Sunday, 5 May 2013

Female Big Boss

Director: ‘George Richardson’
Writer: Romeo N Galang
Producer: Bobby A Suarez
Cast: Marrie Lee, George Estregan, Dante Varona
Country: Philippines/Singapore
Year of release: 1978
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Diamond Films)

Picked this knocked-about 1980s rental VHS up off Leicester market the other week, attracted by the title and the sleeve image, a drawing of a massively endowed woman unzipping her top. It was in with a pile of old Italian sex comedies but the presence of names like ‘Romeo N Galang’ in the credit block clued me in to the fact that this was some sort of Pacific Asian action movie, simply aping a well-known Bruce Lee title.

In fact the film was original titled They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, an homage not to Bruce but presumably to 1973 blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones, and it is the first Singapore movie I have reviewed for this site - although not, I expect, the last. (I initially had my doubts about that original title, thinking that it was just Cleopatra Wong as the advertising materials I saw suggested that ‘They call her...’ was mere poster copy. But a browse through contemporary trade press shows that the full five-word title was the original and it was simply shortened later. There was a vogue for They Call... titles in the 1970s including spaghetti westerns They Call Me Trinity and They Call Me Renegade, Swedish action-thriller They Call Her One Eye, Sidney Poitier-starring drama They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and Filipino martial arts knock-off They Call Him Chop-Suey - written by this film’s director Bobby A Suarez.)

‘And introducing Marrie Lee’ stars as the eponymous Interpol agent and the opening credits show her riding a motorbike, demonstrating top class marksmanship with both automatic pistol and longbow, kicking the collective arses of a half-dozen opponents at a martial arts demonstration and - hey! - partying till dawn in a classy international discotheque. On holiday in the Philippines, she is interrupted, mid-shag, by a phone call from her boss and has to fly back to Singapore where she is assigned to trace the source of some top-quality forged currency.

By conspicuously spending some of the fake dosh in a jewellery store, she attracts the attention of a local gangster who kidnaps her and takes her to his palatial villa, reachable by cable car. There she is thrown to the whims of three overweight wrestlers whose expressions when she whips off her skirt prior to fighting them are straight out of a Tex Avery film. The fatties having failed, the gangster calls in about thirty teenage boys who similarly prove no match for Cleo, who jumps over a 20-foot wall and escapes with the help of her moped-riding assistant.

Somehow the trail leads her to Hong Kong, where an informer working at the docks recommends that she keeps an eye on a consignment of strawberry jam. She follows the crate and finds that this is how the money is being smuggled into Honkers - but where is it coming from?

Finally, she returns to the Philippines where she poses as a magazine photographer reporting on what one must presume is the legendary Filipino Strawberry Belt. Asking around, her questions provoke possibly the greatest line ever spoken in a dubbed action movie: “The biggest strawberry jam factory in this area is the Catholic monastery over the hill.” If I live to be a hundred I will never write a line that brilliant.

It seems that a bunch of gangsters with the most extraordinary range of dodgy international accents have locked all the nuns in the cellar, dressed up in habits and set up a printing press in the monastery, banging out forged currency for five different Asian countries, which they smuggle across borders by hiding rolls of notes in jars of the monastery’s famous strawberry jam. (It’s the whole strawberry thing that gets to me. If it was just generic jam, it wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining. There is a ‘thank you’ credit to ‘Strawberry House, Bagglio City’, wherever/whatever that is.)

Cleo launches an assault on the monastery assisted by four male agents and the last half an hour or so consists almost entirely of fake nuns with machine guns running around and being gunned down. It’s completely brilliant. The real nuns are released from the cellar and led away to safety in a sequence that plays like a cross between Black Narcisus and The Wild Bunch. It’s just awesome. Eventually, Cleo collects her previously barely noticed motorbike and we find that it has rear-firing machine guns in the panniers. She also gets to demonstrate her archery skills, something forgotten entirely since the pre-credits sequence, by firing three arrows simultaneously and blowing up the bad guy’s helicopter.

Relentlessly brilliant, Female Big Boss/Cleopatra Wong turns out to be relatively well known and one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films, which should not really some as any surprise. However, it doesn’t seem to have been released on DVD so there’s an opportunity for someone there.

Marrie Lee’s real name was the rather less-exotic Doris Young and she was cast from a newspaper ad which asked: ‘Are you smart, sexy and seductive?’ Young was 18 and working as a receptionist in a nightclub on Shenton Way, one of the major roads in downtown Singapore, when she spotted the ad; she turned up to the audition in boots and miniskirt, assured the producers that she could ride a motorbike, and got the job just like that, beating 150 other applicants. The stage name was designed to fuel rumours that she was Bruce Lee’s sister, what with ‘Lee’ being such an unusual surname and all that.

According to a report in Screen International (20th July 1977), Marrie Lee is 5’7” and was 36-26-36 at the time. She had recently finished attending a Catholic high-school and had acted in school plays as well as taking bit roles in Hong Kong pictures that shot in Singapore. Shooting on Cleopatra Wong began in August 1977.

Filmed in Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong with post-production in Hollywood (it was filmed in English so the voices, though dubbed, match the lip movements), Cleopatra Wong is one of the very few independently produced Singapore feature films and was always aimed at the international market. Bobby A Suarez produced the film through his Filipino company BAS Films Productions Inc and also directed under the pseudonym ‘George Richardson’ (sometimes cited as ‘George N Richardson’). Suarez was raised in the Boys Town orphanage and started out as a janitor in the Filipino branch of Rank, rising to Assistant Sales Manager before establishing his own film company. His mentor at Rank was RLH Davidson who went on to become a senior figure with Warner Brothers. Suarez worked in Hong Kong in the 1970s before returning to the Philippines where he made The Bionic Boy and then this film. He has since gone on to win stacks of awards, becoming a major name in the local film industry.

When Cleopatra Wong proved an instant success, Suarez decided to combine his two franchises into a joint sequel, Dynamite Johnson - which was released in the UK as The Return of the Bionic Boy (and has been sitting on my shelf for some years, so time to dust that one off, I think). Cleo returned for a third adventure called Pay or Die (aka Devil’s Three aka Mean Business) and would have starred in another Suarez production, Queen Cobra, if she had not left for the States at that time. She was actually signed up to a five-picture deal but The Vengeance of Cleopatra Wong, though announced, never materialised. ‘Marrie Lee’ apparently only made two other pictures: a Spanish/Mexican film called Target Scorpion and a Hong Kong movie called Showdown at the Equator. She subsequently ran a dance troupe for a few years, then a healthcare company. Suarez’s later works include such great-sounding titles as American Commandos, Warriors of the Apocalypse, Commander Firefox and One-Armed Executioner.

Romeo N Galang (Romy N Galang on the poster), who fashioned the script for this from Suarez’s story, seems at first glance to have no other credits apart from the screenplays for the two Bionic Boy movies and a 1968 picture, De Colores. But the Inaccurate Movie Database, as we know, is less than reliable and in fact he also had a career as a director which included a previously unknown 1971 movie called Fight, Batman, Fight! (an even more blatant rip-off than James Batman, by the looks of the poster). The IMDB and other sources credit him with the score for Cleopatra Wong but there is no music credit on the film itself.

Speaking of IMDB discrepancies, there is the question of this film’s nationality. BAS Films Productions Inc was a Filipino company and is the only production company credited on screen but there seems to have been considerable involvement - and probably investment - in this film from Singapore. So I think it’s reasonable to consider this a Singapore/Filipino co-production. Some sources throw Hong Kong into the mix but I think that was just used as a location. It is noticeable that there are 31 credited actors plus another 12 listed separately as ‘in Singapore’ and another five ‘in Hong Kong’.

Chito Guerrero seems to be the only actor (apart from Marrie Lee) in all three Cleopatra Wong films, as well as several other Bobby Suarez pictures. Kerry Chandler and Alex Pecate (who gets an additional credit as ‘action director’) were also in Dynamite Johnson while Johnny Wilson and Danny Rojo (Lady Untouchable, Karate Fighters) were also in Pay or Die. (Wilson was also in Burning Power, Death Raiders and Suicide Force - boy, those Filipinos sure can come up with great titles.)

Also in the cast are George Estregan (legendary horror movie The Killing of Satan), Dante Varona (Cirio Santiago’s Dune Warriors), Philip Gamboa (They Call Him Bruce Lee, Biokids), Joaquin Fajardo (who was in The Omegans with Ingrid Pitt as well as Ninja Kids, Magnum Barracuda and Supermouse and the RoboRats), Joe Cunanan (The Impossible Kid), Clem Parsons (both Bionic Boy movies), Bobbie Greenwood, Jesse Lee, Vic Romero, Steve Havaro, Avel Morado, Bernie Bernado, Tony Castro, Joe Canlas, Mark Sherak, Romy Misa, Robert Mendez, Don Bell, Skip Kriegel, Bill James, Paul Mejares, Buddy Philipps, Robert Mallet, Mike Youngblood and John Stewart. There are also credits for the ‘Thunderboys Stuntmen' and the embarrassingly named ‘PIS Stuntmen’.

Cinematography is shared between David Hung and Eduardo ‘Baby’ Cabrales (on screen) aka Eduardo Cabrales Jr (on the poster) although initial reports credited Hung and Arnold Alvaro, a BAS Films regular who also worked on Balbakwa: The Invisible Man and Blood Ring 1 and 2. First Assistant Director Pepito Diaz went on to be 2nd AD on Platoon(!) and also worked on William Mesa’s sci-fi thriller DNA. The special effects are credited to Apolonio Abadeza whose name seems to have umpteen spellings and who worked on two Antonio Margheriti/David Warbeck films, The Last Hunter and Hunters of the Golden Cobra. There are separate credits for ‘special sets’ (Vicente Bonus, who was production designer on Terror is a Man!) and ‘special props’ (Jesse Sto.Domingo, who worked on Wonder Women and a whole bunch of Cirio Santiago movies).

Back in 1977, when Suarez was selling The Bionic Boy to distributors around the world and preselling They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, his in-development projects included The Crime Busters, The Vengeance of Cleopatra Wong, Daughters of Satan and a Bionic Boy sequel to be called The 12-Million-Dollar Boy (which may or may not have mutated into Dynamite Johnson). The following spring, BAS Films took out a three-page ad in Screen International to promote their wares at Cannes. The page ballyhooing They Call Her Cleopatra Wong played up the sexy aspects: “She purrs like a kitten ... makes love like a siren ... fights like a panther. This side of the Pacific, she is the deadliest, meanest and sexiest secret agent!” This flies somewhat in the face of Suarez’s remarks to the press that his “adventures features are aimed at attracting family audiences and provide ample thrills to entertain both kids and adults.” The quote is more accurate than the poster copy - there’s very little sex or sexiness in Cleopatra Wong, except that Marrie Lee herself is undeniably sexy.

That issue of Screen International also carried a full-page ad for Dynamite Johnson: “Mightier and Stronger than KINGKONG (sic) ... Faster than the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN... Deadlier than the BIONIC WOMAN ... More powerful than the SUPER-SONIC JET FIGHTER and ATOMIC BATTLESHIP combined!!!” Both posters describe Marrie Lee parenthetically as “Singapore’s handgun and martial arts expert.” Then the third page of the BAS Films ad presents titles and logos of other ‘forthcoming productions’: Super Woman, The Destroyers, Queen Cobra, One-Armed Executioner, Queen Cobra Strikes Again, Computer Boy, The Professional Mercenaries, Computer Boy Part II, Seven Thorns in a Mother’s Heart, The 3 Magnificent Shaolin Disciples and, of course, The Vengeance of Cleopatra Wong.

Keeping track of Bobby Suarez’s films is tricky with little to rely on except Google and the IMDB but his most recent credit as director seems be Obsessed in 1997 (he ostensibly retired in the late 1980s but that doesn't seem to have slowed him down at all). He was co-executive producer on Crying Ladies in 2003 and BAS Films produced Aishite Imasu (Mahal Kita) 1941 the following year. This last feature concerns the plight of a Filipino village under Japanese occupation; it has been shown at several festivals and is well-documented beyond the IMDB.

Googling around I came across Marrie Lee’s own webpage, an interesting (if slightly academic) treatise on Suarez’s work available as a PDF, and a blog by a Filipino critic which includes a lengthy post from Australian cult movies expert Andrew Leavold about his meetings with Filipino cinema legends including Lee and Suarez. The intriguing thing is, Bobby Suarez still has plans to make The Vengeance of Cleopatra Wong (with Marrie Lee in the title role). Whether this will come to anything, I don’t know. I’m not holding my breath. I also found a page which has a poster for a proposed Cleopatra Wong film, co-produced with BAS Films, called The Wandering Samurai.

It is evident that there is a big cult following for Marrie Lee, Bobby Suarez and the Cleopatra Wong films. Who would have thought all this could be found by just buying a tape from Leicester market for a quid?

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 30th June 2007

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