The Muthers

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“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy

Deep Gold

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“Sea minus.”

deep goldI love reading IMDb reviews where half are “totally brilliant film-making!” [obviously by people related to the production, who have generally reviewed nothing else] and half are “worst movie ever!” More than half the votes here are either 10’s or 1’s: of course, the truth lies in the middle. This is proficient, with occasional aspirations to competence, along with some nice production values and scenery, yet founders mostly on a bad script, partly on a misguided belief that filming underwater is interesting, in and by itself. That probably hasn’t been true since Jacques-Yves Cousteau hung up his Undersea World snorkel at the start of the eighties. Maybe these sequences worked better in 3D, as originally shot?

It’s the story of two sisters, Amy (Pham) and Jess (Ong): the former is a free-diving champion, but the latter refuses to go into the sea [there are reasons for this, explained in flashback; they are, however, irrelevant. Of course, her hydrophobia is an obvious foreshadow of the movie’s climax]. Amy’s boyfriend is in the Air Force, but vanishes along with his plane, transporting a cargo of gold back to Manilla. The Air Force suspect he and Amy may have staged the disappearance to solve their financial problems, and so the sisters head for where reports indicate the aircraft went down. Which isn’t anywhere near where the search is taking place. Hmm. There, they team up with a local businesswoman (Prudent), and also travel journalist, Benny Simpson (director Gleissner pulling double-duty), only to find they are not the only people interested in recovering the golden treasure.

I’m not the only person to have reviewed this and been reminded of the work of Andy Sidaris, with which it shares a tropical location and actresses cast more for their looks than their variable thespian abilities. This does have a glossier sheen; on the other hand, if you’re hoping for any nudity, look elsewhere. I think the main problem is the old “acting in your second language” issue, which appears to be the case for most of the cast. Pham has to do most of the heavy lifting, and nails only about one line in three, with others sounding more as if they are delivered through phonetic translation. When things are in motion and SCUBA-free, the film fares rather better. The action scenes are decently staged, the pick likely being Amy getting chased around a library by a slew of thugs, though the final ship-board encounter is nicely done as well. However, embarrassing sloppiness counters this, such an abduction scene where it looks like the same henchman climbs into the car twice, once in the back and once in the front, while Amy’s hands mysteriously get bound, albeit with the sort of constraint she can literally shake off.

It works mostly as a very nice promotional piece for the local tourist board, and if you’re looking for something pleasant looking and possessing absolutely no depth, you could do a lot worse. However, the more you look at this in detail, the more you will likely find yourself going, “Hang on…”, and that’s even before a final credits sequence where the actual local mayor reveals some kinda important storyline information. It’s just another part of a plot which strains even my credulity, and leaves the movie, if not sunk, certainly holed below the waterline.

Dir: Michael Gleissner
Star: Bebe Pham, Jaymee Ong, Michael Gleissner, Laury Prudent

Wonder Women

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“On Her Insurance Company’s Secret Service”

wonderwomenRoger Corman’s New World Pictures weren’t the only ones using the Philippines as a factory to churn out B-movies in the seventies, as this 1973 entry, from Arthur Marks’ General Film Corproration shows. Dr. Tsu (Kwan) and her posse of henchwomen are kidnapping athletes, the not-so-good doctor having perfected the ability to do brain transplants. She’s now selling this as a service to rich, old people, who can become young again. However, after kidnapping a jai-alai star, the insurance company on the hook for the half million dollar policy hires Mike Harber (Hagen) to investigate. As he starts nosing around and making waves, first the local gangster boss, then Dr. Tsu, send their minions out to stop him. Needless to say, this is of limited success, and he is soon on his way to the remote island where Tsu operates, to take down her operation.

If this feels like a low-budget Bond ripoff, you’re just about right on the money, down to the “let me tell you all my plans before I kill you” scene – at one point, I expected Tsu to yell, “No, Mr. Harber – I expect you to die!” But it is highly refreshing to have a female mastermind, especially one that excels in the areas of medicine and technology, traditionally a male evil overlord preserve: I’m hard pushed to think of any equals of Dr. Tsu, particularly from the era. Maybe the closest would be Rosalba Neri, in Lady Frankenstein from two years earlier is the closest? Back that up with her multinationa, all-female associates and she’s definitely decades ahead of her time, socially as well as technologically. In comparison, Harber comes over as a bit of a Neanderthal, whose solution for pretty much everything involves shooting at it, hitting it over the head – or occasionally hitting it over the head with his gun.

In the supporting cast, de Aragorn gets the best role, as lead henchperson Linda, who gets to brawl with Harber, destroying a hotel room, before leading him in a car chase through the streets of Manilla – again, something you didn’t see women doing very often at all in the 1970’s. And it’s a heck of a chase, with any number of moments that suggest the makers pretty much blew off niceties like closing streets or obtaining official sanction for the sequence, and just shot around whatever happened to be going on. Mention also due to cult veteran Sid Haig, who shows up as what appears to be Dr. Tsu’s accountant, and decides at the end to get out while the going is good, after another quirky character performance. Accompanied by Carson Whitsett’s funky score, the net result is something that’s not actually much, if at all, less fun than the same year’s Live and Let Die, and treads a nice line between self-parody and self-aware.

Dir: Robert O’Neill
Star: Ross Hagen, Nancy Kwan, Maria de Aragorn, Roberta Collins
a.k.a. The Deadly and the Beautiful

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong

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“The biggest strawberry jam factory in this area is the Catholic monastery over the hill.”

Cleopatra-Wong-poster-1978-1“Cleopatra Wong is Asian Interpol’s answer to James Bond, Flint, Cleopatra Jones and Stacey.” Well, less an answer, more like a repetition of the question, since this is firmly in “cheap Asian knock-off” market, though has some charm in its first half. Wong (Lee) is an agent, assigned to investigate a flood of near-undetectable counterfeit money which is flooding the markets in Hong Kong, the Philippines and elsewhere in the far East. It’s happening in such volume, there’s potential to destabilize the entire economies of the affected countries. She takes down the Singapore branch of the operation, and then discovers the money is being transported in shipments of strawberry jam, emanating from a monastery north of Manilla. After finding them to be not exactly a social order, Wong takes pictures by flying over their compound, which shows that these nuns have some nasty habits – specifically, they’re brothers rather than sisters, and concealing automatic weapons under their vestments. Time for Cleo to assemble and lead a team of crack agent in a raid on the convent, take out the bad guys, rescue the real nuns and save the world for free-market capitalism.

First point. No, they’re not mispronouncing “Asian” throughout the film. They are actually saying “ASEAN countries,” with ASEAN being the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which is a bit like the EU for that part of the world. Never say this site is not educational. Now we’ve got that out of the way, what of the film? It’s very much a mixed bag. Lee makes a pretty and solid action heroine, especially considering she was only 18 at the time. She demonstrates martial-arts skills that are better than many films of its era (which would be 1978), and it’s largely free from the two most frequent flaws of the era in action heroine films. obvious body-doubling and undercranking. There are some cute moments, such as Wong getting her own back on her boss, after he has interrupted her lovemaking at four in the morning, by interrupting his love-making at four in the morning.

However, the plot is extremely basic, with aspects that are cringeworthily naive. For instance, Cleopatra’s way of infiltrating the Singapore gang involves spending their fake money until she gets caught – which surprisingly little time, given the “near-undetectable” thing mentioned earlier. When this make headlines news in the local paper (the local oligarchs must have paid for this encouraging depiction of low local crime rates), the real organizers of the fake money then bail her out and bring her back to their headquarters for interrogation. I dunno, maybe it was a simpler time for international supervillains. But the main problem is the horrendously over-extended attack on the convent, which is an apparently endless sequence of running, shooting and falling over. Part of the problem is that the heroine isn’t particularly heroic, becoming just one-fifth of the team, rather than standing out on her own terms, as was the basis for the first hour. While it does give us the iconic image below, which made the front cover of the iconic Mondo Macabro book, there is about 20 minutes of tedium to endure, until the final bit of sizzle, involving explosive-tipped arrows and a helicopter. This includes a long sequence, in which all five members climb up a wall, one by one, in what feels like real time. The lead character did appear in a couple more movies after her introduction here, and despite the failings of the finale here, I was entertained enough to add them to the “for future consideration” list.

Dir: Bobby A. Suarez (as “George Richardson”)
Star: Marrie Lee, Franco Guerrero, Dante Varonna, George Estregan

Cleopatra-Wong

Ang Huling Henya

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“Pushing the Manilla envelope too far.”

huling-henyaI’ve seen quite a few Phillippine GWG movies – mostly thanks to Cirio Santiago and/or New World Pictures. But this is likely the first made for local consumption, rather than the West, which may explain why I found large chunks of it almost impenetrable. Is this the kind of thing that has them cheering in the aisles there?

The heroine is Miri (Quinto), an agent for an international organization devoted to protecting scientists, and keeping their inventions out of the wrong hands. After a mission goes bad, resulting in the death of her partner, Miri is sent back home for some time off. However, she’s called back in to help investigate the odd case of a professor who vanished for two weeks, only to return a cannibal and rip his wife’s throat out – and her corpse isn’t apparently entirely dead either. There’s also a mad scientist (Chan) who is experimenting with sucking memories out of people’s heads; her brother (Guzman), who is wasting his potential away in a dead-end job as a barman; and flashbacks revealing the tragic circumstances under which their parents, also scientists, apparently were killed for their invention.

Is it a horror film? It does have zombies. Is is a SF film? The memory transference and some nifty guns, which seem to shoot energy, suggest that. Comedy? The main villainess (Weigmann) shoots anyone who tells her she could be a model, and her sidekick perpetually needs to go to the bathroom. Action? Why not? There’s running around and pointing of guns. Family drama? Sure! The problem is – and some of the local reviews echo this – it just doesn’t commit to any of them, resulting in a movie which pays lip service to being scary, thrilling, funny, or intriguing. A few moments do work. I liked Miri having to go to the supermarket, prosaic stuff international agents aren’t usually seen doing. The finale, pitting heroes against the bad guys, very quietly, in a room full of sleeping zombies, also has potential. I even liked the cool way characters slid from English into the local tongue and back, in the middle of sentences.

However, at over two hours, it’s a good thirty minutes too long, and you could just about slice any half-hour out, and the result would be an improvement. Quinto also makes for a thoroughly unconvincing action star: from what I’ve read, a credible comparison would be a Pinoy version of Amy Poehler, and I’m not sure I would want to see Poehler try her hand in this genre. It’s certainly different, and it’s not bad enough to put me off other example of cinema from the Philippines. However, it’s certainly not good enough to make me actively seek them out.

Dir: Marlon N. Rivera
Star: Rufa Mae Quinto, Edgar Allan Guzman, Ricci Chan, Valerie Weigmann

Wildcat Women

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“In 3-D! If only the script or characters were…”

This was also released in a hardcore version as Black Lolita, but I’m not sure if that was 3D or not. Certainly, the DVD delivers about the worst such attempt I’ve ever seen. It’s in color, but also attempts the red/green method (glasses very early, and the only thing to be said for them is, they stop you seeing the film, which on the whole, is probably no bad thing. Lolita (Love) decides to team up with an air-stewardess and a yoga instructress to take down the local Mr. Big, who goes by the name Buddha – even though about all he shares with the Enlightened One is being Asian, since he’s neither fat nor pacifist.

This is all merely an excuse for some bad action scenes (despite some very enthusiastic blood-squibbing), and even worse sex scenes – these reach their nadir during a coupling between a scientist and a sexpot who’s only after his bugging device. [Which is about the size of a brick; we thought that was the receiver, until Lolita subsequently tried to place it “inconspicuously” on a table leg!] But it’s clear than none of the ‘actresses’ – and rarely have quotes been used more deliberately – were chosen for their thespian abilities.

It all ends in a fairground, with a shootout that probably doesn’t make much logical sense, but manages to kill off almost everyone in the film. Although, I can’t believe I just used the words “logical sense” in connection with three-dimensional, blaxploitation porn. Oh, well… Our tolerance for bad movies is significant here, but even we found this taxing to sit through. There’s better 3D, better blaxploitation, and better porn out there.

Dir: Eddie Romero
Stars: Yolanda Love, Sandi Carey, Suzi Adams, Joey Ginza

Lethal Panther 2

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“If I could somehow peel off the half of the disc this is on and dispose of it, I would.”

While there’s no denying the quantity of action in this film, the result feels more like an all-you-can-eat ticket to Taco Bell than anything else: you find yourself yearning for some quality rather than the Grade-D battles we get to see here. The bar is set remarkably low after two sentences, literally, of exposition. We are hurled into a long battle between two groups, about whom we know little and care less, running around an abandoned building, firing weapons with complete abandon and engaging in really poorly-staged wirework, in lieu of actual martial-arts. Y’see, the point of using wires in a gritty urban flick like this, is to enhance the impact of the moves, not to turn the players into Peter Pan and Wendy. Having endured a couple of his movies, I am forced to the conclusion that Ko is definitely in the lower tier of action directors in Hong Kong.

And his talents in other cinematic areas seems hugely in doubt too. Shot in the Philippines – where film-stock is cheap – it only marginally qualifies as a girls-with-guns flick, and is largely included here as a warning to anyone who is expecting anything like the original movie. While that was a guilty pleasure, for its “anything can happen” vibe, this one is simply dull. It’s mostly about a local cop, Albert (Del Rosario, I presume), hunting down the criminals responsible for the death of his wife. Oshima plays a Japanese Interpol agent, sent over to target the same gang, but she is sadly wasted: she’s got enough talent that she doesn’t need to fly-by-wire, and there are just enough flashes of her athletic ability to make you wish there were more.

Huge chunks of this don’t make any sense, and you’ll soon find yourself tuning out and not caring as things career from one badly-executed fight or chase to the next. Things blow up, people fight, and large numbers of rounds of ammunition are expended, to little or no actual impact on the viewer. It’s films like this that drove a stake into the heart of the genre as far as Hong Kong was concerned, in the first half of the 1990’s.

Dir: Phillip Ko [as ‘Cindy Wong’ – don’t ask me why]
Star: Monsour Del Rosario, Gabriel Romulo, Yukari Oshima, Sharon Kwok

Savage Sisters

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“Bit of an exaggeration, but Fairly Unpleasant Sisters likely wouldn’t have sold.”

This Philippino phlick doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions, and is never quite sure whether it wants to be sexploitation or serious drama. The poster promises a lot more than the film actually delivers, which is a shame, as the performances from the three leading ladies are nicely judged – as well as refreshingly multicultural. Two of them (Caffaro and Ortiz, one Caucasian, the other “Oriental”) are sent to prison, but when their torturer (ex-Bond girl Hendry, who initially comes over almost like a Black Ilsa) discovers they may know the whereabouts of a million bucks in cash, she helps spring them, and the trio head off, along with a local hustler (Ashley).

Double-crosses abound, and it all ends in a massive gun-battle on the docks. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Black Mama, White Mama – also directed by Romero, and with Sid Haig as a slimeball – took a very similar route, two years previously. This is marginally more competent, though the attempts at comedy largely don’t work, and sit uneasily alongside the torture sequences, for example. But in the absence of Pam Grier, Hendry steps up nicely, in a role that could easily have been mere caricature, and delivers the right amount of amoral gung-ho.

Nobody’s going to mistake this for great art; even as exploitation, it’s not particularly…well, exploitative, earning its R-rating more through bad language than anything else. But it keeps moving, and is worth a look if you stumble across it on late-night cable.

Dir: Eddie Romero
Star: Gloria Hendry, Cheri Caffaro, Rosanna Ortiz, John Ashley

Black Mama, White Mama

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“A P-movie: Prison, Philippines and Pam Grier.”

The biggest shock this has to offer is likely the opening credit, “based on an original story by Joseph Viola and…Jonathan Demme“. Yep, future-Oscar winner Demme, director of Silence of the Lambs, came up with this story, though if truth be told, it’s largely a ripoff of The Defiant Ones, which also had a black/white pair of prisoners escaping jail chained to each other. Here, it’s moved to the Philippines, where revolutionary Karen (Markov) and drug-lord moll Lee (Grier) are both wanted by their respective parties, albeit for entirely different reasons: Karen to help broker an arms deal, Lee because she stole forty grand. While being transported to the city, the two break free and head off across country, encountering nuns, drunk drivers, lecherous handymen and dogs – dressed in skimpy prison tunics, naturally…

Actually, if they’d stuck to this unwilling pair and their bickering, that gradually turns from animosity into mutual respect, the film would likely have been a damn sight better. You can see why Grier became a star, and Markov’s screen presence is almost equally obvious. However, the film instead diverts its energy into subplots involving the rebels or Ruben (Haig), a local slimeball who agrees to track the escapees. Both subplots seem more like excuses for bad T&A, largely involving ugly Phillippino actresses. Ditto the lengthy shower scene near the beginning – while our heroines are still in jail – though it shows the prison staff are equally as sexually frustrated as the inmates. Of course, it ends in a massive gunfight on a dock, between all interested parties. It’s cheap, campy and passes the time, albeit only just.

Dir: Eddie Romero
Star: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Sid Haig, Lynn Borden

Ebony, Ivory & Jade

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“Plus Teak and Porcelain…but not forgetting Milo.”

As well as its questionable use of the apostrophe, the cover kinda implies that three girls are involved here, which is only true for a small fraction of the running time. It starts off with five female athletes, including rich heiress Ginger, being kidnapped in the Philli…er, “Hong Kong”, and held for ransom. Their subsequent frequent attempts to escape are hampered by a difficulty in grasping the idea that, when you knock someone out, it’s okay to take their gun. But not everything is as it seems with regard to their “kidnapping”.

Oddly, there’s some primitive attempts at social commentary here, not least the conflict between black and white within the athletes, and the fact that one of their escape attempts is aided by a Communist rebel. We were also amused by the extremely crude product placement for “Milo”, which I presume is some kind of beverage popular in the Philippines – if not, perhaps, Hong Kong.

However, despite all this, and funky 70’s music which often seemed in danger of toppling over into either Bond or The Avengers theme, it gets tedious fast. This is not least because the electricity for the production must have been cut off half-way through, leaving the viewer to peer into murky gloom for the remainder. The doubling for the women’s stunts is often painfully obvious, and I bring to your attention the PG-rating this received in 1976, so don’t expect gratuitous nudity. Over at badmovieplanet.com, they have the sleeve blurb from when it was known as Foxforce. Truly hysterical, in both senses, save your time and money: read that, rather than watching the film.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Rosanne Katon, Colleen Camp, Sylvia Anderson