1966, Hong Kong/Japan
Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Jô Shishido, Ruriko Asaoka, Hideaki Nitani, Ying Fang, Wang Hsieh, Chang Pei-Shan, Tomoko Hamakawa, Kaku Takashina, Yuen Shen.
Director: Matsuo Akinori.
Screenplay: Iwao Yamazaki.
Cinematography: Kazumi Iwasa.
Editing: Chiang Hsing-Lung, Mutsuo Tanji.
Music: Toshirô Mayuzumi.
Jô Shishido was a big deal in 1967. He was one of the most famous faces at Nikkatsu studio, which was in turn one of the most successful studios in Japan thanks to their trailblazing “Borderless Action” style films. Jimmy Wang Yu was also a big deal in 1967. He was busy becoming the most famous face at the Shaw Brothers studio, which was in turn the most successful studios in Hong Kong. 1967 saw Shishido star in his most famous and most controversial role, that of the mad “Number Three Killer” turned on by the smell of boiling rice in director Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, the film that got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu. Wang Yu, meanwhile, became an icon of Hong Kong cinema after his appearance in the blood-soaked martial arts revenge film The One-Armed Swordsman. He also starred in wuxia classics The Assassin and Trail of the Broken Blade, cementing his position as the Shaw Brothers star of the 1960s. Shishido filled 1967 with Nikkatsu noir classics A Colt Is My Passport, Massacre Gun, and Like a Shooting Star. Pairing Shishido and Wang Yu up in a co-production seemed like a sure thing, the sort of meeting of titans that thrills fans.
Sweetening the deal would be the nature of the film: an international (well, at least inter-Asia) spy adventure cut from the same cloth as James Bond and other colorful espionage films that were wildly popular at the time. Nikkatsu’s stock in trade was brightly-colored action films that strove to be “international” in appeal, stuffed with cool cats in slick suits drinking whiskey and gunning one another down at an assortment of locations, though usually “on the docks.” However, the Japanese film industry was, at the time, feeling the squeeze from the rapid proliferation of television, and while the country produced many of its best films during that tumultuous decade, the fact was that money was always tight. The Shaw Brothers, on the other hand, were in ascendency, flush with cash, and anxious to trade it in exchange for the technical expertise and cinematic professionalism of Japanese filmmakers that would help raise the bar at Shaw Brothers and garner them greater acclaim on the global market (this being before the kung fu film trend hit the United States). This resulted in a lot of Shaw Brothers employees apprenticing in Japan, and it meant a few Japanese filmmakers would make the trip to Hong Kong to practice their trade, at least on a part-time basis, at the Shaw’s sprawling movie-making compound.
Among them was Matsuo Akinori, aka Mai Chi-Ho in Hong Kong. Matsuo was an able journeyman director who had previously directed Shishido in Nosappu no jô (1961) and Taiheiyo no katsugiboshi (1961 and also starring Nikkatsu mega-stars Akira Kobayashi and Ruriko Asaoka) as well as working with Nikkatsu superstar Yûjirô Ishihara on Yakuza sensei. For Asia-pol, Matsuo traveled to Hong Kong and worked, technically, under the auspices of the Shaw Brothers, whose logo graces the beginning of the film. But right away, it’s obvious that something is different than one expects from the the Shaws. We’re not on the backlot, where just about every Shaw Brothers film was shot. Instead, Matsuo takes the show on the road, shooting on location in Japan and the streets of Hong Kong (among other places), making it a unique experience for those otherwise well-versed in Shaw Brothers films. Matsuo handles Hong Kong like a Eurospy film would handle any of its major locations, filming it with a travelogue’s eye for local color and famous landmarks, which must have been novel to watch even for Hong Kong residents, who would have been more accustomed to seeing the streets of their city recreated on the Shaw backlot.
Sadly, that lush travelogue aspect is the only thing exciting about the movie, which is otherwise unevenly paced, dull in plot, and hampered by Jimmy Wang Yu’s limitations as an actor. The man who would become famous as martial arts cinema’s grimmest, bloodiest hero is surprisingly lightweight in his role as a suave secret agent. Much of that is because Wang Yu’s most famous roles called on him to exhibit exactly two emotions: no emotion, and burning rage. And in those regards, Jimmy Wang Yu proved exceptional. But playing a James Bond style playboy spy calls for much more. When asked to be sexy, playful, and charming, Wang Yu is seriously lacking, especially when he’s being asked to perform alongside exceptionally talented professionals like Jô Shishido and Ruriko Asaoka, who here fulfills the role of Miss Moneypenny, but with more field work, trendier outfits, and chaste HR policy-violating office flirting traded in for actual romance.
The plot is as simple and convoluted as one expects from your average spy film: Jô Shishido stars as George, a Japanese-Chinese gangster who hates Japan and has vowed to destroy it by smuggling gold and destroying its economy. Hot on his trail is secret agent Yang Ming Xuan (Jimmy Wang Yu), a Chinese orphan raised in Japan who defends the country’s honor against nefarious villains like Shishido’s George, making for an odd disconnect for those familiar with Wang Yu’s other films. The man built a career on films portraying the Japanese as leering monsters he needed to slaughter by the dozens. Yang works for Asia-pol, the Asia-specific version of Interpol and one of those organizations that are handy for spy movies since their jurisdiction and overall mission is conveniently nebulous.
The cat-and-mouse game between George and Yang leads them from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Macau, and Matsuo revels in the locales, taking full advantage of Shawscope to indulge the sightseeing aspect so crucial to globe-trotting spy films. There are also plenty of the requisite gadgets (oh for the days when hidden listening and tracking devices were the size of a loaf of bread), ultra-cool suits (Jimmy Wang Yu may be a wet blanket as a spy movie leading man, but at least he looks sharp), secret lairs, hidden doors, hands wielding weapons emerging from behind curtains, and beautiful women in beautiful clothes, the latter exemplified by Ruriko Asaoka, one of Nikkatsu’s most famous and talented leading ladies.
Although this is a Shaw Brothers production, it’s really a Nikkatsu film hampered by a Shaw Brothers leading man out of his league. It’s shot in the Nikkatsu style and with a lot more familiar Nikkatsu faces than Shaws. What they bring to the table is why this film is worth watching. Shishido is predictably accomplished in the role of a grinning, murderous Bond villain, exuding an effortless cool and his trademark subdued but tangible insanity. Asaoka is similarly memorable as Asia-pol’s number one adventuring secretary. Maybe she should have been the film’s lead. Nikkatsu cinematographer Kazumi Iwasa shoots a gorgeous film, vacillating between the postcard presentation of the film’s locations as well as its seedier back alleys and inevitable construction sites. Composer Toshiro Mayuzumi lends the film a snappy crime jazz score that helps the film pick up the pace even when the pace isn’t as quick as it should be. Had this been a purely Nikkatsu production, it probably would have gone much better. The script is slight, but had the hero been played by someone like golden boy Akira Kobayashi, there would have been ample charisma on screen to compensate for some lackluster thrills and the patchwork script by Nikkatsu writer Gan Yamazaki, who has done much better work than Asia-pol.
Instead, we have Jimmy Wang Yu, woefully outclassed by his co-stars from Nikkatsu. Scenes between Wang Yu and Shishido play less like a battle of wits between super villain and super spy and more like a world-class talent struggling to work with a petulant upstart, or the cool older kid trying to school the spoiled young brat on how to be suave. Everything Jô Shishido does can’t help but expose Wang Yu’s limitations. Ditto Ruriko Asaoka, who does her best to spark some chemistry between her and Wang Yu but can’t draw much blood from the stone.
Jimmy fares better in scenes with fellow Shaw Brothers star Fang Ying, who rose to prominence during the studio’s huangmei opera phase with 1963’s A Maid From Heaven and went on to star in some of the studio’s most lavish productions, including the Monkey King film The Land of Many Perfumes, martial arts epic The Iron Buddha, and the Hitchcock/Agatha Christie style thriller Diary of a Lady Killer. Asia-pol wastes her in the small role of Yang’s long-lost sister, but at least Jimmy Wang Yu seems less stiff around her. Maybe it was the language barrier that made him so awkward in his scenes with the rest of the cast, or maybe he was simply better at playing against a character meant to be a familial relation than a love interest. Whatever the case, his stilted performance is enough to distract from, but not completely tank Asia-pol, which manages to summon up enough charm elsewhere to make it worth a watch.
If the film succeeds at all, which is a dubious assertion, it succeeds primarily on the merits of its location work and the novelty factor of seeing the Nikkatsu players alongside Shaw Brothers stars. But think of it less as an example of unrealized potential and more as a learning experience for the Shaw Brothers. Wang Yu went on to brighter things that same year (maybe he would have been more comfortable playing a one-armed spy). Subsequent Shaw Brothers spy films were much better paced and better cast, with Paul Chang Chung stepping in as their de facto leading man and bringing all the impish charisma Jimmy Wang Yu lacked, while the wonderful Lily Ho became the studio’s go-to female lead for all things espionage, including Lady Professional, a much spritelier spyjinks affair from director Matsuo Akinori.
Other Shaw Brothers spy films would also eschew the relatively grounded nature of Asia-pol. Despite secret lairs and spy gadgets, Asia-pol plays things pretty straight and even a bit humorless. Other Shaw espionage efforts would revel in the most outlandish sci-fi aspects of spy films, from masked super-villains to gold jumpsuit-clad henchmen to doomsday weapons and lairs that look like something out of Space: 1999. Asia-pol may not be the measure of those later films, but with all the smart suits and colorful mini-dresses, not to mention death by exploding golf ball, there’s just enough to keep you around as you see the sights with Jô Shishido, Ruriko Asaoka, and pouting teenager Jimmy Wang Yu sitting in the back seat.