As the days pass, it appears increasingly likely that the rumor I reported on last July, concerning Celestial's alleged plan to release more old Shaw Brothers titles on DVD, was just that. This dawning realization leaves me filled with disappointment, bitterness... and, well, hunger. But that last is probably more the result of my having had a light breakfast than it is of the fact that I may never have the chance to see Operation Lipstick or The Brain Stealers.
In any case, in the weeks since that post, a generous friend put me in possession of a dub of his old VHS copy of Poison Rose, a 1966 Shaw production that is just one of the many films that never made it onto Celestial's -- now apparently discontinued -- release schedule. My viewing of the film proved to be both a balm and an irritant, for while it provided a welcome dose of just the type of spy-flavored fun that I was anticipating from those two previously mentioned SB titles, its very existence strongly suggests that the untapped contents of the studio's vaults, rather than just being the dregs of the catalog, include much that is worthwhile.
Not that Poison Rose is any kind of classic, mind you. It is, however, a good example of a type of film that Shaw excelled at: a slick and breezy little genre entry, utterly ephemeral, yet marked by a desire to entertain on the part of its makers so obvious and sincere that to contemplate its quaintness in a modern light almost makes one's heart ache.
The plot of the film concerns a narcotics smuggling ring that is suspected of operating out of a posh Hong Kong nightclub called The Black Widow, where the sultry songbird Chiang Feng (Julie Yeh Feng) is the star attraction. To a great extent, the film feels like a showcase for the Taiwanese born singer/actress/pinup girl Yeh Feng, who, having had her first breakthrough at Cathay nearly ten years previous, was already a well established star of Mandarin cinema by this point. She certainly gets the juiciest role, for Chiang Feng is a classic man-eater, wonderfully exemplified by a scene in which she casually has one of her underlings pay off and send packing her latest boy toy.
Rightly suspecting Chiang Feng of holding an important post within the criminal organization, the authorities assign the caddish Kang Hua (Hsieh Wang), aka Agent A3, to the seemingly impossible task of infiltrating the club and charming his way into Chiang Feng's glacial heart. By this means they hope to gain valuable information about both the gang's operations and the identity of the shadowy Mr. Big running it. Amazingly, the improbable proves doubly possible, and not only does Chiang Feng fall hard for A3, but so does the seemingly unflappable secret agent in turn fall for her.
Written and directed by Lei Pan, Poison Rose has a distinctly different feel from those numerous Bond knock-offs directed for the Shaws by Lo Wei. For one, the focus on the ill-starred romance between Chiang Feng and Kang Hua gives more of an emotional drive to the narrative than can be found in those other films, which can often come across as exercises in rote genre mechanics. There also seems to be a bit of a more sophisticated sense of camp at play here, which, by recognizing the absurdities inherent in that romance, prevents things from simply descending into turgid melodrama. Which is not to say that there isn't some serious drama to be had. Given the set up, betrayal is an inevitable outcome, and Lei Pan does a great job of keeping us guessing as to just who, out of our two lovers, will be doing the betraying and who will be on its receiving end.
Poison Rose is also less flamboyant than most of the Shaw's later spy films, being free of the outlandish undersea lairs and space-age supervillain haberdashery that can be found in movies like The Golden Buddha. As much as I enjoy those fanciful accoutrements, I really didn't miss them in this case, as the film seems to draw more upon the old world glamour and romance of the spy genre and less upon its modern incarnation's obsession with shiny surfaces. Still, Agent A-3 comes equipped with enough clever gadgets -- disguised, of course, as other gadgets -- to keep us well in mind of that other more celebrated screen secret agent to whom he owes his existence.
While I enjoyed Poison Rose, I want to be careful here not to oversell it. It's definitely a modest effort, if an engaging one, and were I to compare it to my favorite among Shaw's espionage-themed films, Chang-hwa Jeong's Temptress of a Thousand Faces, it wouldn't even come close. It's just too easy to become intoxicated by the rarity of a film like this and overestimate its charms. That said, while I would have been happy to see Poison Rose under any circumstances, the fact that it was actually a pretty damn good little movie was a very welcome bonus.