feat

Golden Buddha

When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.

As with their European counterparts, a good many of these films are impressive and fun despite having smaller budgets than Bond. The Asian spy films were able to compensate for the financial difference the same way European movies did, exploiting the one thing American films of the same nature did not have: location. Eurospy films could “trot the globe” for peanuts considering how easy it is to go to a different country in Europe. Since many of the films were often co-productions between two or more nations, even a modestly bankrolled Eurospy actioner could find itself in Paris, Rome, Venice, Milan, London, Berlin, Madrid, or any number of lavish locales in between. In Asia, it was much the same, and a production from Japan or Hong Kong could actually save money in many cases by trotting down south and shooting the exotic scenery of Thailand or Indonesia. Both continents had built-in globe-trotting at their disposal.

Cheap American spy films, on the other hand, were stranded. Where were they going to go? New York, Los Angeles, and Vegas may seem exotic in an international context, but there was nothing in any of those cities Americans hadn’t seen a million times before. Sure we had Hawaii, but shoestring budget exploitation films couldn’t afford to fly there any more than they could fly to Tokyo or Copenhagen. Unlike Asian and European exploitation film crews, American crews were pretty much stuck, which is why so many of the American offerings in the genre are so dull, trying to pass California suburbs off as Prague or St. Petersburg. No one wants to watch a spy jet set off to Iowa or Toronto.

Of the Asian countries who got in on the spy craze, Japan had the best-known films outside of their own market. The Japanese films tended to seize upon the most eye-catching pop-art aspects of the genre and blow them up tenfold into something that resembled a sumptuous blend of James Bond, Modesty Blaise, Alfred Hitchcock’s many espionage thrillers, and Barbarella. Although less well-known than their Japanese brethren, and often slightly less polished, Hong Kong’s entries into 1960s spymania are nothing to sneeze at, and some of them take the pop-art psychedelia even further than it was taken in Japan. Unfortunately, where finding old Japanese spy films can be difficult but eventually rewarding, digging up Hong Kong spy films was a study in unending frustration. The films simply weren’t in circulation anymore – at least until recently.

When the Shaw Brothers studio finally sold its vast film library for distribution on DVD, it meant that along with all the kungfu adventures for which the Shaws were best known in the West, we’d also be seeing some of their forays into espionage films, and if we were seeing what the Shaws had to offer, then we were doubtless seeing some of the best, or at least most expensive, examples of what Hong Kong had to offer. One of the first of the Shaw Brothers spy films to find its way back into the light is not exactly a spy film, but neither were a lot of the European films that became part of the genre. As long as someone was wearing a smart suit and being shot at by guys in sunglasses, then we can call it a spy film. Golden Buddha has more than enough of that to keep fans of cloak and dagger doings happy, not to mention the fact that it has sexy ladies, hidden treasure, exotic locales, and a fat guy in a gold lame super-villain outfit. And I haven’t even begun to describe the lair.

Golden Buddha begins with our dashing man Paul Chang Chung as Paul, which is convenient. Chang is a top notch “dashing” lead, certainly better than contemporary Peter Chan Ho, who was plenty likable but rarely believable as the suave ladies’ man he often played. Chang is another one of those men they just don’t seem to make anymore. He’s not quite a Cary Grant, but he reminds me a lot of Toho Studio’s number one super-suave leading man from the same era, Akira Takarada. What all three of those gents have in common (and what would later be embodied by men like Chow Yun-fat and…well, just Chow Yun-fat, I guess) is the ability to lend an everyman quality to sheer elegance, or maybe it’s adding a touch of sheer elegance to an everyman character. As James Bond, Sean Connery had class to spare, but existed at an unobtainable level. No one could be James Bond. He never had to deal with the mundane aspects of life, like doing laundry or going grocery shopping. The elegant everyman, as defined by Cary Grant, was clever and sophisticated and charming, but he was also real, or at least more real than James Bond. Grant may still be jetting around fighting international villains, but you also see him staying in crummy hotel rooms, struggling to cook himself some dinner, going to a regular job, things of that nature. They were real-life flares that made Cary Grant’s persona seem almost obtainable, because we saw him dealing with the normal stuff.

The same goes for Akira Takarada and Paul Chang Chung. The characters they played were always smartly dressed and one step ahead of the game, but they also had everyman qualities and problems that made them seem more believable. James Bond created a myth, something one could aspire to but never hope to actually achieve. The elegant Everyman, on the other hand, was something that you could hope to one day become if you could just turn off the GameCube and stop scratching your ass while making lunch long enough to learn a little something about presenting yourself with a degree of class and respectability.

Paul Chang Chung’s Paul is a businessman on his way to Singapore to seal some manner of deal. On the flight, he meets and old friend from the judo club who is on his way to Bangkok to attend to some sort of family business. Both men carry the same briefcase. Can you guess what happens? When Paul is forced by inclement weather to stay an extra day in Bangkok, he discovers the mistaken briefcase identities and decides to use his time in Thailand to get the proper case back. Well, first he gets sidetracked to a massage parlor full of willing girls, then he goes to get the case back. I mean, a man’s got to have his priorities straight, doesn’t he?

The problem with getting back his own briefcase gets complicated when he discovers his old friend with a rather large stiletto knife stuck in his chest. Paul isn’t too terribly upset. I guess they weren’t close friends, just old friends. He grabs the contents of his briefcase, shovels them into his friend’s briefcase, and heads home intent to not get tangled up in the whole affair. That would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that assassins and thugs are suddenly coming out of the woodwork and chasing after Paul, demanding that he turn over to them the secret of the Golden Buddha – a small statuette he discovered in his friend’s briefcase. Before too long, Paul is on the run and trying to figure out the riddle that will, with aid from his friend’s beautiful sister and portly brother, unlock a fortune in buried treasure. The key to the whole affair lies inside the Buddha, and inside the two Buddha’s possessed by the victim’s brother and sister. In a refreshing twist, the police are involved but Paul is not on the run from them or mistaken as his friend’s killer or anything like that. The cops just sort of like to hang around and pretend they are reading papers.

The premise is simple enough, but the thrill is always in the execution, and director Lo Wei delivers a tightly paced adventure film that never feels especially serious but also never veers into total comedy. In retrospect, it’s tempting to apply the term “camp” to a film of this nature, but camp implies a certain degree of intention on behalf of the filmmaker to spoof a certain genre or turn the wackiness way up a la the old Batman television series. There’s nothing in Golden Buddha to make one think they weren’t taking the film seriously. It’s outlandish, yes, and certainly garish and over the top, but it lacks the wink – and, thankfully, the smarminess – of most films that put themselves forward as camp.

It doesn’t matter, really, I suppose. Campy or not, all that counts is whether the film is enjoyable, and Golden Buddha definitely delivers the goods. Being able to make a film fast-paced but coherent, quick-moving but not hyperactive and short of thought, seems to be a lost art form. Many contemporary films feel they must either be slow and ponderous or edited so choppily in that MTV style so as to cause seizures in a good many viewers, primarily because these films rely entirely on action scenes to propel the movie forward and provide the sense of pace. A film like Golden Buddha, or a James Bond film, knows that there are other ways to keep the plot feeling fast without relying on explosions and jump cuts set to blaring techno music. And of course few were better than Hitchcock at being able to inject non-action scenes with a sense of urgency and tension. Films from the 1960s in particular, knew how to use characters and dialogue to keep your interest.

That’s just what Golden Buddha does. There is plenty of action, most of it in the form of energetic but dreadfully choreographed fist fights, but the film doesn’t rely solely on those scenes – which, given the quality of the fights, is probably wise. The character of Paul is, like many of the characters in this and similar films, one-dimensional. But it’s a good dimension, and the script makes the most of it. He’s a good guy, handy with a gun or a judo throw, not above bedding a beautiful dame in the name of, well, bedding beautiful dames. He is, in a word, likable. He’s charismatic, and that makes him interesting even he’s not a deep and complex study of the human psyche. When you have interesting characters, it goes along way to giving you an interesting film, a film where you don’t have to rely on special effects and explosions to keep the viewer’s attention.

The other characters are predictable, but that’s not a negative. After all, spy films became popular because they followed a formula and found ways to tweak and alter the formula while still staying true to it, like how I started adding a dash of molasses to my recipe for Kentucky Derby Pie. Paul finds himself with two women in his life, as the hero in spy films often did – and remember, I realize this isn’t a spy film per se, but it has enough of the genre clichés to keep it in the company of your finer Eurospy films. One woman is noble and good, the other is sinister and evil. Both are sexy. We start out with Fanny Fan, who is an absolute drop-dead bombshell of a vixen with sex appeal in spades. She starred in at least one other Lo Wei-directed spy caper for the Shaw’s, 1967’s wonderful Angel With Iron Fists. If she didn’t make a lot more movies than I’ve turned up, then it’s a real shame because she has a beauty and a body that will turn your head and keep it in that position. She’s wonderful as the femme fatale of the piece, an operative of the mysterious Skeleton Gang who is out to steal the secret of the Golden Buddha before Paul and his allies can solve it.

And she shows off her derrieres. That may sound base and piggish, but it’s also worth noting since this film was made in 1966, a time when bare bottoms were still rare in anything but b-grade exploitation and those nudie cuties about Florida nudist colonies being menaced by a gorilla. Our introduction to Fanny’s fanny while fully clothed in a tight mod dress and swaying provocatively back and forth as she sashays down the hallway is plenty good, to boot, or should I say to booty? Oh, that was just awful. Okay, enough about naked behinds. I can try to pass it off as my professional interest in Hong Kong cinema’s willingness to pursue nudity in a mainstream film while the supposedly more liberated West was still playing things coy, but in the end – so to speak – you know the basic fact behind the matter is that I simply appreciate nudity. I appreciate Fanny Fan Lai. Put the two together, and well, you can figure it out.

Our more modest heroine is Jeanette Lin Tsui as the sister of Paul’s murdered friend and possessor of one-third of the Golden Buddha‘s secret (her older brother has the other third). What Jeanette lacks in terms of Fanny Fan’s bombshell appeal she more than makes up for with an enchanting beauty, graceful demeanor, and plenty of elegant 1960s dresses. For the most part, she’s not nearly as actively involved in things as your better Bond girls from the same time. By 1966, we’d seen Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore doling out judo throws (Goldfinger) and Claudine Auger as Domino doling out harpoon guns to the chest (Thunderball). Jeanette’s damsel-in-distress is less interesting for her lack of ability, but she’s not entirely useless. She at least cracks a vase over a guy’s head and, as far as I remember, never trips and falls while running away from the bad guys. That’s got to count for something.

The supporting cast rounds things out nicely. A young Wo Ma (or younger, anyway) plays one of the cops, who as I mentioned earlier, made me happy by being ineffectual (as always) for most of the film but not resorting to the tired old “mistaking the hero for the killer” routine. People know Wo Ma best for his parts later in life, such as the Taoist ghost slayer in Chinese Ghost Story. He spends most of his time here reading papers on the street corner. Director Lo Wei himself makes an appearance as the villain of the piece, and I have to say this is one of the greatest screen villains of all time, not so much for his character, which is typical and somewhat uninspired, but for his fashion sense, which would send even 1970s-style David Bowie or Elton John into a fit.

The man wears amber sunglasses, a shiny gold foil suit (with standard “evil villain” high collar), black knee-high boots, and a cape with a giant pointy collar. Now that, my friends, is a quality megalomaniacal villain’s wardrobe. While Pierce Brosnan may have brought back the era of a hero with keen fashion sense, the villains of today are woefully inadequate when it comes to selecting the proper attire for trying to throttle the world with your iron grip. These days, they’re all in dull brown military uniforms and business casual from J. Crew. Hardly any villains these days wear capes, let alone a gold foil Nehru jacket. Where’s the style? Where’s the flamboyant flare that lets the world know you are not a man to be trifled with? The leader of Golden Buddha‘s ruthless Skeleton Gang – now there is a man who knows how to dress the part.

That, in fact, leads to what may very well be my favorite part in the entire film. I’m not going to spoil anything when I tell you Paul manages to foil the evil plans of the Skeleton Gang, which were pretty small considering what a lavish lair they have. For an organization with tentacles in all parts of the world, with a vast space age underground lair and hundreds of henchmen and attractive female agents, you’d think they’d set their heights a little higher than recovering a small chest of jewelry. I’m sure it was valuable stuff, but I bet the Skeleton Gang spent twice as much as it was worth just trying to get the thing, which is especially silly when you realize after the not entirely shocking twist that they could have basically had the thing for free with almost no effort. Anyway, once Paul foils their plans we get a lovely shot of the gang and their leader being hauled off like common crooks by the cops – still decked out in all his outrageous supervillain gear. I bet he’ll be especially popular wearing that in some dark, dirty Bangkok jail cell.

The leader’s fabulous outfit is simply one part of the overall beautiful look of the film. The budget may have been smaller than a Bond budget, but it seems to have been larger than the budget for your average Eurospy film, or at least better utilized. The film looks grand, full of eye-popping color and space-age decor. The Skeleton Gang’s lair is a thing of beauty. Ken Adam himself, the set designer for the Bond films, would be impressed by what Lo Wei and crew managed to pull of with much more limited resources. The thing is an amalgamation of every swanky space station, secret lair, and bachelor pad ever seen on the screen. When the film isn’t traipsing about the labyrinthine corridors of the evil lair, it’s reclining in an exotic lounge, parading around a series of gorgeous Thai travelogue footage, and otherwise taking advantage of the fact that Shaw Bros. productions threw together some of the most beautiful sets ever.

Of course, not everything is perfect with Golden Buddha. The plot does have at least one major hole, which I mentioned above. Absolutely nothing in the movie was necessary. The Skeleton Gang could have recovered the treasure of the Golden Buddhas with almost no effort, but they chose instead to go running about shooting at things, getting into judo fights, and ruining a variety of lattice work. Luckily, the film is enough fun for you not to really care, and given the clothes the leader of the gang favors, it’s possible he’s simply not all there and the easy route never occurred to him. Of course, the easy route rarely makes for an interesting film, either.

The other strike against the film is the abysmal fight choreography. There are a few shootouts, but most of the action comes via fisticuffs, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a worse example of how to stage fights. Even the fight scenes in those Frankie Avalon beach parties were better than the ones here. It’s not that they aren’t energetic – every time there is a fight, Paul Chang Chung and his opponents go at it with gusto, flinging each other across the room, through the windows, bouncing across the bed, things of that nature. The problem lies in the fact that not a single punch lands anywhere near its target, and everyone does that jerky “turn my head to the left, then to the right, then up, then down” movement when they’re being hit. The film fares better when Paul breaks out his judo moves, and one fight scene between him and another judo master after Fanny Fan is drugged by her own treachery is actually decent. But most of the fights are straight-up fisticuffs, and they look really awful. It can’t be excused by the film’s date, either. By 1966, we’d seen plenty of superb fight scenes, many of them in other films from the Shaw Bros. studios. Golden Buddha loves a fight scene, but it can’t execute one very well. Still, the energy and the fact that the film is basically one wild, outlandish ride make the awful fight choreography enjoyable despite itself.

Finally, while the acting is relatively solid throughout, one has to question the matter-of-fact nonchalantness with which Paul handles the mysterious murder of his friend. We can assume at first that he simply wasn’t all that close to the guy, and that would be understandable. But then he goes through all this crazy mess with the Golden Buddha statues, risks his life, and when asked why explains that it’s because the dead guy was his friend, and he owes him. Ah well, nothing to get annoyed over. After all, do we want to watch Paul Chang Chung bed Fanny Fan, judo chop everyone in sight, and run around in a space-age secret lair, or do we want to watch him cry and question how life could be so cruel?

Golden Buddha is tremendous fun and a real treat for fans of 1960s spy films despite there being no actual spies in the film. It’s still got plenty of intrigue and sneaking about, and the production is sumptuous. Fans of zany 1960s art direction will be in heaven. The plot won’t keep you guessing from beginning to end, and it does have that one giant hole, but otherwise it’s fairly serviceable and keeps things moving at a brisk but not thoughtless pace. Best of all, the mysterious treasure turns out to be actual treasure, and not some note that says, “Peace on Earth” or something.

Release Year: 1966 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Paul Chang Chung, Jeanette Lin Tsui, Fanny Fan Lai, Lo Wei, Wo Ma, Hsi Chang, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Fung Ngai, Cheung Hei | Writer: Wei Shih | Director: Lo Wei | Cinematographer: Oscar Tung Shao-Liang | Music: Wang Chi-Ren | Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw | Original Title: Jin pu sa