The Metrograph is a two-story, rather flat and
rectangular building located at 7 Ludlow Street. The theater is sandwiched inconspicuously
between a funeral parlor and an iron works foundry, a couple of blocks east of
the Canal Street entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. It’s here, where the Lower East Side meets -
or perhaps blurs - with the border of Chinatown, New York City’s cineastes will find the borough’s
brightest new twinplex – one specializing exclusively in indie, art house, and repertory
programming. Since it’s opening in March
2016, the theater has already screened an intriguing variety of shorts, foreign
films, retrospectives, and silents.
The Metrograph’s primary theater is a 175 seat room on
the ground floor, with a second more intimate screening room of fifty seats perched
on the second level. A glass window
partition allows curious filmgoers a rare peak into a projection room outfitted
with two 35mm and one DCP projectors. The second level also features the “Commissary,” a comfortable space
with a small bar and assortment of tables and couches where patrons and artists
are not only welcomed, but encouraged, to congregate before and after screenings
to discuss films and their own creative work. I was told by one Metrograph associate that the theater’s vision to completely
transform this loft space into a small café is approximately three weeks
away. The northernmost corner of the
room that overlooks Ludlow Street has been reserved as a book-selling stall
that will exclusively feature filmmaking-related texts and journals. (Click here to visit theater web site.)
On the weekend of April 8-10, the Metrograph partnered
with Subway Cinema (the 501(c) (3) non-profit that has steered the New York
Asian Film Festival since 2002) to host the sixth annual “Old School Kung-Fu
Fest.” This year’s series of wild martial
art extravaganzas was programmed to celebrate the legacy of Golden Harvest
Productions, the Hong Kong based-studio founded by rogue producer Raymond Chow and
Leonard Ho following their break with the Shaw Brothers. It was through a series of Bruce Lee films
released through Golden Harvest that martial arts-action films would make their
first successful inroads into western markets. Lee, justifiably disappointed by his treatment in Hollywood and relegated
to sidekick and second-fiddle parts, moved to Hong Kong where he would star in no
fewer than four Golden Harvest productions from 1971 through 1973. (Lee’s fifth and final film for the company, the
posthumously released Game of Death (1978)
was cobbled together from bits of footage left behind following his tragic
death at age 32).
Though only Lee’s seminal Enter the Dragon (1973) would be screened over the course of this
weekend’s festival – to a sold-out audience, of course - the “Little Dragon’s” long
shadow remains omnipresent throughout. As might be expected at any celebration of cinematic martial arts mayhem,
the program would feature eight films – seven screened from 35mm elements, one
(The Prodigal Son) via DCP – that arguably
constitute some of the finest work of Lee’s contemporaries, protégés and pretenders.
The film I was most anxious to revisit – for the first
time in nearly forty years - was Brian Trenchard-Smith’s The Man From Hong Kong (1975) (aka The Dragon Flies), featuring Jimmy Wang Yu (“The One-Armed
Swordsman”) and one-shot James Bond George Lazenby. Having brashly walked away from the role of Bond
following his single-turn in On Her
Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the former model-turned-actor had anxiously
found subsequent film work mostly unavailable. He reportedly financed a good portion of his first post-007 motion
picture, Cy Endfield’s Universal Soldier
(1971), out of his own pocket. In 1972,
Lazenby would accept an offer to appear in the grim and disturbing Italian
Giallo Chi L’ha Vista Morire? (Who Saw Her Die?). As director Aldo Lara would later recall in a
supplemental interview accompanying the film’s DVD release:
Lazenby had already played the role of James Bond and acquired a certain
international fame. This was useful for
the producers… He had deep issues with (Cubby) Broccoli and the entire James
Bond organization… In the end, he didn’t make a lira. He was going to the casinos, staying in big
hotels, and nothing was free. At the end
he was shown the bills and everything had been deducted from his pay… he had
made nothing. His only dream was to
return to his homeland of Australia, buy a boat and sail off alone. He was happy that [this film] would earn him
the money to buy the boat. He was very
available and very nice, but he disappeared after this.”
Well, not entirely. Near broke and recently married with a child on the way, Lazenby was
wandering around London’s Leicester Square where, on a whim, he caught a
late-night screening of Bruce Lee’s Fists
of Fury (aka The Big Boss, 1971). Though sensing a window of opportunity had
opened, the actor hadn’t done his homework particularly well. Lazenby booked a flight to Singapore, only to
discover Hong Kong was Lee’s actual base of operation. He caught a second flight to Hong Kong and, following
a brief meeting with the powerful but uninterested Shaw Brothers, found his way
to Raymond Chow’s office. Though Chow also
seemed indifferent to Lazenby’s unannounced visit, the producer did have the
presence of mind to call down to Lee (“James Bond is here to see you. Can I send him down?”). Though Lee’s answer was a curt “No,” an hour
later the martial arts star emerged from his screening-room session. He asked the down-and-out Australian if he’d
care to share a luncheon with Chow and himself. Midway through that meal – and to Raymond Chow’s sputtering surprise –
Lee coolly instructed his business partner to write out a check in the amount
of $10,000. “I want George to come back
here and do a movie with me, [Game of
Death] and I know he’ll come back if he’s got my money.”
Though he had already begun work on Game of Death, production was temporarily suspended when Golden
Harvest teamed with Warner Bros. for the international breakthrough Enter the Dragon. We’ll never know exactly what role Lee had in
mind for the former James Bond since, on July 20, 1973 and only four days following
their first meeting, Lee was found dead. The executives at Golden Harvest were
devastated. Not only had they lost a
friend and essential creative partner, they now inherited the liability of having
George Lazenby on the company payroll. The
company’s chagrin wasn’t personal. The
truth of the matter was their newly signed leading man was Hong Kong box-office
dead weight: he had absolutely no
kung-fu training and couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin.
Tired of hanging around Hong Kong waiting for something
to be offered in the weeks following Lee’s passing, Lazenby returned home. In January 1974 the actor announced to
reporters that he was offered a role in The
Golden Needles of Ecstasy to be shot “in both Hong Kong and Los
Angeles.” The plot was to involve
ecstasy-producing acupuncture needles of solid gold that “are “So precious […] people in the Orient will do anything to acquire
them.” Though that film actually would see
the light of day – as the disastrous Golden
Needles – Joe Don Baker and Jim Kelly had been assigned the lead male roles
and Lazenby was, once again, left out in the cold.
"The Man From Hong Kong" was also released in certain markets under the title "The Dragon Flies".
Happily, Golden Harvest had finally settled on a project suited to their western film property, The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss. This totally seventies, wildly psychedelic, drug and nudity infused hybrid of kung-fu madness and James Bond cool would undergo a succession of working titles until released as Stoner (1974). The title was a winking, convenient play on words: not only was a nefarious Hong Kong drug-peddling syndicate at the center of the on-screen mayhem, Lazenby had been cast as Australian cop Joshua Stoner sent to the harbor city to investigate the death of his sister. Stoner (sporting a droopy ‘70s mustache early on in the film and later, inexplicably, not) was to work – unwittingly, at first - in tandem with kung fu goddess Angela Mao Ying to bring down the fortressed evildoers. Kung-Fu Monthly of Hicksville, New York (one of a series of colorful poster-magazines that would enliven newsstands in the wake of martial arts mania), promised that, “Stoner… looks destined to be the big one,” the film that might spark Lazenby’s re-emergence as an international movie star. This was, of course, mostly wishful thinking.
Though Stoner would perform reasonably well for Golden Harvest – and was certainly helpful in allowing Lazenby work off some of that $10,000 advance - the actor harbored no fantasy of displacing Bruce Lee as a martial arts icon. Though pleased that Stoner had “made some money” for the studio, Lazenby told Richard Schenkman of the U.S. James Bond Fan Club that a series of future “Joshua Stoner” films was unlikely as “Bruce had established an Asian market… with an oriental hero.” He soon realized it would be next to impossible to establish a reputation as a leading-man while working exclusively in Hong Kong. Aside from a handful of testing lessons organized to disguise his complete lack of kung-fu fighting skills, Lazenby was not yet properly schooled in the martial arts. His co-stars, on the other hand, had spent countless disciplined hours honing the craft.
It’s interesting that, in one respect, Bruce Lee and George Lazenby’s careers shared an interesting parallel. Lee had found himself the Asian odd man out while trying to eke out a living and a bit of fame in a Hollywood interested only in eastern caricatures. It’s ironic that Lazenby’s blossoming career as a Hong Kong action hero would be hamstrung in the reverse: his western features and personage were a liability to him, as was the complicating fact that he couldn’t speak a word of Chinese or Mandarin. In the actor’s next two films for Golden Harvest, Lazenby – forever the outsider - would be cast as a villain of the west.
"The Man From Hong Kong" featured the hit song "Sky High" by one hit wonder group Jigsaw.
The actor’s second film for the studio, The Man from Hong Kong was, in every sense, an international film. Chosen to direct was the Berkshire, England born Brian Trenchard-Smith, who had mostly worked in broadcast television. Though Chow rarely hired non-Chinese filmmakers to direct movies for the studio, Trenchard-Smith had come to his attention when he visited Hong Kong in July of 1973 with the intention of shooting an Aussie television documentary on the life and films of Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, Trenchard-Smith and his crew set foot on the tarmac of Hong Kong’s airport on July 21, only to learn that Lee had passed away less than twenty-four hours prior. Caught in the grief and fervor that was Lee’s week-and-half-long funeral, Trenchard-Smith chose to soldier on with his film regardless of the tragic turn of events. Diverting the focus from a mainstream profile of Bruce Lee to an examination of the martial-arts film phenomena in general, Trenchard-Smith would fashion the documentary The World of Kung-Fu.
During Christmas of 1973, he began work on a second documentary titled The Kung Fu Killers, and this second film was a more flexible project for the producer-director who had since become an unabashed fan of martial arts cinema. More importantly, his two respectful studies of the phenomena had earned him inner-circle access among those in the insular Hong Kong movie industry. He’d later comment, “What intrigued me […] was what would happen when east met west, when the different styles of fighting clashed.” The seed of that scenario would soon germinate into the wild action-film that was The Man from Hong Kong. While shooting The Kung Fu Killers, Trenchard-Smith had been invited to the set of Stoner where he met and befriended Lazenby and Angela Mao. By May 1974 The Kung Fu Killers was broadcast in a number of countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan. The executives at Golden Harvest were pleased with the reportage and, according to one press release, Trenchard-Smith and the company “developed a close rapport.”
Though the loss of the money-spinning Bruce Lee seemed an insurmountable obstacle, Raymond Chow had enjoyed an intoxicating taste of international success with Enter the Dragon. The success of that film and – to a lesser extent, to be sure - of Stoner was proof positive that a Golden Harvest film could play successfully to movie-going audiences east and west. It was in this atmosphere that Trenchard-Smith could - through mildly duplicitous tactics – successfully sell both Chow and the Greater Union Cinema of Australia on the idea of pooling their resources for a glossy, big-budget Hong Kong/Aussie co-production. It would be an eastern-hemisphere globe-trotting adventure which would effectively utilize such exotic locations as Hong Kong and Kowloon, the Aussie metropolis of Sydney, and the imposing sandstone monolith that is Ayers Rock.
To seal the deal, the taciturn Jimmy Wang Yu, inarguably Hong Kong’s most famous martial arts film hero in the years prior to Bruce Lee’s arrival, was tapped to play seasoned, ass-kicking hero, “Inspector Fang Sing Leng.” Wang Yu was a true hand-to-hand combat master who had garnered an unassailable reputation among devotees through appearances in a number of celebrated Shaw Brothers productions. George Lazenby was cast as “Jack Wilton,” an Australian millionaire suspected of being the ruthless narcotics “kingpin of the Sydney underworld.”
On the eve of the U.S. release of The Man from Hong Kong, Lazenby agreed to a lengthy sit-down with Fighting Stars magazine. In a brutally honest interview with writer Bob Birchard, Lazenby admitted his decision to forego signing a seven-year deal to continue on as James Bond had been a terrible mistake. It was, he explained, a decision fashioned by two factors: a foolish and unfortunate combination of poor career advice given to him by so-called friends and real estate lawyers moonlighting as Hollywood power-players. The second factor was his own big-headedness. “Cubby Broccoli said some things about me,” Lazenby lamented, “and they were true. They didn’t need me. I was a dead loss after all the money they’d spent grooming me. They told me that I’d end up making spaghetti westerns, instead I ended up making kung-fu movies in Hong Kong.”
Though Stoner had been a relatively big-budget film for Golden Harvest, The Man from Hong Kong would more splash Raymond Chow’s money far more lavishly and effectively on the big screen. The film is a non-stop roller-coaster action movie from beginning to end, with enough explosions, hang-gliding sequences, car crashes, and brutally staged hand-to-hand combat scenes to make one not give one whit about the creaky scenario. Though nothing would match the glamour of working on the set of a James Bond film (Lazenby would suffer second degree burns during one terrifying penthouse fight scene captured entirely on film), the actor remarked, with enthusiasm but without benefit of having seen the final cut, that The Man from Hong Kong “should be a pretty good picture. It had a larger budget than most, and they shot it in synch sound. The cameraman even left the camera on the tripod.”
The Man from Hong Kong was screened at the Regent Cinema during the Cannes Film Festival on June 2, 1975. The Variety writer covering the screening was impressed with the well paced action flick, describing the film as a “Chinese-Australian James Bond hybrid.” Variety also commended Trenchard-Smith for his blend of “high kicking Eastern style of filmmaking with the more subtle western style.” The reviewer was less enthusiastic of Lazenby’s portrayal as sadistic heavy “Mr. Big.” He reprimanded that throughout The Man from Hong Kong, “George Lazenby does little for his image as an actor.” He unfairly suggested it was the former James Bond’s “shortcomings” in this department that had effectively forced top-billed Jimmy Wang Yu “to carry the picture by himself.” This was total nonsense as Lazenby actually performs very well in the choreographed fight sequences and – truth be told – enjoys only a fraction of the screen-time given to Wang Yu. Critic Tony Rayns of the Monthly Film Bulletin opined that while not perfect The Man from Hong Kong“hits a note of throwaway excess that has eluded the recent Roger Moore Bond movies.”
Following the modest but not insubstantial international box-office success of The Man from Hong Kong, Lazenby would recall, “One day they called me up for another one and I thought, ‘My God, I’ll end up in Hong Kong forever doing these Kung Fu movies with Chinese directors’. When I made Operation Regina [the French title for A Queen’s Ransom/The International Assassin], I was the only one who spoke English… You can imagine how lonely I was for four weeks at the Chinese border.”
Two contemporary but entirely disparate stories were stitched together awkwardly for The Queen’s Ransom. The first, and more interesting, tale concerns a fiendish, well-coordinated plot to assassinate the Queen of England during her inaugural visit to Hong Kong in May of 1975. The second involves a scheme to rob a refugee Cambodian royal family of their riches. The Cambodian royals, including sweet but high-kicking exiled Princess (Angela Mao), were forced to flee their homeland when the capitol fell to the Khmer Rouge in April of 1975. Both stories tie clumsily together by the film’s climax. Lazenby, looking somewhat bulked-up in this outing, plays George Walsh, an I.R.A. thug leading a team of international terrorists in their scheme to assassinate the Queen. Sadly, the actor is ingloriously dubbed throughout, his speaking voice entirely scrubbed from the soundtrack and substituted by an inauthentic – almost comic - Irish brogue. Director Shan-Tsi Ting incorporates a lot of newsreel footage from both the Queen’s springtime visit to Hong Kong as well of that from the on-going and brutal Indo-China war. The newsreel footage gives the film a contemporary, relevant sheen but, strangely, there’s a dearth of audience-pleasing martial arts action.
In A Queen’s Ransom, Lazenby is again teamed with both Jimmy Wang Yu and Sammo Hung, but the resulting film is the least satisfying of the triad he would essay for Golden Harvest. The actor was, by his own admission, growing homesick, and found himself increasingly isolated from cast and crew. He had also decided fellow cast member Angela Mao – the “female Bruce Lee,” recognized amongst fans as “Lady Kung Fu” - a little standoffish. This assessment of the diminutive ass-kicking actress was almost certainly unfair. He perhaps had not fully taken into account that developing any meaningful friendships with his Hong Kong co-stars was likely doomed as they too weren’t bilingual.
A Queen’s Ransom was released to Hong Kong’s State Theatre on September 20, 1975. Variety found the film a complete mess, noting even “Jimmy Wang Yu’s boyish good looks and charismatic screen presence can do little to retrieve this film from its inane and mindless mediocrity.” The ill-advised and creeping western influences on Golden Harvest’s most recent releases were also noted with lament. The edgy political intrigue of A Queen’s Ransom was written off as a poor celluloid cousin to such recent political thrillers as director Don Sharp’s Hennessey (UK, 1975) – which similarly featured Rod Steiger as an IRA terrorist with plans to assassinate the Queen - and Lou Lombardo’s somewhat more obscure Russian Roulette (Canada, 1975). The clumsy structure and pacing of A Queen’s Ransom was also faulted by Variety, whose review suggested the feature offered “little excitement, much less a fitting climax.”
A Queen’s Ransom was belatedly released in the United States as The International Assassin. Distributed in the States through World Northal Films, The International Assassin was ingloriously and belatedly dumped as second-bill fare onto the seedy grind house circuit in the summer of 1981. The International Assassin received (perhaps, mercifully) no critical appraisal in the American press and advertising was nearly non-existent save for a single page press-sheet. Though the U.S. one-sheet poster for the film prominently top-bills “George Lazenby” over that of co-stars Judith Brown and Jimmy Wang Yu, insult was added to injury when the face of an un-credited and decidedly minor supporting actor from the film is featured as one of the star players. There is no photograph of Lazenby alongside those of Brown and Wang Yu on the poster’s final artwork. It was, to say the least, an ignoble end to George Lazenby’s career in Hong Kong.
Of course no tangible art committed to paper, film, or canvas, ever really comes to an end. This truism is amply demonstrated in such wonderful revivals as this “Old-School Kung Fu Fest” event. Prior to the screening, enthusiastic and faithful fans congregated and were wildly rewarded with a great program of films, prize giveaways, and free-for-the-taking overstock tee-shirts from a past festival. Following the screening - and in the spirit of Aussie-Hong Kong cooperation as exemplified on film - all ticket-holders over the age of twenty-one were invited upstairs for a reception at the Commissary. There everyone was gifted with their very own can of Foster’s Lager (“That’s Australian for Beer, Mate”).
Here’s my pledge: should the Metrograph and Subway Cinema choose to program Stoner at next year’s kung-fu fest, I pledge to donate however many cases of Hong Kong’s finest inexpensive beer would be required to slake the thirsts of the gathered faithful.