following then they do, cause they're fun as all hell.

venoms5 said...

Thanks so much, Jay, and for taking the time to read all that! Part two is now up and it's even bigger, lol.

The only way I know to get them is through ebay and some overseas DVD companies still carry copies of some of these. Your best bet might actually be a Chinatown if you have one in your area.

Well, when it comes to Shaw's, most people only care about the kung fu movies and little else, unfortunately.

Yes, they are a lot of fun. Now if only THE BRAIN STEALERS would friggin' get a DVD release!!!

Jay Shatzer said...

The read was great! I eat this 60's spy shit up, so the read flew by.

I was actually able to hunt down a few flicks that you mentioned at DVD Asian, like; Asia-pol, Interpol 009, and Summons to Death.

It looks like both the Angel With the Iron Fists DVD & VCD plus the sequel Angel Strikes Again's VCD isn't available anywhere. Sucks cause those two flicks look like great fun.

Well the hunt must continue. Now on to reading your lengthy part 2! Woohoo! Thanks again for these write ups. They're great!

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