1967 | Hong Kong, Japan
AKA: 亞洲秘密警察 (Ya zhou mi mi jing tan); アジア秘密警察
Director: Matsuo Akinori
It was not an unusual practice for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio to participate in international co-productions during its heyday. The result of that practice was often some fairly unique screen pairings. For instance, there was British horror icon Peter Cushing teaming up with kung fu badass David Chiang in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and the “Sentimental Swordsman” himself, Ti Lung, trading lines with American Stuart Whitman in Shatter. But the 1967 spy thriller Asia-Pol stands out in particular for being a potential dream for fans of 1960s Asian action cinema. This participation between Shaw and Japan’s Nikkatsu—the studio that trademarked its own distinctive brand of hardboiled action cinema during the late fifties and sixties—boasts two stars who have, respectively, come to represent more than any others the identity of each of those studios at that moment in their histories.
Jô Shishido was a big deal in 1967. He was one of the most famous faces at Nikkatsu studio, which was, in turn, one of the most successful studios in Japan thanks to their trailblazing “Borderless Action” style films. But before he hit it big, Shishido had been just another Nikkatsu contract player, starting out as a romantic lead but finding himself lost in an over-crowded field. Wanting to give himself a distinctive edge, he went under the surgeon’s knife, emerging with moviedom’s most exaggerated pair of cheeks this side of Chip and Dale. This transformation had the intended effect, leading to a successful rebirth as a screen tough guy. By the mid-sixties, he was one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars, portraying an assortment of stylish assassins. Shishido’s bizarre appearance and unhinged intensity would make him a favorite of director Seijun Suzuki. By the time of Asia-Pol, he had already starred in two of Suzuki’s standout films, Youth of the Beast and Gate of Flesh. That same year, 1967, saw him star in Suzuki’s most infamous work, the hallucinatory Branded to Kill, a film that would simultaneously cement Suzuki’s reputation while destroying his career. Anyone who has seen that film knows that it is memorable as much for Shishido’s ferocious performance as for its director’s audacious style.
Jimmy Wang Yu was also a big deal in 1967. At the time of filming Asia-Pol, Wang Yu was on the cusp of becoming one of the Shaw Brothers’ biggest stars. Of course, the phenomenal success of The One-Armed Swordsman, released that same year, would not only change the career course of Wang Yu, its star, but also of Shaw Brothers itself, steering the studio’s martial arts output away from the mannered female-driven wuxia films of the early sixties and toward the violent and hyper-masculine, kung fu films that director Chang Cheh would come to specialize in. For Wang Yu’s part, it was just the beginning of a series of films that would make him one of the most recognizable faces in sixties martial arts cinema.
Pairing Shishido and Wang Yu up in a co-production seemed like a sure thing, the sort of meeting of titans that thrills fans. Sweetening the deal is the nature of the film: an international (well, at least inter-Asia) spy adventure cut from the same cloth as James Bond and other colorful espionage films that were wildly popular at the time. Nikkatsu’s stock in trade was brightly-colored action films that strove to be “international” in appeal, stuffed with cool cats in slick suits drinking whiskey and gunning one another down at an assortment of locations, though usually “on the docks.” However, the Japanese film industry was, at the time, feeling the squeeze from the rapid proliferation of television, and while the country produced many of its best films during that tumultuous decade, the fact was that money was always tight.
This situation created two conditions that were to prove advantageous to the then peaking Shaw Brothers operation; namely, a large number of newly unemployed Japanese film technicians—many accomplished directors and cinematographers among them—and an increased openness on the part of the major studios to cash infusions from foreign film companies. Shaw Brothers head Run Run Shaw, always seeking ways to increase his company’s efficiency and productivity, as well as its scope and influence, had made a policy of participation and talent exchange with the Japanese film industry, based on the idea that exposure to its rigorous standard of craftsmanship could only stand to improve that of his own homegrown talent pool.
This international cross-pollination was not an entirely new practice for Shaw; the studio had, for instance, co-produced films with both Toho and Daiei during the fifties. But it saw, thanks in part to the aforementioned changes in the Japanese industry’s fortunes, a greatly increased prevalence during the mid-sixties, with Shaw not only sending its actors and technicians to Japan for training, but also importing Japanese talent for work on its own films. Among these imports were a number of directors who would turn out a wide range of successful (and not so successful) films for the studio, though they often did so under assumed Chinese names, in order to avoid running afoul of anti-Japanese sentiment among the intended audience.
These included the prolific Umetsugu Inoue, whose many colorful contributions to the Shaw catalog include the musicals Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody, and Koh Nakahira (aka Yeung Shu Hei) who directed such films as Trapeze Girl, Diary of a Lady Killer and Inter-pol. Also on this list is Matsuo Akinori (aka Mai Chi-Ho), an able journeyman director who had previously directed Jo Shishido in Nosappu no jô (1961) and Taiheiyo no katsugiboshi (1961, also starring Akira Kobayashi and Ruriko Asaoka) as well as working with Nikkatsu superstar Yûjirô Ishihara on Yakuza sensei. In Hong Kong, he directed the Lily Ho vehicle The Lady Professional, as well as Asia-pol, both under the auspices of the Shaw Brothers, whose logo graces the beginning of the film. But right away, it’s obvious that something is different than one expects from the Shaws.
Asia-Pol in many ways fits in with the spate of James Bond knock-offs—such as Angel with the Iron Fists, Summons to Death, and The Golden Buddha—that Shaw turned out between 1966 and 1968, but also exhibits some significant differences that can likely be chalked up to its Nikkatsu pedigree. For one, the action of those aforementioned films was largely limited to what could be shot on the sound stages and back lots of Shaw’s Movie Town facility. But with Asia-pol, we’re not on the backlot, where just about every Shaw Brothers film was shot. Instead, Matsuo takes the show on the road, shooting on location in Japan and the streets of Hong Kong (among other places), making it a unique experience for those otherwise well-versed in Shaw Brothers films.
Location shooting is something that the Japanese crew, accustomed to the gritty, street-bound look of Nikkatsu’s violent yakuza thrillers, would have been considerably more at ease with than would the Shaws’ technicians. Matsuo handles Hong Kong like a Eurospy film would handle any of its major locations, filming it with a travelogue’s eye for local color and famous landmarks, which must have been novel to watch even for Hong Kong residents, who would have been more accustomed to seeing the streets of their city recreated on the Shaw backlot. Sadly, that lush travelogue aspect is the most exciting thing about the movie, which is otherwise unevenly paced, a bit dull in plot, and hampered by Jimmy Wang Yu’s limitations as an actor.
The man who would become famous as martial arts cinema’s grimmest, bloodiest hero is surprisingly lightweight in his role as a suave secret agent. Much of that is because Wang Yu’s most famous roles called on him to exhibit exactly two emotions: no emotion, and burning rage. And in those regards, Jimmy Wang Yu proved exceptional. But playing a James Bond-style playboy spy calls for much more. When asked to be sexy, playful, and charming, Wang Yu is seriously lacking, especially when he’s being asked to perform alongside exceptionally talented professionals like Jô Shishido and Ruriko Asaoka, who here fulfills the role of Miss Moneypenny, but with more fieldwork, trendier outfits, and chaste HR policy-violating office flirting traded in for actual romance. This is not to say, of course, that Asia-Pol lacks that one far-fetched element key to all 1960s spy films: the suave and masterful super agent.
Asia-Pol‘s script, written by Nikkatsu veteran Gan Yamazaki (who also wrote Nikkatsu’s sole entry in the kaiju eiga genre, Gappa, the Triphibean Monster, as well as the colorfully-titled Seijun Suzuki picture Detective Bureau 23: Go To Hell Bastards) gives us an espionage yarn that’s considerably more down-to-Earth than the campy nonsense that Shaw would typically serve up, entirely free of hooded super villains and sci-fi inspired underwater lairs. Jô Shishido stars as George, a Japanese-Chinese gangster who hates Japan and has vowed to destroy it by smuggling gold and destroying its economy.
Hot on his trail is secret agent Yang Ming Xuan (Jimmy Wang Yu), a Chinese orphan raised in Japan and now working for Asia-pol, the Asia-specific version of Interpol and one of those organizations that are handy for spy movies since their jurisdiction and overall mission is conveniently nebulous. Under the vague mandate of Asia-pol, Yang defends the country’s honor against nefarious villains like Shishido’s George.
As the film opens, Asia-Pol is in the process of trying to shut down a criminal organization that is smuggling large quantities of gold into Japan by refining it into phonograph components. Yang Ming Xuan succeeds in intercepting the latest truckload of contraband, but the criminals stage a brazen helicopter attack, ruthlessly eliminating their own operatives and destroying most of the shipment before it can be confiscated. George’s gang assassinates a man known as Yang Zhang Qing, who is suspected of being the leader of the criminal organization’s Hong Kong operation. Upon being informed of this by his superiors, Ming Xuan volunteers that he believes Yang Zhang Qing may be his real father and that, if so, he could not have been a witting participant in the organization’s criminal activity. With this revelation, Asia-Pol introduces a sub-plot involving long-lost siblings and vengeance for family honor.
After Ming Xuan is sent to Hong Kong to locate the gang’s refining operation, he encounters a young woman, Ming Hua, who turns out to be a sister he never knew he had, and together the two set out to bring down George and clear their late father’s name. Meanwhile, we learn that George is something of a loose cannon within his organization, a circumstance that leads to some violent internecine squabbles. Matsuo revels in the locales as the cat-and-mouse game between George and Yang leads them from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Macau, taking full advantage of the sightseeing aspect so crucial to globe-trotting spy films. With cinematography by Nikkatsu regular Kazumi Iwasa, Asia-Pol is a gorgeously-shot motion picture. Its abundance of location footage makes it an alluring moving postcard of 1960s-era Hong Kong and Macao, if nothing else. But watching it, you get the sense that its makers were content to have the picture coast on its good looks alone, as the film’s dramatic and action set pieces, while usually adequate, never seem to aspire to anything beyond that. Nowhere do you get the sense of a real desire to thrill that you do with, say, some of the better Eurospy films of the era, loaded as those are with outrageous situations and colorful gimmicks.
Furthermore, those spy movie tropes that Asia-Pol does pay service to seem to be, while still fun to watch, somewhat rote and obligatory (the gimmick of Asia-Pol’s Japanese HQ being entered through the fitting room of a tailor’s shop, for instance, is lifted from the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). There are, however, plenty of the requisite gadgets (oh for the days when hidden listening and tracking devices were the size of a loaf of bread), ultra-cool suits (Jimmy Wang Yu may be a wet blanket as a spy movie leading man, but at least he looks sharp), secret lairs, hidden doors, hands wielding weapons emerging from behind curtains, and beautiful women in beautiful clothes, the latter exemplified by Ruriko Asaoka, one of Nikkatsu’s most famous and talented leading ladies.
Although this is a Shaw Brothers production, it’s really a Nikkatsu film hampered by a Shaw Brothers leading man out of his league. It’s shot in the Nikkatsu style and with a lot more familiar Nikkatsu faces than Shaws. What they bring to the table is why this film is worth watching. Shishido is predictably accomplished in the role of a grinning, murderous Bond villain, exuding an effortless cool and his trademark subdued but tangible insanity. Asaoka is similarly memorable as Asia-pol’s number one adventuring secretary. Maybe she should have been the film’s lead.
Instead, we have Jimmy Wang Yu, woefully outclassed by his co-stars from Nikkatsu, though It’s hard to imagine that any of Shaw’s other 007 surrogates—such as The Golden Buddha‘s Paul Chang or Summons to Death‘s Tang Ching—wouldn’t have done a better job of commanding the screen next to someone like Jo Shishido. Scenes between Wang Yu and Shishido play less like a battle of wits between supervillain and super spy and more like a world-class talent struggling to work with a petulant upstart, or the cool older kid trying to school the spoiled young brat on how to be suave. Whether it is because of this under-matched casting or simply the difficulties of working outside of his comfort zone, Shishido seems to be a little toned down. Still, “toned down”, in comparison to Shishido’s performances in Gate of Flesh and Branded to Kill, leaves quite a wide margin for inspired, idiosyncratic villainy, and Shishido still delivers enough of his trademark combination of cool and crazy to easily walk away with the show.
The script, furthermore, does Wang Yu no favors, as the elements of family drama he’s forced to play out simply serve to highlight his somewhat juvenile emotional range. Everything Jô Shishido does can’t help but expose Wang Yu’s limitations. Ditto Ruriko Asaoka, who does her best to spark some chemistry with Wang Yu but can’t draw much blood from the stone. Jimmy fares better in scenes with fellow Shaw Brothers star Fang Ying, who rose to prominence during the studio’s huangmei opera phase with 1963’s A Maid From Heaven and went on to star in some of the studio’s most lavish productions, including the Monkey King film The Land of Many Perfumes, martial arts epic The Iron Buddha, and the Hitchcock/Agatha Christie-style thriller Diary of a Lady Killer. Asia-pol wastes her in the small role of Yang’s long-lost sister, but at least Jimmy Wang Yu seems less stiff around her, even if still childish much of the time. Maybe it was the language barrier that made him so awkward in his scenes with the rest of the cast, or maybe he was simply better at playing against a character meant to be a familial relation than a love interest.
When Asia-pol succeeds, it’s primarily on the merits of its location work and the novelty factor of seeing the Nikkatsu players alongside Shaw Brothers stars. It has a budgetary sheen well beyond that of the typical releases from either studio at the time and, as a result, still has the feel of being something of an event picture. Furthermore, while it never threatens to overwhelm you with excitement, it moves along at a brisk, tightly edited pace, and is never less than engaging. Composer Toshiro Mayuzumi lends the film a snappy crime jazz score that helps the film pick up the pace even when the pace isn’t as quick as it should be.
Think of it less as an example of unrealized potential and more as a learning experience for the Shaw Brothers. Wang Yu went on to brighter things that same year (maybe he would have been more comfortable playing a one-armed spy). Subsequent Shaw Brothers spy films were much better paced and better cast, with Paul Chang Chung stepping in as their de facto leading man and bringing an impish charisma Jimmy Wang Yu lacked. Later Shaw espionage efforts would revel in the most outlandish sci-fi aspects of spy films, from masked super-villains to gold jumpsuit-clad henchmen to doomsday weapons and futuristic secret lairs. Asia-pol may not be the measure of those later films, but with all the smart suits and colorful mini-dresses, not to mention death by exploding golf ball, there’s just enough to keep you around as you see the sights with Jô Shishido, Ruriko Asaoka, and pouting teenager Jimmy Wang Yu sitting in the back seat.
Within just a few years of Asia-Pol‘s release, Nikkatsu hit financial rock bottom and was forced to retool itself from being a purveyor of action films to the stylish kink of the more lucrative “roman porno” films it became known for in the seventies. Shaw Brothers, on the other hand, would remain a dominant force in the world of martial arts cinema for most of the next decade. Though one couldn’t reasonably expect a hybrid product like Asia-Pol to provide a real taste of what distinguished each of these studios during those respective eras, it is a film worth seeing for its novelty value, as well as one that is entertaining when taken on its own terms. In other words, it’s a footnote, but an enjoyable one as footnotes go.