Friday, December 6, 2013

Operation Lipstick (Hong Kong, 1967)

The Shaw Brothers’ spy movies are almost a genre unto themselves, so distinctive is that studio’s house style. Though, paradoxically, part of that style involves how reliably these films serve up the internationally agreed upon ingredients of the 1960s spy thriller. Take Operation Lipstick. Does it feature a kidnapped scientist? A henchman with a metal hook for a hand? A coveted microfilm containing plans for some kind of doomsday weapon? Yes, yes, and yes. But Operation Lipstick also has a secret weapon of its own in the form of Cheng Pei Pei, who -- despite the presence of the Shaws’ answer to Sean Connery, Paul Chang Chung -- is our hero for the evening.

Japanese director Umetsugu Inouye brings his usual cotton candy light touch to Operation Lipstick, exploiting Cheng Pei Pei’s background as a dancer more than he does the steely swordswoman persona she honed over the course of myriad wuxia films. Utilizing a backstage setting similar to that of his duo of Hong Kong musicals, Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody -- the former of which also starred Cheng -- he gives the star a singing and dancing introduction, emerging from a giant cake to regale a nightclub audience with the sung details of her previous life of crime. In fact, you could say that, in terms of tone and style, Operation Lipstick inhabits a middle ground between Inouye’s musicals and campy espionage adventures like The Brain Stealers, perhaps sitting snugly aside romantic capers like his later The Venus Tear Diamond.

In the film, Cheng portrays Lee Bing, a former thief who now makes her living as a nightclub entertainer. When Chen Er (Lee Kwan), one of her former cohorts, narrowly escapes the police after stealing a wallet, the now straight arrow Bing insists that he return the wallet to its owner. This proves difficult, as, upon arriving at the man’s apartment, they not only find him murdered but the place overrun by armed goons. In the course of fleeing, Bing stumbles into Zhang Yee (Paul Chang Chung), a cavalier professional thief who, like the goons, is after the very wallet that Bing has in her possession.

Soon Lee Bing finds herself before the chief of the International Counter-Intelligence Organization (the subtitles say “anti-intelligence”, but I think that’s what they meant), who asks her help in apprehending an espionage ring called the Chu Loong Syndicate and, in the process, unmasking their shadowy leader Hung Ying. It turns out the wallet belonged to the assistant to a murdered scientist, who has hidden a microfilm containing the very valuable plans to that scientist’s new atomic weapon. In the wallet is a key that, it is hoped, can unlock whatever kind of container the microfilm is hidden in. The chief hopes that, by advertising her possession of the key, Lee Bing can draw the Chu Loong gang out into the open.

Fortunately, Lee Bing comes from a whole family of thieves -- overseen by her cheerily dishonest father Lee Peng (played by Pigsy himself, Pang Pang) -- who are happy to assist in her mission. Also happy to participate, but more importantly share in the spoils, is Zhang Yee. For the Chu Loong’s part, they immediately bring out the big guns in the form of dueling femme fatales, dispatching Tina Chin Fei’s Juan-Juan and Lau Leung-Wa’s Yu Mei Dei to flush out the key. Chin Fei, she of the revered Temptress of a Thousand Faces, poses as the widow of the wallet’s owner and, so she thinks, seduces Lee Peng into an alliance.

It is by following Juan-Juan that Lee Ping and her crew are lead to the microfilm’s assumed hiding place, a locker in a Turkish bath that instead turns out to contain a small lion statue. The bathhouse makes for the setting of an antic chase and fight between Chen Pei Pei, Chin Fei, and Lau Leung-Wa once Lee Ping snatches the statue, a chase and fight for which she, for some reason, feels compelled to strip down to just a bath towel... not that I’m complaining, mind you. Later, when markings on the statue indicate the existence of a second statue, Lee Ping’s dad, a forger of antiques, makes a replica of it, which Lee Ping takes to the Choo Loongs with an offer to sell.

And it is when Lee Ping arrives at the Syndicate’s front operation, an establishment called The Silver Dice Nightclub, that the slower among us get a clear idea of just how seriously Umetsugu Inouye and all those involved in Operation Lipstick really take the whole endeavor. For, you see, a trap has been set for Lee Ping. And as soon as she and her friends take their seats, a banjo playing trio takes the Silver Dice stage, boisterously introduced as being comprised of members of a “famous assassination organization”. We’ve already seen these guys backstage, placing guns inside their specially equipped banjos, and, once they hit the stage, they launch into a song that’s all about assassinations and killing people (sample lyric: “We are best at murder”), all the while pointing their banjos threateningly at Lee Bing’s table. What’s going on is pretty obvious, yet, when it finally dawns on Lee Ping, she looks like this:

Is Operation Lipstick an enjoyable film? Yes. Umetsugu Inouye seems to have been as incapable of making a movie that wasn’t fun and entertaining as Uwe Boll is of not sucking. Are his films lightweight? I prefer to say that they have an ease to them, a calm confidence born of a director riding the wave of his own cozily familiar passions, which in Inouye’ case is a passion for all the artifice, color, and froth that only the movies can give us. With a familiar collaborator in the person of Cheng Pei Pei, Inouye seems to be especially at ease with Operation Lipstick, and the results are breezy, beguiling, and boss.

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