Even among notable examples of Ozploitation cinema, few feature films are more ballsy than 1975’s The Man From Hong Kong, a restored collector’s edition of which has just been released.
The term ballsy applies not just because of the copious manic fight scenes featuring a battery of groin kicks and a particularly eye-watering squirrel grip moment endured by renowned stuntman Grant Page.
The Man From Hong Kong is a ballsy film also because of the inventive and uninhibited approach to storytelling, the death-defying stunts and for its genre-bending approach to the Asian martial arts flick of which Bruce Lee was the best known exponent.
Writer-director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s reputation as a popular entertainer who puts the money on the screen was firmly established with The Man From Hong Hong, his debut feature and the first of more than 40 films.
Trenchard-Smith would go on to make such seminal Ozploitation films as Turkey Shoot, Dead End Drive-In and BMX Bandits, each of which has been rereleased in recent years in Australia and elsewhere. The Ozploitation era as a whole has been rediscovered, the celebration fuelled by admiration for Trenchard-Smith’s work expressed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino.
Trenchard-Smith, who lives in the US and is currently writing an illustrated book on the making of The Man From Hong Kong, says he had long been interested in Asian film culture and the possibilities for a cross-over into the Western action genre. “I became a fan of Asian cinema in 1963 with a school showing of Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai. Soon Koboyashi, Fukasaku, King Hu, and Chang Cheh were among the directors to follow. In 1973, I saw the Bruce Lee movies before they achieved Western distribution. I knew this kind of action would excite world audiences as much as it did me. Action is the universal currency of the movie market. A good punch up and car chase cross all language barriers. So I wrote a script that became The Man From Hong Kong.”
George Lazenby, sporting a wicked-looking moustache, plays Sydney gangster Jack Wilton, a martial arts expert who is importing drugs from Hong Kong.
A self-confessed life-long lover of “feisty B movies”, Trenchard-Smith sums up the plot of The Man From Hong Kong with characteristic succinctness. “A Chinese Dirty Harry comes to Sydney on a routine extradition and blows up Crime’s Mr. Big, along with the top floor of his penthouse. The classic crypto-fascist hero causing extensive property damage and loss of life in the name of Justice. Somewhat like James Bond. To underline the point, I had a former James Bond, George Lazenby, playing the villain.”
Indeed The Man From Hong Kong features Lazenby, the Australian-born actor who joined the production soon after starring in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. No other actor who portrayed Bond has made such a dramatic shift from the suave secret agent to a dubious character that could easily be a Bond villain. Lazenby, sporting a suitably wicked-looking moustache, plays Sydney gangster Jack Wilton, a martial arts expert who is importing drugs from Hong Kong.
At a party held at his harbour-side mansion (actually the US Consulate at that time), Wilton enjoys shooting a crossbow arrow, William Tell style, at an apple perched on the head of his terrified girlfriend. In the egalitarian Australian tradition, Wilton is one criminal mastermind who doesn’t just leave all the violence to his henchmen – he is quite willing to get in amongst it himself.
There is no doubt that Lazenby suffered for his art in The Man From Hong Kong, not simply because he had just walked away from the world’s most popular film franchise after a successful debut in the lead role, but also sustained burns doing his own stunts during the climactic fight scene.
“Back then, this sort of action was considered was too provocative for Australians under 18.”
Although at heart a showman, Trenchard-Smith said he made choices in relation to the censorship regime of the 1970s that may have impacted on the box office. “I came up with the ‘squirrel grip’ moment – I know, I’m a sick puppy. Grant Page’s reaction always gets a huge laugh. I wanted to break taboos. Groin kicks were previously cut by the Australian censor, but the new R rating permitted such shots. I staged the violence in the picture to be at a cartoonish Tom and Jerry level. But the Australian Censor did not see it that way. They took the view that it’s one thing for this sort of violence to happen in Hong Kong, but another for it to be shown happening in the streets of Sydney. Back then, this sort of action was considered was too provocative for Australians under 18.”
Trenchard-Smith says the censors simply didn’t get the joke. “Their list of proposed cuts were substantial and undermined the satire. I declined, and took a lot of heat from [the film’s distributer] Greater Union for not cutting the picture to an M rating which would have added maybe $200,000 to the local box office. In the short term I was wrong, but in the long term my excesses have added to the movie’s enjoyment for a new post-modern audience.”
In other ways, the film intentionally plays with audience expectations of the action genre. The hero is a Hong Kong Police Inspector Fang Sing Leng, played by Chinese star Jimmy Wang Yu, who adapts himself perfectly to Australian conditions. In a fight or a car chase he proves himself more than a match for any Aussie crook or cop. His desire to destroy Wilton is fuelled by the murder of his besotted Australian girlfriend Angelica, played by Rebecca Gilling in a reversal of the Madame Butterfly cliché of the Asian-Western love affairs depicted in Western popular culture.
In addition to including in the story a hang-gliding, free-spirited female agent, played by Rosalind Speirs, who assists the hero, Trenchard-Smith recalls wanting to push the envelope on the typical Australian attitudes towards people from South East Asia as far as he could. “Originally I called it ‘Yellow Peril’, a politically incorrect title based on irony. The hero is smarter than the local cops and achieves what they could not, yet is the butt of their ingrained racism. However, titles should sell up front, rather than be clever in retrospect. Bruce Lee’s producer Raymond Chow rejected the title but liked the idea of partnering with me to make the first Hong Kong/Australia co-production.”
Several of the crew involved went on to achieve major success in their fields, Trenchard-Smith is proud to note that “DP Russell Boyd and 2nd Unit DP John Seale have both won Academy Awards”.
The local actors appearing along with Rebecca Gilling, who made her debut (as did Rosalind Speirs) in the 1974 biker epic Stone, are several of the stalwarts of Ozploitation, notably master stuntman Grant Page – who gets to do a lot of fun hang gliding as if in compensation for the groin injuries he suffers in the fight scenes. Supporting cast members such as Frank Thring, Roger Ward and Hugh Keays-Byrne, all three of whom subsequently would appear in Mad Max films, add to the retro feel of The Man From Hong Kong when viewed today.
Several of the crew involved went on to achieve major success in their fields, Trenchard-Smith is proud to note that “DP Russell Boyd and 2nd Unit DP John Seale have both won Academy Awards. The camera operator David Gribble went on to become a DP and has also shot some big features and commercials. I learned a lot about lighting and composition from them.”
The film remains very watchable after four decades. What it was that made the classics of Ozploitation so outrageous, memorable and unrepeatable is evident from the opening sequence in The Man From Hong Kong, which depicts a frenzied drug bust taking place at, of all places, Uluru. There is an extended fight scene that was filmed on the rock itself, followed by a helicopter pursuit of a getaway car that flips over spectacularly. As the car explodes, one of the doors is sent flying in the direction of the camera – apparently this dangerous random projectile narrowly missed the film crew.
In those days, important matters of cultural sensitivity – and, for that matter, workplace safety – were handled rather differently to the way they would be now. Decades of social progress aside, it would be hard not to be impressed by the reckless energy of The Man From Hong Kong more than 40 years after it was released.
That devil-may-care attitude belongs to a different Australia, and with it a distinctive style of Australian feature film.
Film stills courtesy of Brian Trenchard-Smith.