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Sep 12, 2007

The Man From Hong Kong (1975)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Sammo Hung and Roger Ward.
Written and Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith.

This movie and I have a history. I first saw it at the Rapallo Cinema in Pitt Street, Sydney where it had premiered a week before. In those days I was big into kung fu. I dabbled in jeet kune do training with a friend, I had seen the Bruce Lee movies in Chinatown cinemas before they hit the big time fleapits and I could swing nunchaku without giving myself a subdural haematoma. My Asian obsession also went to cuisine. I was also almost living on packet noodles from a Chinese supermarket on the corners of Hay and Pitt Streets, but that’s another story.

Made for $A450,000, TMFHK was a co-production between the Shaw Brothers’ Golden Harvest company in Hong Kong and The Movie Company in Australia. Kung Fu movies had hit the West like a spinning back kick and even the death of Bruce Lee didn’t slow it down for a long time. The press gave this film a lot of free publicity too. Australian films had just left the Menzies/Gorton/McMahon era doldrums when the Whitlam government got in and any co-production was big news, especially given that there were some spectacular stunts above the city.

TMFHK starts with Australia’s biggest geographical icon, Uluru. A drug deal between a rodent-like Australian and a Chinese tourist Win Chan (Sammo Hung – who was also the fight choreographer for the movie) is sussed out by Bob Taylor (Roger Ward) and Morrie Grosse (Hugh Keays-Byrne) two Federal Drug Enforcement cops. Taylor chases Sammo up the side of the inselberg and they have a stoush complete with flying kicks and enough biff to keep the discerning punter happy. Eventually Taylor drags Sammo off the rock and arrests him.

Inspector Fang Sing Leng of the Hong Kong police is brought in to interrogate Win Chan (don’t ask why Australia doesn’t have Cantonese translators) and he turns out to be a loose cannon. Taylor and Grosse spend a lot of the film explaining that you can't beat up suspects, smash assassins through the fish tank in a restaurant or go totally Mad Max on the highways of New South Wales. Fang beats Win Chan up in his cell while trying to get information out of him and when Win Chan is shot dead by an assassin in Taylor Square, he chases the killer (Grant Page) through the back streets of Darlinghurst before beating him (and a Chinese restaurant) to death. Fang is gravely injured while taking on an entire kung fu school run by the bad guy and rescued by Angelica (Rebecca Gilling) who with the help of her veterinarian father, patches him up. On their way back to the city from a country idyll, Angelica is killed by the endless flunkies of Jack Wilton (George Lazenby) and his off-sider Willard (Frank Thring). Wilton is (of course) a kung fu expert who likes to shoot apples off the head of his girlfriend at harbourside cocktail parties for the amusement of trendies and sycophants. In best wuxia style, Fang Sing Leng fights his way to Wilton. He, kills a couple of busloads of thugs and henchmen (some of which were played by the movie’s executives and director) until finally landing on the roof of Wilton’s penthouse under a hang-glider, he abseils down to his window in a move late emulated by Bruce Willis in “Die Hard”. Feng then kills Wilton in a manner that would be considered overkill by any reasonable person.

TMFHK was Brian Trenchard-Smith’s second feature film, the first being a kinda documentary on VD called “The Love Epidemic” which I saw at the time. It showed amongst other things, Grant Page squeezing pus out of his dick in the shower, which really grossed me out when I saw it at the tender age of 18. Trenchard-Smith has since become an unashamed schlockmeister as his IMDB filmography demonstrates. Just titles like “Atomic Dog”, “Leprechaun 4: In Space”, “The Paradise Virus” and “Dangerfreaks” give a bit of an idea of his ouevre. On the DVD release of TMFHK, his commentary track is amusing, self-critical and perceptive. Scorcese he ain’t, but he is the kind of film-maker who kept cars lined up outside drive-ins until the gates opened. He even directed Nicole Kidman once… in BMX Bandits.

Jimmy Wang Yu (or just Wang Yu) was a big star in Hong Kong. His One-Armed Swordsman movies were incredibly popular in Asia. The Australian PR for TMFKH called him “Hong Kong’s Steve McQueen”, an appellation that seems incredibly dated now for several reasons. (Maybe we could call George Clooney America’s Stephen Chow …) Sammo Hung has since become internationally known as both Jackie Chan’s sidekick and the star of Martial Law. He gets an extra bit of admiration for wearing a long-sleeved black skivvy while running up the side of Ayres Rock, even if he did lose the fight.

As an action film of the 1970s, TMFHK had it all on what was even then, a frugal budget. Car chases and crashes, explosions on the top floors of buildings in North Sydney, a nude scene by Rebecca Gilling , hang-gliding, stunts galore, and very little moral ambiguity. But for me, the coolest aspect of it was that I knew where a lot of the scenes were filmed. At the time I spent a lot of time wandering the inner city, so Taylor Square, North Sydney and Darlinghurst were all familiar to me. I even knew the alley beside the State Theatre where the ten-storey drain-pipe climb into the kung fu studio was done. Australians weren’t then accustomed to seeing their own country in the cinema. Movies like TMFHK and Stone (which also starred Hugh Keays-Byrne) were given an added verisimilitude by the fact that you could walk out of the cinema and be on one of the film’s locations in less than five minutes.

I have a great fondness for this movie. It is silly, sexist, slightly racist, illogical and replete with continuity errors and plot holes, but it is a part of Australian film history and a viewing of it gives a taste of what Australia has gained and lost since 1975.

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