Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kiss and Kill (Hong Kong, 1967)

Though, for Western fans, the parsing out has been more of a trickle than a deluge, it looks like, if we all eat right and exercise, we just might live long enough to see all of those many Shaw Brothers films in the Celestial vaults that have yet to see DVD release. However, to those of you for whom that is the only reason you’ve been clinging to this mortal coil, I must warn that, thanks to the Shaws’ easy relationship with formula, you may be able to look forward to some thrills, but perhaps few surprises. Still, that doesn’t mean that life doesn’t offer some other very attractive incentives to stick around. For instance there’s -- oh, we’ve already lost a few, haven’t we?

Perhaps the above reason is why so much of Shaw’s long M.I.A. spy caper Kiss and Kill seems so cozily familiar. The studio took a fairly uniform approach to its mining of the James Bond craze and, in Kiss and Kill, that’s evidenced not only through a distinct house look, style and sound, but also the personnel involved. The film was directed by Japanese import Takumi Furukawa, who, under the pseudonym Daai Go-Mei, directed the earlier reviewed The Black Falcon during the same year (Takumi also worked for Nikkatsu, where he directed the initial film in the phenomenally popular “Sun Tribe” cycle, Season of the Sun, as well as the nihilistic crime drama Cruel Gun Story).

Continuing the happy associations, we have in front of the camera Paul Chang Chung, the actor whom, out of all the male stars to headline Shaw’s secret agent thrillers, seems to have been the one the studio most aggressively promoted as Hong Kong’s answer to Sean Connery. Chang’s suave-ish take on the unflappable superspy archetype graces not only the aforementioned The Black Falcon, but also the previous year’s The Golden Buddha and the yet unseen (by me) Umetsugu Inoue joint Operation Lipstick. Also no stranger to Shaw’s Bondian treadmill is actress Tina Chin Fei, who, in addition to her appearance here, also starred in the fabulous Temptress of a Thousand Faces, as well as Lo Wei’s Summons to Death. And to round things out, we also have a supporting cast rife with recognizable spy film faces, including reliable bad guy Tang Ti and the giant Siu Gam, who essentially reprises his role as a towering henchman from The Black Falcon.

All of which is not to say that Kiss and Kill doesn’t distinguish itself in some ways. From its cheesecake-laden opening titles to its rapid fire action set pieces to its pervasive tongue-in-cheek tone, it is, for starters, perhaps the most Bondian of all Shaw’s Bond-alikes. Furukawa’s lensing goes a long way toward establishing this, making up for the film lacking the globe-spanning scope of the 007 adventures with a richness of visual scope, exploiting to the fullest both Shaw’s typical widescreen process and saturated color schemes while also providing a lush depth of composition. It’s a look that is somehow distinctly Japanese (you’d think at times you were watching a Toho film of the era), giving the film a classy, modernist sheen that contrasts with the comic book flatness typically seen in, for example, Lo Wei’s many spy efforts.

While the version of the film I watched lacked subtitles, its elements were generic enough for me to follow along with a minimum of mental strain. As our macguffin, we have that old standby, the death ray, which in the opening scene is shown blowing to smithareens a toy jet straight out of a Gamera movie. And in pursuit of that death ray -- in competition with Chang’s good guy secret agent -- is the nefarious lady spy played by Chin Fei, who is not above stripping down to her granny panties to throw our hero off the scent. Chin Fei is part of a criminal organization whose food chain is topped by Tang Ti’s super villain, who is in turn in cahoots with a Caucasian who looks like a cross between a bellman and a soviet general. This latter character has a lair whose identifying insignia prominently features a bear, suggesting that this may have been one time when the normally politics-averse Shaw Studio decided to cast its villain within a recognizable geopolitical context, however noncommittally.

Chang’s search for the death ray eventually puts him on the trail of a mysterious woman played by Diana Chang Chung-Wen. A clue in the form of one of those conveniently discarded business cards that are often so helpful in these movies leads in turn to a truly fantastic nightclub sequence, and then, of course, to a big fist fight. Many fist fights, car chases and narrow escapes follow, leading to a climax in the villain’s subterranean lair that finds the four protagonists -- which now include the turncoat Chin Fei –- suspended side-by-side above an acid pit, all amusingly wearing the sheepish expressions of school kids who have been caught playing hooky.

Kiss and Kill is a film that does an awful lot of good-natured winking at its audience, and there are times at which its tone threatens to veer from the sardonic into the downright farcical. One lengthy episode involves Chang and his partner -- a borderline comic relief character played by Ngai Ping-Ngo -- going undercover as a married couple, with Ngai dragging it up as the wife. Nonetheless, Furukawa manages to maintain an impressive level of consistency, assuredly steering the film away both from being too violent or mean-spirited on the one hand or from falling too far into slapstick territory on the other. What Kiss and Kill ends up being instead is something agreeably breezy and lightweight, an entertainment as buoyant and fun as the twangy surf rock that accompanies so many of its onscreen brawls. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of it before, but among that there’s a lot that bears repeating.


Hecubot said...

I'm such a sucker for this stuff. I fantasize about walking into some Chinatown store and stumbling on a rack of lost Jane Bond films.

I'm still pretty psyched about tracking down copies of Temptress With a Thousand Faces, Golden Buddha and...well, stumbling on a copy of Black Lizard in a Japantown store.

Idrian said...

Looks like a fun to watch...

Todd said...

Thanks, Hecubot, Idrian. I remember repeatedly renting Black Lizard on VHS back during the early 90s. I now wish I'd just shelled out and bought a copy. Of course, now I'm even more obsessed with seeing the Umetsugu Inoue version.

Hecubot said...

I first saw Black Lizard at the Castro. It was showing there with either the SF Film Fest or possibly Frameline. Pretty cool to see it on the big screen! (Not as cool as seeing Chinese Ghost Story at the Strand, or Bride With White Hair at the Pagoda, but pretty cool nonetheless.)

When are you going to run the DDDDK film festival anyway?

Todd said...

You know, I had this vague memory of seeing Black Lizard in a theater. Maybe I saw it at the Castro, too. And, hey, I'd love to do a 4DK film festival, but I think my living room is too small, and I don't have enough chairs. Maybe, if the Alamo Drafthouse people really do reopen the New Mission, I'll petition them to have a double feature of Shaitani Dracula and The Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa, or something.

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