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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Operation Lipstick (1967) review



Cheng Pei-pei (Li Hsiao Bing), Paul Chang Chung (Chang Yi), Liu Liang Hua (Yu Mei Die), Tina Chin Fei (Kuen Kuen), Tien Feng (Manager Liu), Ku Feng (Inspector Ma), Peng Peng (Li Peng), Yang Chih Ching (Chu Tien Wai), Fan Mei Sheng (hook-handed gangster), King Pai Tien (Lo Tin), Wu Ma (Hun Chu), Hu Tung (Dr. Au Tai Man), Huang Chung Shun (Hung Ying), Chao Hsin Yen (Hsiao Jin)

Directed by Inoue Umetsugu

The Short Version: Linear, but fast-paced and fun Shaw Brothers spy shenanigans finds various thieves and criminal masterminds after a secret microfilm. Cheng Pei-pei is at the center of it all, playing a nightclub dancer who also happens to be the daughter of the King of Thieves. The expected intrigue and subterfuge ensue, but rarely taking itself seriously. Easily one of the best collaborations between Shaw Brothers and the Japanese filmmakers that were brought to the studio in the late 1960s. A highly sought after jewel in the Shaw crown for those with an interest in their non-Kung Fu output.

Dr. Au unveils a breakthrough in atomic energy that, in the right hands will benefit mankind, but in the wrong hands could destroy it. Burning all his documents, the enterprising scientist puts his life's work on microfilm. However, the ruthless Chu Loong syndicate kills the scientist and all those connected with him in an effort to raise the price of the microfilm to the highest bidder. The catch is locating it first, well hidden that it is. A band of thieves and con-artists led by nightclub singer and dancer Li Bing learns of the coveted item and is recruited by a counter intelligence agency to procure the microfilm before the villains do. 

By the time OPERATION LIPSTICK hit theaters, there had already been a small number of spy pictures at Shaw's (beginning with Lo Wei's THE GOLDEN BUDDHA in 1966), spurred on by the success of Cantonese Bond imitations from earlier in the decade. A playful take on the genre was inevitable. With that said, this OPERATION is one of the best, most enjoyable of its kind. The movie coasts from the very first frame to the last -- rarely, if ever stumbling. Umetsugu, a Japanese director with a slew of standard, yet polished credits during his Shaw tenure, shows a deft touch for comedy in his breezy spy spoof. Sort of the Hong Kong answer to the same years CASINO ROYALE. Interestingly, both films were released in the same month.

Umetsugu's script isn't loaded with action, but the brisk pace is carried by a healthy string of fantastic set pieces rife with comedic touches and vibrant colors; an altercation in a Turkish bathhouse and comical hysteria aboard a ferry are among them. Additionally, with all the various clues leading one step closer to the location of the microfilm, a sense of intrigue and adventure is created to go along with the usual spy tropes.

Gadgets are a spy's best friend, and Umetsugu supplies his script with a few of them; these include earring communication devices, a trick trunk, and a perfume bottle that sprays a mist rendering a person unconscious. The best, and most memorable of these are a trio of assassins wearing dark sunglasses who moonlight as nightclub singers. Recalling the Three Blind Mice of DR. NO (1962), their gimmick is in their instruments -- lethal banjos that conceal firearms (see above). The exact same device turned up in the hands of William Berger in Gianfranco Parolini's spy western SABATA (1969) starring Lee Van Cleef.

The atmosphere may be uniformly light-hearted, but some scenes are extraordinarily brutal for such a fluffy film; examples being a couple of knifings and an electrocution. These are sporadic instances, but films with this type of aura generally have no casualties in them. There is one possible explanation, though. Kuei Chi Hung, Hong Kong's most infamous (yet underrated) purveyor of cinematic violence and the macabre, was an assistant director.

One of a handful of Japanese filmmakers brought to Hong Kong for a cross-pollination of cinema styles, Inoue Umetsugu was already known for helming musicals; and he carried this tradition to the Shaw Studios. Working for all the major production companies in Japan, Umetsugu's output for Shaw's had a certain quality about them, although much of his HK work were little more than remakes of Japanese films made by him and other colleagues. OPERATION LIPSTICK was his first of two spy films for the company (the other being the elaborately ludicrous THE BRAIN STEALERS [1968]).

The graceful Cheng Pei-pei shines in every scene she's in, and every bit the definition of adorable. There's a playful sexiness on display in her role as the thieving sister of a family of thieves. She's far away from the character Golden Swallow of COME DRINK WITH ME (1966) -- a role repeated in the following years film bearing the same name. She has limited fighting ability in this one, relegated to some Judo style maneuvers (as was always the case in the Shaw spy pictures) here and there, yet these appear and disappear from one scene to the next; although her martial skill vanishing act isn't as jarring as Lily Ho's in THE BRAIN STEALERS.

Around the time this film was completed, Pei-pei was sent to Japan for seven months to study advanced choreography. While there the actress shot two weeks worth of location shooting for the aforementioned GOLDEN SWALLOW and FLYING DAGGER (both 1968) for director Chang Cheh.

Paul Chang Chung was one of Shaw's then small stable of leading men; considering moviegoers went to theaters to see the women before Chang Cheh introduced the masses to musculature and masculinity with THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967). Paul's presence in such pictures as THE GOLDEN BUDDHA (1966), THE BLACK FALCON (1967), and KISS AND KILL (1967) gave him a brief time to shine as Asia's answer to Agent 007. He performs the same service here.

These HK variants won't make anyone forget James Bond; if anything, these lightweight, but entertaining counterparts make intriguing comparative studies. Umetsugu is obviously having a grand time playing around with genre conventions. He's in on the gag and wants the audience in on it, too. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end when our two main characters break the fourth wall with a wink to the audience. Die-hard Shaw Brothers fans and devout worshipers of spy cinema will get the most out of this (it's never been released on video or digital); as will those who are curious to see the Hong Kong approach to old Hollywood style filmmaking.

You can purchase this film HERE.

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