There are certain films that become associated with one indelible image. For example, it’s hard to think of North by Northwest without conjuring a mental picture of Cary Grant being chased by that crop-duster, or of Singin’ in the Rain without immediately seeing Gene Kelly hanging off of that lamppost. In the case of the Filipino action film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, the image that invariably comes to mind – for those familiar with the film, at least – is that of comely star Marrie Lee brandishing an imposing looking, quadruple-barreled, sawed-off shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple (thanks, El Santo).
Marrie’s character is wearing that get-up for the purpose of infiltrating a gang of criminals who are also disguised as nuns. Though, of course, knowing the context of the image doesn’t do anything to reduce its fetishistic sexual charge. In fact, to my mind, the whole scenario is a perfect example of a filmmaker trying to have it both ways. In a country as deeply hit by the Catholic whammy as the Philippines, a nun’s habiliments carry a not inconsiderable amount of symbolic freight, and producer/writer/director Bobby Suarez here uses the criminals’ sacrilegious employment of that garb as a “how bad are they” demonstration of the depths of those criminals’ villainy, but then also employs it in much the same manner himself in order to titillate and scandalize his audience. This is a classic exploitation movie gambit, of course, but I think that, in this case, it’s also representative of an ambivalence that’s characteristic of both modern Catholicism (how many “ex-Catholics” do you know who aren’t still as deeply affected by the religion as they were when they were practicing it?) and of Filipino culture.
After all, only the Philippines could have produced a movie like Elwood Perez’ Silip, a film that, for all intents and purposes, seems to be a screed against religious-based sexual repression and its resultant perversion of desire, but which couches its message in so much harrowing imagery of blood sacrifice and martyrdom that it’s difficult to fully enjoy the abundant full-frontal nudity and near-hardcore sex that it puts in service of expressing it. True, it’s still possible for the dedicated viewer to appreciate the naked form of the film’s gorgeous star Maria Isabel Lopez, but not without paying a certain amount of penance. It’s as if we’re seeing played out in the film the battle between the desire to cast off the punitive, bloody-minded version of Catholicism inherited from the country’s Spanish colonizers and the deeply ingrained practice of that religion forged from hundreds of years of observance.
Thankfully, Cleopatra Wong‘s version of this ambivalence is not so jarring as to beg inquiry into its cultural roots, with the result that we can simply enjoy it as a film about a hot chick who dresses up like a church lady and blows shit up. This is clearly how both God and Bobby Suarez intended it.
They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong was the second film to be produced by Suarez’s BAS Film Productions, and the first to be directed by him — although he did so under the pseudonym George Richardson, presumably to enhance the film’s export-friendly “international” feel. Like the previous BAS production, The Bionic Boy, the film relied on partial financial backing from Singapore, and drew from the local Singaporean talent pool for its star. In the case of The Bionic Boy, that star was a nine-year-old karate champion by the name of Johnson Yap, and, in the case of Cleopatra Wong, it was a seventeen year old typist with precious little film experience by the name of Doris Young. Young was chosen by Suarez from over three hundred applicants drawn from casting calls held in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Philippines, and was soon re-christened by the director with the name Marrie Lee — an attempt by Suarez to encourage associations with Bruce Lee in the minds of his intended audience.
I couldn’t find any information about what kind of martial arts background Young might have had at the time of making Cleopatra Wong, aside from whatever training she was given in preparation for the film, but it really doesn’t matter. The goal with the film was to combine elements of Hong Kong action movies and the Bond films, while at the same time — and most obviously — creating an Asian counterpart to blaxploitation heroines like Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones. And in terms of the authenticity of its kung fu action, the finished product bares a far stronger family resemblance to American blaxploitation cinema than to any of its other inspirations. This is the type of martial arts film where the emphasis is placed firmly on striking bad-ass looking poses as opposed to actually executing any convincing looking moves. In fact, one actor in particular – playing a track-suited crime boss who, in the English dub, welcomes Cleo to his “viller” – exhibits a style very similar to that of the type of over-enthusiastic Kung Fu Theater fan you’d see practicing his moves in a 7-11 parking lot back in the day. In any case, Young deserves to be commended for the fact that she reportedly performed the majority of her own stunts in the movie, and ended up with her fair share of scrapes, bruises and powder burns to prove it.
Young’s character, the titular Ms. Wong, is a Singapore-based Interpol agent who’s called upon by her superiors to investigate a mysterious counterfeiting ring. Said counterfeiters, it seems, are seeking to undermine the ASEAN nations by flooding their economies with fake currency, though from where and through what channels is unknown. Leaving her latest boy-toy in her hotel room in Manila, Cleo cuts her vacation short and heads back to Singapore to start the hunt. Her first move is to try and draw the attention of the criminals by going into a department store and buying an expensive watch with a wad of fake cash. Fortunately, it’s obviously a slow news day in Singapore, and once she’s apprehended by the store’s security guards — who easily identify the money as counterfeit despite us just being told how completely indistinguishable it was from the real thing — it ends up getting splashed across the next day’s front page headlines. And they don’t even try to sex it up. The headline just reads “WOMAN NABBED IN DEPT. STORE”, which suggests to me that the paper’s “B” section is probably filled with breathless accounts of people short tipping in restaurants and staring threateningly at small dogs. This is obviously what passes for lurid criminal exploits in a country where you can get arrested for chewing gum.
Anyway, Cleo’s newfound notoriety as “Woman Nabbed in Dept. Store” leads to her being abducted and taken to the “viller” of Argo, the aforementioned track-suited boss of the counterfeiting ring’s Singapore operation. Given her reputation as a woman who allegedly tries to obtain watches through illegal means, Argo naturally wants to see a demonstration of her kung fu skills, and so a pair of fights are staged on the spot. The first fight, between Cleo and a trio of middle-aged wrestlers, is settled when Cleo whips off her skirt at a key moment to reveal the bright yellow hot pants jumpsuit she’s wearing underneath, with the result that her opponents become too preoccupied with making boner eyes at her to evade her lightning fists. The next involves a couple dozen karate guys, and ends when Cleo does one of those reverse-motion assisted leaps over the viller wall.
Her encounter with Argo having provided nothing more than the opportunity for a couple of pointless but entertaining action set pieces, Cleo next follows a lead provided by her superiors to the film’s next exciting international location, Hong Kong. Despite the film’s Asian pedigree, said locale is introduced with the kind of “ching chong chopsticks” musical cue you’d expect to hear in a Mr. Wong movie from the thirties — whereas elsewhere Cleopatra Wong’s score is of a jaunty variety situated squarely in the no man’s land between blaxploitation funk and seventies shopping mall music. Cleo’s HK jaunt leads to the discovery that the phony bills are being smuggled inside jars of strawberry jam that are being shipped in from the Philippines. After a return to the P.I., several changes of outfits, and a couple more shambolic kung fu battles, Cleo’s diligent detective work leads to her uncovering the counterfeiters’ hideout: a catholic monastery located on a remote hillside. The bad guys, we will see, have imprisoned the nuns who are the rightful dwellers of the place, and are using its grounds to both print the fake bills and produce the jars of delicious breakfast spread in which they’re being smuggled. Cleo’s suspicions are confirmed when she observes, in the course of doing some helicopter surveillance, that the nuns who patrol the grounds are dudes, and that they are concealing automatic weapons under their habits.
In those moments in They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong when Doris Young isn’t engaging in faux kung fu battles, or gamely performing motorcycle stunts, it can’t be said that she exactly burns up the screen with her charisma and sex appeal. This is not to say, however, that she lacks presence entirely. It’s just that hers is a fairly low key presence. Overall I’d say that she comes across as being pleasant and likable, though that impression on my part might just as easily have come from viewing her current website, where she devotes more space to her two dogs than to her entire film career. In any case, her low intensity performance suits the film well, because, compared to more bloody, revenge-minded action fare like Suarez’s later One Armed Executioner, it’s a fairly lighthearted affair, obviously intended not to be taken too seriously by anyone.
To this end, Suarez does a passable job of keeping things breezing along, though he makes a mistake all too common in low budget action films: that of not distinguishing between action and mere movement. In the Hong Kong sequence, we’re treated to a scene of Cleo tailing a very slow moving truckload of strawberry jam in what seems to be real time — and every time we think that the scene has ended, we find that we’re only cutting to another leg of the journey. In addition, the lengthy sequence in which Cleo escape from Argo and his goons includes a “chase” between two aerial cable cars that depends entirely for its suspense on its audience being ignorant of how aerial cable cars actually function. Still, these are just isolated instances, as the movie’s thrills are for the most part adequately thrilling — if only by virtue of their silliness, or of Doris Young’s dogged commitment to selling them.
They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong‘s crowning action set piece, the one that we’ve all tuned in for, gratifyingly takes up almost the entirety of the film’s final act. Cleo returns to her superior and tells him of her discovery of the gang’s hideout, hoping to secure a warrant so that she can make a search of the monastery. Unfortunately, her boss refuses, saying that there’s not enough evidence. Concerns over separation of church and state are also raised. Given such very understandable sensitivities, and the corresponding need to proceed with tact and caution, it is determined that the only alternative is to stage an armed, guerrilla-style raid on the monastery, shooting all of the bad guys inside and then blowing it up with plastic explosives once done. To this end, Cleo recruits four generously mustached cohorts — including the One-Armed Executioner himself, Franco “Chito” Guerrero — to assist her. Soon the drop is made, and the five, after making quick work of some guards on the monastery’s periphery, have all kitted themselves out as gun-wielding brides of Christ, ready to rain hell on the godless gang of funny-money makers.
At one point during the closing moments of They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, I paused to reflect upon the fact that I had been watching mustached men dressed as nuns shooting each other in slow motion for what seemed like twenty minutes, and that, while I had been moderately entertained by the spectacle, it certainly hadn’t inspired anything close to the stunned incredulity that such a scenario would seem to warrant. It is at times like these, I reckon, that I need to watch something made in Japan during the seventies — preferably directed by Norifumi Suzuki — in order to stir my jaded sensibilities back into a state appropriate to a sensate human being with a fully developed moral core. So preoccupied did I become with this troubling state of affairs that I almost failed to register the film’s climax, in which Cleopatra Wong chases the lead villain on a tricked out, MegaForce-worthy motorcycle equipped with rear-mounted machine guns and then, in the film’s lone instance of conspicuous production value, use her archery skills to blow up his helicopter with a rocket-tipped arrow.
Bobby Suarez would bring Doris Young and Cleopatra Wong back to the big screen, shortly after the debut of They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, in Dynamite Johnson, a film that was essentially an all-purpose sequel to both Cleopatra Wong and The Bionic Boy, in which Young costarred with Johnson Yap. After that, production on a third Cleopatra Wong film, Code Name: The Destroyers, was begun in Malaysia, but was hastily aborted after things went sour with the Malaysian backers and Suarez and crew had to flee the country. To recoup the loss from that debacle, Suarez then churned out an even-cheaper-than-usual final entry in the series, Pay or Die, which he hastily sold off at a bargain price. Soon after that, in 1981, Doris Young, aka Marrie Lee, hung up her wimple and shotgun for good and retired from the entertainment business. Today she runs a business selling healthcare products, but obviously – judging from her apparent willingness to cheerfully hold forth on the subject – looks back on her days as Cleopatra Wong with fondness
And that fact adds yet another dimension to that oh-so-famous image of Marrie Lee. Because we can now gaze upon it, happy in the knowledge that the woman behind it got in, made her contribution, and then got out before the price of fame became too much. After all, any story concerning a shotgun-wielding nun deserves a happy ending, and we can all thank Doris Young for giving us one.