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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Golden Triangle (1975) review


Sombat Methanee (Chat), Lo Lieh (Peter Wong/Tony), Tien Ni (Hong Song Wu), Sawin Sawangrat (Lau Su), Tien Feng (Lo Han), Tanyarat Lohanan (Pon)

Directed by Wu Ma and Rome Bunnag

The Short Version: This ambitious co-production between Hong Kong and Thailand tries to capitalize on the subject of the drug trade within the mountain regions of Burma (now Myanmar), Laos and Thailand making headlines at the time. The first half builds a surprising amount of exposition and pathos while the second half unleashes near nonstop gun battles and a concluding car chase. Watch Lo Lieh--Mr. 5 Fingers of Death himself--ride a motorcycle and use an assortment of firearms in the same clothes he's wearing in BLACK MAGIC and BRUCE'S FINGERS. There's no actual Kung Fu fights, but this expensive (by Southeast Asian standards) rarity is worth the diehard KF fan's time.
Peter Wong is a Chinese drug dealer operating in Bangkok till the authorities discover he has escaped and is on the run. A woman he met in a nightclub helps him cross the border into Burma where he is introduced to Lo Han, a vicious crime boss seeking to expand his drug smuggling business and take out any competition; namely Hong Song Wu, a beautiful woman who inherited her father's opium business. Meanwhile, Chat, another wanted man on the run from the law--who may not be what he appears--finds his way into the jungle and becomes a member of Lady Hong's local syndicate providing armed escorts for the transportation of opium. Chat joins them in their battles against Lo Han deep inside the treacherous Golden Triangle.
The Drug lords paradise known as the Golden Triangle was big news back in the 1970s. American gangsters were making millions smuggling heroin into the United States while Triads grew their bank accounts vying for control of smuggling rings by overtaking transit points. Another movie about trafficking contraband from 1975, THE DELIVERY, touched on this topic by way of couriers who smuggled drugs from Japan to Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong film industry was once again going through changes in the mid-70s. Films like DEEP THROAT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS (both 1972) were emboldening Hong Kong film producers to be more daring in their films' sexual content. Both those titles were banned in HK although screenings of DEEP THROAT did occur in underground theaters. The industry itself was in decline due to several factors including the oil crisis, the rise of television, and the spread of communism that closed off some film markets after the fall of Saigon. 
In 1975, Southeast Asian territories, Thailand among them, imposed stricter rules on films imported from Hong Kong. This led to HK producers opting for co-productions as a way of incentivizing imports while presenting an exotic product for curious foreign buyers. THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE was one such picture. Moreover, there was another Asian movie produced in 1975 with this same title and almost identical plot; the other one stars Yasuaki Kurata and Han Ying Chieh. 
Modern-day crime stories were becoming increasingly popular with producers (if not at the box office). These types of crime pictures wouldn't solidify their place in the industry till the following year in 1976 after JUMPING ASH, an independently produced action thriller, was the #1 hit of that year.  
As for its entertainment value, THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE is surprisingly enjoyable. The cinematographer was Chinese DP Wong Wing Lung; his camera is one of the film's assets. There's some great shots throughout, and not just the sprawling Thai countryside. There are a lot of mid-level angles where the camera is behind certain characters with their guns in closeup. This creates a sense of menace you seldom got in these movies. The images of dozens of armed extras making their way through the jungle gives the impression that some money was indeed spent on this production; and more than was typically allotted.

Lo Lieh, who founded his own production company in 1972 with the blessing of his employers at Shaw Studio, put in nearly HK$1 million of his own money to co-finance THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE with Thai producers. The film made its premiere in Thailand at a charity show and reportedly was a big hit in the country. Apparently, Lo made his money back just in Thailand alone. This was probably helped along by the participation of Sombat Methanee, one of, if not the biggest, Thai stars of all time. Lo Lieh was passionate about this project and heavily promoted it in the various film markets to get its name out there.

Production took between 2-3 months to complete. Other pictures being shot in exotic locales like BLACK MAGIC (1975) kept Lo Lieh out of Hong Kong for close to a year. While Lo was making this movie, he had officially divorced his first wife whose English name was Christine. They had a son together and custody was turned over to her. The following year in 1976, Lo would marry his then live-in girlfriend, Tang Jia Li (Grace Tang). An aspiring actress, Lo put her in the lead role of his DEVIL AND ANGEL (1973), the first film made for his independent company he founded while shooting THE FUGITIVE (1972) at Shaw Brothers. Tang didn't care much for the movie world and decided to be a housewife and mother instead.

Lo Lieh was another actor who was referred to locally as the "Chinese Charles Bronson", or "Oriental Chai Zhan". He was certainly one of the busiest, and in-demand, actors working at the time. Lo gets a handful of good action scenes in TRIANGLE to show off in, even though the Thai star, Sombat Methanee, is the leading protagonist. Lo loved filming there, especially considering the value he got for his money compared to Hong Kong. THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE, with its attractive and tropical locations, were appeasing enough for foreign producers to gamble on the movie. According to Lo Lieh at the time, Italy was paying close to US$100,000 for the license. The source for this blu-ray was an Italian print. It's unknown at the moment if this film played in Hong Kong theaters as Lo stated in an interview in 1975 he was shopping it around to local producers for purchase.

Much like Run Run Shaw, Lo Lieh had his eye on the international market. It was he who set the global dominance of Kung Fu movies into motion with 1972s KING BOXER, released in America as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in 1973. Lo had intended to produce a KING BOXER 2 but this never came to fruition. He had such faith in the Thai market that his next project was going to be filmed there. It was to have been another co-production, this time between his company and the two biggest Thai companies. War movies became a briefly popular topic in 1976 with Chang Cheh's 7 MAN ARMY (1976) leading the charge. Lo Lieh planned his to be budgeted at HK$8 million using 1957s THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI as its template. That production never got off the ground, but he did shoot THE BIG BOSS PART 2 and THE POSSESSED (both 1976) in the country instead.

Actor turned director Tien Feng made a career out of playing sinister and grotesque villains; the pinnacle of these being his absolutely loathsome antagonist in Cheng Kang's THE SWORD OF SWORDS (1968). OATH OF DEATH (1971) and THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972) are two others. His leading villain portrayal in KING BOXER (1972) is his most recognized internationally.

In THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE, Tien Feng plays a particularly nasty drug lord who may have been based on Burmese gangster Khun Sa. Backed by a 20,000-30,000 strong private militia, Khun Sa consolidated power from Burma (now Myanmar) to the Northern border of Thailand. Eventually, his smuggling operations shipped drugs beyond the areas of the Triangle to the streets of Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and America. Today, Myanmar is the top opium producer in the world; although the Golden Triangle is no longer the epicenter of drug crop cultivation. 

The script was written by a Thai actress named Thaworn Suwana. The dubbing doesn't show it, but the script is unexpectedly good. If the tri-territory mountain region of the title wasn't in the news as it was at the time, this movie probably would never have been made. There's even an attempt to present a positive side to the manufacturing of opium during a sequence between Methanee and Tanny where she says it's been the only source of livelihood for the people for generations. "To us, opium is an ordinary crop. It's you people in the civilized world who adapt it into social evils."  The film never justifies the manufacturing and selling of drugs, but it's unusual that there would be a discussion, brief as it is, about non-addictive uses of the plant in an action film.
The poppy plant (papaver somniferum) is also used for medicinal and therapeutic purposes as well as an ingredient in foods. There are several scenes where we see workers harvesting the plants and preparing them for wherever they're being shipped out to. These quasi-documentary moments give the feeling you're watching a Mondo movie. Among all the jungle action and tropical atmosphere, you'll see some fascinating glimpses of Thai life in the mid 1970s.

One curious scene has Lo Lieh going to a massage parlor and picking out six girls(!) to entertain him. It's really a ruse so his sinister employer, Lo Han, can double-cross him. The parlor women do business in these bathrooms with beds in them. They lather up on these inflatable pool floats and once you're massaged and cleaned up, you move to the adjoining bed for the completion of services rendered. 

Tanny Tien Ni was a popular freelance actress who had a lengthy career in Taiwan before making a mark in HK movies. Her relationship with married filmmaker Mou Tun Fei (MEN BEHIND THE SUN) in the early 70s made headlines. She was once again in the news when she and British actor Robin Stewart entered into a whirlwind romance for a few months during the filming of THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). It seemed like the two lovebirds would tie the knot; Stewart went so far as to pen a statement in Cinemart Magazine about his love for Tien Ni. It wouldn't last, though, and she would ultimately wed Yueh Hua on December 22nd, 1975 and her wild ways ended there.
She does well in this role of the poppy field overlord, maintaining the business she inherited from her father, and coveted by the villainous Lo Han. Tanny even fires a machine gun and does some brief fighting at the conclusion. She was a feisty actress who didn't mind getting her hands dirty, so to speak. She would appear in at least one other Thai-lensed motion picture, the JAWS-inspired CROCODILE (1979) that apparently began shooting in Thailand in 1977. Of the two, Tanny makes a better impression as the firebrand poppy princess.
With THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE being a co-production between two different Asian territories, there are two different directors. Presumably, this was more Rome Bunnag's movie than Wu Ma's; the latter likely being on hand to aid and or direct scenes only with the Chinese actors.

One of those rare titles that had little circulation, THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE is a nice surprise with its plentiful gun battles and concluding car chase and boat crash. Kung Fu fans might be disappointed there isn't much in the way of hand-to-hand combat, but there's enough here to keep a fan preoccupied for 95 minutes. Once the plot is laid out, it's virtually non-stop action from the 44 minute mark to the end. This picture isn't anything remotely spectacular, it's just a nice, very entertaining surprise; a film whose reputation should improve with this attractive widescreen presentation.

This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment bluray. Specs and extras: new 2K scan of the longest running 35mm print known to exist (Italian print as IL TRIANGOLO D'ORO; English dubbed); 2.35:1 1080p anamorphic widescreen; running time: 01:34:51

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