Asian Spice: An Interview with Prof Lee Sang Joon on 'Secret Spies Never Die!' @SGIFF

Operation Revenge

Something spicy. Something spies this year. The Classics programme of the  Singapore International Film Festival brings you a genre that traces a highly fascinating episode in Asian cinematic history. Secret Spies Never Die!, presents significant spy films and its interesting offshoots from the ‘50s to ‘80s. From Korean director Hang Hyeong-mo’s The Hand of Fate (1954) to Singapore’s very own Gerak Kilat (1966) by Jamil Sulong and the first Australian-Hong Kong co-production The Man from Hong Kong (1975), the Festival’s Classics line-up draws attention to the region’s unique storytelling style of the popular cult genre. Many took after Western and European spy films but are far more complex and textured in plot.

This programme is co-presented with the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, in celebration of the School’s 25th Anniversary in film and communications studies.

Here is the programme line-up:

Gerak Kilat  (1966)
Dubbed Singapore’s own James Bond, this Shaw Brothers Studio Malay language outing is the first in the celebrated Jefri Zain secret agent series.

Regarded as a prized Shaw and pop cinema classic, this wacky spy caper brims with Bond conventions and the ensuing destruction of their wry sacredness.

A lightweight spy comedy that takes the best of the Bond universe to preposterously ridiculous results.

Part film noir and part espionage thriller, this melodrama narrates the tragedy of a divided Korea through a tale of forbidden love.
Australia’s first martial arts flick gives a Bond cum Bruce Lee-inspired cop a free pass to trash through Sydney.
From one of grindhouse cinema’s greats, comes a revenge tale replete with firepower, sensationalism and a surprising dose of melancholia.

We spoke to the curator of the programme, NTU WKWSCI, Assistant Professor Lee Sang Joon. to understand more about the genre, its quirks and why these films were chosen for the festival.

The spy film genre is a popular cult genre, could you share with us the significance of this genre in cinema?

We now consider the spy film as a ‘cult’ genre but, if we look back on the 1960s when this genre (or cycle) had its peak moment, the spy film genre was extremely popular not only in English-language territories but also in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. And this global spy film ‘craze’ started with James Bond. It is roughly estimated that half the earth’s population has seen at least one James Bond film.

First appearing with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953, the first big screen adaptation, Dr. No, came out in 1962. The James Bond series is certainly a perfectly tailored global product. The third one in the series, Goldfinger (1964), marked the beginning of ‘Bondmania’ as a truly international phenomenon. Goldfinger penetrated the world’s popular culture, not only in ‘more advanced’ Western countries but also in Asia, including Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Singapore.

Gerak Lilat

Three films in our programme – GERAK LILAT, OPERATION LIPSTICK, and OPERATION REVENGE – are good examples of the 1960s ‘Asian James Bond’ crazes. Each spy film, no matter where it was produced, featured certain common plot elements: adventure, suspense, politics and romance; and also incorporated similar themes: good vs. evil, loyalty, betrayal, patriotism, xenophobia and war. These films were reflections of the times and societies which produced them.

How was your curation process like?

The idea of this classic programme stemmed from my own research project on the inter-Asian cinematic coproduction practices under the Cold War cultural politics. I have written two academic articles on the spy movies in Asia – one on the Hong Kong-South Korea coproduced espionage films and the other on the US involvement in Asian cinema and the 1950s and 60s cinematic collaborations in Asia. I shared my studies with Nikki Draper (WKWSCI) and the SGIFF team – Olivia Tay and Low Zu Boon in particular. We first met and discussed about the possibilities of having this classics programme early this year. Since then we have met regularly and finalized the line-up only two months ago. This special programme is a part of Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI)’s 25th Anniversary celebration. So this programme would not have been possible without the support of WKWSCI.

Operation Revenge

How have these films impacted their respective countries? And in a bigger picture, how have they influenced the Asian cinematic history?

For example, with the unparalleled success of first two James Bond movies - From Russia with Love and Dr. No - Korean society faced a sudden ‘explosion’ of James Bond-style espionage films. Most major newspapers and publishing outlets in Korea competitively embarked on serializing “Korean Bond” stories and comics, along with translated original novels. Only eight months after the introduction of From Russia with Love, thirteen James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were translated under the title The Complete 007 Collection.

Even radio stations joined the craze by airing copious dramatized daily shows based on the espionage novels on the market. The espionage craze reached its zenith in 1966. KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) TV, the nation’s government-owned major network television station aired a special program called The World of James Bond. In addition to this, 14 locally produced South Korean espionage films were released in 1966 alone—compared with one in 1964 and two in 1965. From the mid- to late 1960s, the espionage craze was so vibrant that every cultural sector was obsessed with this particular film cycle.

Hong Kong film producers and audiences saw Dr. No earlier than Koreans did. The craze started in Hong Kong immediately after Dr. No’s public release on May 9, 1963. In the Cantonese cinema world, a female version of James Bond, the Jane Bond cycle, came first. Black Rose (1965) was the initiating force of this cycle, followed by its sequel Spy with My Face (1966) and other commercially successful ones, including The Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa (1966) and The Precious Mirror (1967).

Shaw Brothers, one of the leading film studies in Asia during the 1960s and 70s,’ produced the first James Bond-inspired espionage thriller, The Golden Buddha in 1966). It was shot entirely in Bangkok. To produce more spy films, Shaw hired Japanese (and to some extent, Korean) film directors. OPERATION LIPSTICK is the outcome of Shaw’s rigorous recruitment of Japanese filmmakers. OPERATION LIPSTICK can also be read as one of the last Jane Bond film cycle.

After the successes of spy films in Hong Kong in the 60s, parodies of this genre were made, known as bangpian. Operation Lipstick is stated to be as such. What about it is parodic?

As mentioned above, Shaw turned its attention to Japan. In fact, the mid-1960s was the last breath of the Japanese studios’ golden age. In early 1966, Nakahira Kō and Inoue Umetsugu signed the contract first. Then, four more directors, Furukawa Takumi, Shima Koji, Murayama Mitsuo and Matsuo Akinori followed. They mostly worked for Nikkatsu, and all of them were well-known genre-film directors in Japan. They worked incredibly fast. As soon as the contract was done, Inoue Umetsugu came to Hong Kong in April, and two films were already simultaneously under production. Inoue Umetsugu made OPERATION LIPSTICK as his first Shaw movie. In November, Nakahira Kō was producing another espionage film, Interpol 009 (1967). The trend yielded the first Shaw-Nikkatsu espionage film, Asiapol Secret Service (1967), that was produced in two versions, Wang Yu for Hong Kong and Hideaki Nitani for Japan, under the direction of Matsuo Akinori.

The Hand of Fate is a classic for many reasons, for its historical and political treatment, as well as for its first on-screen kiss in Korean cinema. Yet its context made it feel more like a kiss of death than a romantic occasion. What was the film's impact in Korean cinema history?

Hand of Fate

Han Hyung-mo, director of HAND OF FATE, was the leading filmmaker during the heyday of Korean cinema – so called ‘golden age’ of Korean cinema. Han was the most active film director from the 1950s to 1960s. HAND OF FATE was Han’s first post-Korean war film. The situation in Korea following the end of the Korean War was grim. To rebuild the nation, a pleathora of changes were adopted to better the country. Within this tumultuous atmosphere, Han became the filmmaker who could accept the changes that were happening within the Korean society. HAND OF FATE remains significant within Korean film history for introducing Korea’s first screen kiss. The film also introduced the first on screen female spy. HAND OF FATE sets the tone of Korean espionage films produced after this films: geopolitical themes (North-South Division), ideology (anticommunism), and social/historical issues (separated families, war orphans, and traumatic memories of the colonial past and the Korean Civil War).

Out of the 6 curated films, which is your personal favourite? In your opinion, what makes this film special?

It is tough for me to choose only one. But if I have to, then I will pick The Man From Hong Kong. This is one of the most underrated hybrid genre films (espionage+kung fu) in the 1970s. And, even better, Brian Trenchard-Smith (director) will join the screening!

I’m sure that these classics have influenced many spy films that were subsequently made after them. What are some moments in this section of Classics: Secret Spies Never Die, that audiences can look out for?

On the surface, Asian espionage films copied the various devices of their Hollywood counterparts, such as “the oversexed and virtually invincible super (heroic) spy, the egregious use of women as sexual objects, the pervasiveness of Western technology (through gadgetry), and the role of the megalomaniacal and ruthless villain.”

But Asian espionage films are far more complicated than just the “good” and “bad” spy confrontations in American and European counterparts. In contrast to the plot structures in the James Bond films in the West, which pit a single “free” Western individual spy against a whole evil empire of terrorists, subversives, and megalomaniacs under the leadership of a tyrant-dictator or communist regime (in many cases the USSR), espionage films produced in Asia are telling, quintessentially Asian experiences.

The One Armed Executioner

They are transnational in the modes of production, set in exotic locales such as Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Bangkok, Seoul, and Tokyo, but most Asian espionage films primarily targeted each other’s local film market only, and thus, they passionately waved a national flag. Put differently, war (Pacific/Korean) and its aftermath—separated families, war orphans, and traumatic memories of the colonial past —functioned as major plot drivers in many Asian espionage film productions in the 1960s. I hope that audiences watch at least 2-3 films during the festival and compare, contrast, and simply enjoy this fascinating set of spy films produced in Asia!

Interview by Christine Seow

Screening Details

Gerak Kilat  (1966)
24 Nov, Fri / 7:00 PM / National Museum of Singapore
Singapore / 104min / Malay, English
26 Nov, Sun / 7:00 PM / National Museum of Singapore
Hong Kong / 94min / Mandarin
25 Nov, Sat / 11:00 AM / National Museum of Singapore
Thailand / 140min / Thai

26 Nov, Sun / 2:00 PM / National Museum of Singapore
South Korea / 90min / Korean / NC16: Nudity
25 Nov, Sat / 9:30 PM / National Museum of Singapore
Hong Kong, Australia / 126min / Mandarin, English / M18: Sexual Scenes
26 Nov, Sun / 9:30 PM / National Museum of Singapore
Philippines / 88min / English / NC16: Scene of Intimacy and Some Violence

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