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 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 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 often dull. 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 espionage thrillers, and Barbarella. Although less well-known than their Japanese brethren, and 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. 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. He’s not quite a Cary Grant, but he reminds me 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 is the ability to lend an everyman quality to elegance, or maybe it’s adding a touch of sheer elegance to an everyman. 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 was clever, 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, and going to a regular job. They were real-life touches that made Grant’s persona seem almost obtainable. The same goes for Akira Takarada and Paul Chang Chung. They 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 become.
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 a judo club who is on his way to Bangkok to attend to some 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; but after that he goes to get the case back. A man’s got to have his priorities right, doesn’t he?
Getting back his own briefcase gets complicated when he discovers his old friend with a 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 long, Paul is on the run and trying to figure out the riddle that will unlock a fortune in buried treasure. 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.
Director Lo Wei delivers a tightly-paced adventure film that never feels especially serious but also never veers into comedy. 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. Campy or not, Golden Buddha delivers the goods. There is plenty of action, mostly in the form of energetic but poorly-choreographed fist fights. Even the fight scenes in 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.
Paul is, like many of the characters in this and similar films, one-dimensional, but it’s a good dimension. He’s a decent guy (except when it comes to reacting to the corpses of old friends), handy with a gun or a judo throw, and happy to bed a beautiful dame in the name of, well, bedding beautiful dames. He’s charismatic, and that makes him interesting even though he’s not complex. The other characters are predictable, but that’s not a negative. After all, spy films became popular because they followed a formula but found ways to tweak the formula while still staying true to it. Paul finds himself with two women in his life, as the hero in spy films often did. One is noble and good, the other is sinister and evil. Fanny Fan, a bombshell with sex appeal in spades, is the femme fatale of the piece, an operative of the mysterious Skeleton Gang who is out to steal the secret of the Golden Buddha.
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. She’s not nearly as active as your better Bond girls from the same time. Jeanette’s damsel-in-distress is less interesting for her lack of ability, but 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.
Lo Wei himself stars as the villain with fashion sense that would send even David Bowie or Elton John into a fit. The man wears amber sunglasses, a shiny gold foil suit (with standard “evil villain” Mandarin collar), knee-high black boots, and a cape with a giant pointy collar. Now that, my friends, is a quality megalomaniacal villain’s wardrobe. 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 military uniforms and business casual. 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?
As the head of an organization with tentacles in all parts of the world, with a vast space age underground lair, and hundreds of henchmen, you’d think Skeleton Gang Leader would set his sights 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. Maybe he just want glittery things. But then, ultimately, none of it matters anyway. 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. For them, it’s all about the journey; not the final destination.
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 average Eurospy film, or at least better used. It’s full of eye-popping color and space-age decor. The Skeleton Gang’s lair is a thing of beauty, 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 through lovely Thai travelogue footage, and otherwise taking advantage of the fact that Shaw Brothers productions knew how to throw together some beautiful sets. Best of all, the mysterious treasure turns out to be actual treasure, and not some note that says, “Peace on Earth” or something.