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Plot: Only one agent can stop a cartel from bankrupting several Asian countries.

Singapore never quite etched out a regional cinematic industry the way the Chinese mainland and the more Western inclined Hong Kong did. Like the nearby Taiwan the country often joined in co-productions but never developed much of a regional creative identity of its own. Somebody has to be the first. They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong (or simply Cleopatra Wong, as it was shortened to for the international market) was that pioneer and as the box office would prove Singapore too could compete internationally. Cleopatra Wong is the perfect storm of several cinematic trends of the time and has absolutely no reason to work, but does so anyway! Featuring a first-time lead, wonky gadgets, and chop sockey martial arts Cleopatra Wong has something for everybody. It’s a nice change of pace from the many European James Bond imitations, a lot of which were either Italian or Spanish, and was surprisingly progressive for the time. If you manage and measure your expectations this is quite the treat.

Roberto, or plain old Bobby, A. Suarez was one of the last classic Pinoy writers/producers/directors to build a modest empire for himself. Following in the footsteps of illustrious grandmasters Gerardo de León, Eddie Romero, and Cirio H. Santiago, Suarez had his finger on the pulse of the market and knew exactly what to produce when and with who. His filmography might not be as extensive and impressive as that of de León, Romero, or Santiago but they have withstood the test of time regardless. Suarez literally worked his way up the corporate ladder through various Philippine film companies. He started out as a lowly messenger and through sheer determination and perseverance was promoted to assistant sales manager, and eventually marketing director before forming Intercontinental Film Distributors (HK) Ltd. of Hong Kong. With his newly established company Suarez quickly cultivated a reputation for dubbing and strategically marketing lowgrade Chinese martial arts romps for the North American market. One of his more memorable and famous examples of that was the Serafim Karalexis produced Black Dragon (1974). As a director he’s known around these parts for the revenge flick The One-Armed Executioner (1983) and the sleazefest Red Roses For A Call Girl (1989). Suarez never was a pioneer the way de León or Romero were, and never sired any real classics or shephered careers the way Santiago did. For better or worse, he’s one of the unsung heroes of the dying days of Pinoy exploitation and one of its last true moguls.

It’s not without a sense of irony that Singapore’s most enduring cultural popular export was the product of a Filipino director. Cleopatra Wong was conceived by Bobby A. Suarez and writer/director Romeo N. Galang as a response to the different but parallell trends of James Bond, blaxploitation, HK martial arts, and the legend of Bruce Lee (even if his death was five years in the past at that point) and the two were looking to roll all of that into one. As the name would have you believe the first and most obvious influence was Tamara Dobson in/as Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its 1975 sequel. Wong was, and is, a very common surname in China and Singapore. Suarez and Galang imagined Cleopatra Wong as a mini-skirt and go-go boots wearing, gun-toting, high kicking, longbow shooting honey with a penchant for casual destruction and an insatiable sexual appetite to match. Suarez and Galang saw Cleopatra Wong as a female Bruce Lee in The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972). Obviously linguistic (and probably to a lesser degree, cultural) barriers made it impossible to hire Angela Mao Ying (茅瑛), an actual protégé of the late Lee. "Asia's female James Bond" is what regional press of the day called it. Whether it was circumstance, happenstance, or a bit of serendipity, but somehow they had come up with an icon of female empowerment and emancipation and something very much with the times. The American drive-ins and grindhouses had Ginger (1971), Superchick (1973), Stacey! (1973), and Double Agent 73 (1974), now Singapore had its own super agent in Cleopatra Wong. “She purrs like a kitten.. makes love like a siren... Fights like a panther. This side of the Pacific, she is the deadliest, meanest and sexiest secret agent!” thus spake the poster. This left Suarez and Galang with only one problem: they had to find Cleopatra first.

Doris Young (Marrie Lee) circa 1978

While the cast and crew were largely Filipino (and one of the key markets were the Philippines) part of the budget (an estimated US$70,000 in total) came from Singapore. As part of the financing agreement Singapore had some stipulations about the shoot (some of it, again obviously, had to happen in Singapore) and they vetoed that a Singaporean actress was to be cast in the lead role. Instead of a casting an established star Suarez and Galang opted for a fresh face and new talent. Finding the new Pam Grier was everybody’s goal. 19-year-old Doris Young had been working as a receptionist in a Shenton Way nightclub when she was discovered by a Hong Kong talent scout. She had done Showdown at the Equator (1978) but no significant offers had come her way. One day she replied to an ad asking, "Are you smart, sexy, and seductive?" Her life would never be the same. After an arduous open casting call organized across Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Philippines and inspecting an estimated 200-300 candidates Suarez and Galang believed they had found their Cleopatra Wong. That Young wore a miniskirt and go-go boots probably helped convince Sonny Lin too.

In a follow-up interview with Suarez Young was asked to remove her top (but was allowed to keep her bra on) and was told lose weight. That was that. Suarez came up with the alias Marrie Lee which, unbelievably, led to some confusion as fans and members of the press alike actually believed her to be related to the late Bruce Lee. Location shooting was scheduled on and around Sentosa, an island on the southern coast of Singapore, and would include some of its famous landmarks and attractions. Featured prominently are the Singapore Cable Car Sky Network (better known as the cable car ride from Mount Faber and Faber Peak to Sentosa) in Lion City, the former British military base Fort Siloso that saw action during World War II (1939–1945) as well as the Battle of Singapore (8-15 February 1942), and The Chinese Garden in Jurong East near the Boon Lay Way highway that was new build in 1975 and a mere three years old at that point. Cleopatra Wong was an endeavour of economic planning as the government aimed to make Sentosa a tourist destination. For that international feel the production would also shoot in Hong Kong and in Manila, the Philippines. With little in the way of insurance and no concerns for general safety Young performed most, if not all, of her own stunts (including dangling from a helicopter) sustaining many injuries, most gravely, a fractured left wrist.

Cleopatra Wong (Doris Young, as Marrie Lee) is a multi-talented top agent in the Seasian branch of Interpol. In that capacity she’s the head of the Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.). One night, whilst vacationing in Manila, Wong is ordered by her Chief in Singapore to contact her local Chief in the Philippines. He informs her that an unknown criminal cartel is running a counterfeit scheme with near-perfect fake currency to throw the region in financial chaos and ultimately disarray. The cartel’s bogus currency is so realistic that all major banks in five countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philppines) of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam wouldn’t join until much later) are none the wiser to the forgery. The cartel’s goal is to destabilize the region only to then buy all of the major companies and pocket the profit. Cleo flies to Singapore where she teams up with a local junior agent and goes on an insane shopping spree to attract the cartel’s attention. She’s indeed captured and taken to the syndicate’s hideout on Sentosa island. Wong manages to break free and after a brutal and bullet-ridden chase across the island the gang is defeated and taken into custody. Following the gang’s interrogation Cleo hops on a plane to Hong Kong where the money supposedly originated from. At the harbour she intercepts a suspicious shipment of strawberry jam and learns that the jars are used to transport the counterfeit bills. A phone call and flight ticket back home to the Philippines Cleo sets her sights on the local jam market. After posing as a reporter for the periodical Asian Weekly she learns that the biggest manufacturers is a local Catholic monastery. Once she acquires the necessary photographic evidence a search warrant is issued and in an explosive finale Cleo dons a habit and takes to taking down the fake nuns with really big guns….

Half of the time Cleopatra Wong sort of echoes TNT Jackson (1974) but with a greater emphasis on spy-action rather than topless kickboxing. It all culminates in a finale where Young dresses up as a Catholic nun and starts mowing down baddies with a machine gun. Apparently that scene was memorable enough that Cynthia Khan did the same thing in her wedding dress in Hong Kong in Queen’s High (1991). While never envisioned as a franchise Cleopatra Wong would be trotted out two more times by Suarez in the subsequent two years in Dynamite Johnson (1979) and Devil’s Angels (1980). The character now firmly established in hearts and minds, domestic and abroad; Suarez and Young intended to strike the iron while it was hot and branch out into North America and from there globally. Three consecutive Hollywood strikes (the 1978-79 SAG and AFTRA Commercials Strike, the 1980 actors strike, and the 1981 Writers Guild of America strike) summarily ended any and all such aspirations. While Hong Kong had a long and proud tradition of female-centric action, this probably had some influence on the nascent HK Girls with Guns action subgenre, spearheaded and popularized by the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee, Cynthia Khan, and Sibelle Hiu. Unlike some of her contemporaries Young didn’t find work in the neighbouring Hong Kong or Taiwan and she would use her experience and turn to directing instead.

In the almost half-century since her last scrape with fame in the 80s Young has been combating debilitating health and was married no less than three times. In an example of how close-knit and insular the Singaporean film business is at one point she was the stepmother to film student, critic, and actress/director Sandi Tan. Tan herself would attain immortality with her legendary roadmovie Shirkers (1992) that was lost considered lost and her infamous quest spanning several decades and continents to reacquire (and, if possible, restore) what was left of it as documented in her 2018 documentary. In 2000 Young co-founded Cleopatra Wong International in order to preserve the heritage and curate the reputation of the character. Ten years later, after Suarez’ passing in 2010, she inherited the brandname, franchise rights, and website. In the years since (or at least since 2016) Young has been seeking to restore, reboot, or otherwise continue the legacy of Cleopatra Wong. In that capacity she has been working on and off on Kill Cleo but information about the status of the project is scarce and unreliable. As Singapore’s biggest cultural export and national treasure as well as a beloved staple in Filipino exploitation Cleopatra Wong has been featured in the documentaries Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010), The Search for Weng Weng (2013) and, most recently, Sandi Tan’s Shirkers (2018). Not bad for a quickly filmed, cheaply made exploitation romp with a hell of a lot of guts and no real talent.

It may never quite reach the international jetset feeling of Deadlier Than the Male (1967) or The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) this is something altogether different than your typical Eurospy action adventure. This one has a funky disco soundtrack, chop sockey martial arts (that, granted, are better than most), counterfeit money hidden in jars of jam, a longbow armed with explosives-tipped triple arrows, and lots of hilarious dubbing. There’s also fat wrestlers, power-jumping, and nuns wielding really big guns. Cleopatra Wong is what The Devil Came From Akasava (1970) could have been had anyone, at any point, cared for what they were filming. Bobby Suarez was obviously on to something when he cast Doris Young and it’s nearly criminal that she never got the international career she so deserved. Above and beyond, Cleopatra Wong is fun. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how something like this would inform Corey Yuen Kwai’s equally amiable and also very fun Yes, Madam! (1985) (with Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock). Then again, Hong Kong has absolutely no shortage of historical precedent of female protagonists in the wuxia and martial arts genre. Believe it or not, there are actual Filipino productions that do not star Vic Díaz. This is one of those movies. For the Philippines this was another in a long line of classics. For Singapore this was one, if not thé, biggest cultural export up to that point. Cleopatra Wong did what everybody says she couldn’t. Everything counts.

Plot: vacationers face mercenaries, zombies, and cannibalistic monks.

The eighties was the last great hurrah for classic Filipino exploitation. As the 90s dawned Hollywood reinforced its grip on the international market with big budget, special effects-driven event movies that no little independent could ever begin to compete with. The decline of grindhouse theaters as well as the ever-expanding home video market cut directly into profit margins that were already razor-thin to begin with at this point. South America and Asia had served American producers and distributors well, but the eighties would signal the end of that too. In those waning days of dwindling budgets and shrinking international distribution elder institutions like Cirio H. Santiago, and Bobby A. Suarez managed to churn out their last classics. Santiago even was strong enough to survive the nineties. There was no doubt about it, though, the Pinoy exploitation industry, once so indefatigable and resilient, was starting to run on fumes. Like any good fighter it wouldn’t go out on a wimper. Raw Force was one of those sub-classics that kept the Philippines afloat in those dark sullen days.

The men behind Raw Force were Lawrence H. Woolner and Edward D. Murphy. Murphy was a professional boxer and bit part actor, and no stranger to the Philippines. As an actor he had gained valuable on-set experience working on Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968) from director duo Gerardo de León and Eddie Romero and as a producer Woolner was involved with the Antonio Margheriti giallo Naked You Die (1968). Half a decade later he would act as a presenter on Beyond Atlantis (1973). By the eighties he and his brother Bernard had firmly established Dimension Pictures. Under that banner he had produced several Stephanie Rothman features and now the company was looking for a rookie to write/direct a script based on an idea Larry had been kicking around. This project would combine two then-hot commodities that did good business at the grindhouses: martial arts and zombies. It’s almost as if Woolner saw Tsui Hark’s We’re Going to Eat You (1980) and couldn’t wait to do a Filipino-American action/martial arts take on it. There are enough similarities to warrant the comparison and to be mere coincidence. The cast Woolner was able to attract was the stuff cult cinema dreams are made of. To make it even better: Raw Force is just non-stop delicious gory fun.

The members of the Burbank Karate Club - Mike O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney, as Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden) and Gary Schwartz (John Locke) – have reserved a place on the cruise of foul-mouthed gun-fetishist Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell) and his often booze-addled business partner Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday) for their vacation. Also on the boat are vacationing platinum blonde LAPD SWAT member Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner, as Jillian Kessner) and her fellow blonde cousin Eileen (Carla Reynolds). Dodds is in the habit of making confused mildly-racist remarks to his Filipino first mate about opening a Chinese restaurant while soft spoken martial arts expert Go Chin (Rey Malonzo, as Rey King) slaves away in the kitchen. Before setting course for the South China Sea Dodds first embarks on a tour of the nearby ports where the occupants are free to engage in heavy partying. It’s here that Cookie, Eileen, John, and Gary go watch a martial arts competition while others go boozing at the Lighthouse Bar. Mike and Lloyd Davis (Carl Anthony) visit the local brothel (or “cathouse” as they call it here) The Castle Of 1001 Pleasures where madam Mayloo (Chanda Romero) overhears that they’re tourists and hands them a leaflet about Warrior Island.

At the Lighthouse Bar thick German-accented, twitchy-eyed, middle-aged accountant Thomas Speer (Ralph Lombardi) (who sports the fashion-conscious combo of horn rimmed glasses, a white suit, and a Hitler mustache) is engaged in matters pertaining his jade import business when he overhears the American tourists. Seeing an opportunity Speer decides that no matter what the cost the Americans must end up on Warrior Island (an island bypassed by the Japanese during World War II as it, according to local folklore and superstition, was the place where disgraced martial artists commited suicide) as he has an understanding with the head monk (Vic Díaz) to provide warm bodies for his sexslave trading – and transport for his drug trafficking ring. When Speer’s merry goons try to kidnap Captain Dodds at the bar the incident inevitably ends up inciting an all-out brawl.

Speer’s goons are thwarted in their attempt forcing the German to wait it out. Upon nightfall he and his goons assault the ship in numbers leading to massive casualties and the vessel’s fiery destruction. The Americans manage to escape but are forced to make landfall on Warrior Island (whether it’s close to Savage Beach or Taboo Island is, sadly, never made clear). When Mike recognizes one of the slave girls as Mayloo, the proprietress of a brothel he and Lloyd visited on the mainland, it threatens to expose the monks’ true motives. As the situation deteriorates the strangers must learn to work together if they are to keep out of the the clutches of the ruthless mercenaries, the jaws of the sword-wielding undead, and the maws of the cannibalistic monks at the source of all the horror on the island.

And who exactly is in the cast, you wonder? Pulp mainstay Cameron Mitchell, famous around these parts for his roles in Blood and Black Lace (1966), The Toolbox Murders (1978), Supersonic Man (1979), and Blood Link (1982). Jillian Kesner from Evil Town (1977), Starhops (1978), and Naked Fist (1981). Carla Reynolds from Night Games (1980), Bits and Pieces (1985), and Maniac Cop (1988) and Don Gordon Bell from Cleopatra Wong (1978), Naked Fist (1981), Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986), and Red Roses, Call for a Girl (1988). Joe Pagliuso from Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Jerry Bailey from American Ninja (1985). Then there are television actors Geoffrey Binney, Hope Holiday (Mitchell's then-girlfriend), John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, and Robert MacKenzie as well as Filipino exploitation veterans Rey Malonzo, Chanda Romero, and Vic Díaz whose combined filmographies are too extensive to detail. If all of that wasn’t enough there are brief cameos from Carl Anthony from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and The Sinister Urge (1960); Hong Kong martial arts pillar Maggie Li Lin-Lin (李琳琳), Jewel Shepard from H.B. Halicki’s The Junkman (1982), and Return Of the Living Dead (1985); Camille Keaton from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), and Mike Cohen from the Weng Weng spy caper For Your Height Only (1981). Where else are you going to see a cult ensemble like this?

The good part? Raw Force is just as crazy as it sounds, and it’s never apologetic about it. During the Lighthouse Bar brawl one particularly dedicated exotic dancer continues her routine dutifully, in what was either left in intentionally or a case of very sloppy editing, seemingly unfazed by the property destruction happening around her. The boat scenes is made campy by the fact that the water around it is completely still. Evidently all the scenes, both on-deck and off, were filmed stationary. During the onboard party director Murphy spends inordinate amount of time pointing his camera at the various female cast members in advanced stages of undress. In true exploitation fashion each cast member develops a sudden aversion towards fabric and the camera takes a leering look at the heaving bosoms and bottoms of various nubile bit part actresses and no-name extras. The party segment not only will have you counting familar faces, there’s enough female nudity to satiate anyone’s craving. On top of all that, there’s a truly wonderful amount of gags, both visual and otherwise, that can be spotted during this section. Once the group makes landfall on Warrior Island Raw Force pulls out all stops as Murphy rips through action movie clichés as martial artists, cannibalistic monks, and explosions all happen in quick succession. That the piranha attack scene was borrowed liberally from Piranha (1978) makes it even better.

Boasting a star-studded cast of American hopefuls and Filipino veterans as well as a wide array of cult cameos Raw Force is almost guaranteed to have you in stitches. The action direction and fight choreography was handled by Mike Stone with exception of the Lighthouse Bar brawl that Murphy choreographed himself. The only thing Murphy would direct after Raw Force would be Heated Vengeance (1985). Meanwhile he continued acting in bit parts in, among others, the comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987), the crime epic Goodfellas (1990), and the thriller Doppelganger (1993). His claim to fame is playing thirteen different guest roles in as much episodes on Law & Order (1991-2000). Producer and director of photography Frank E. Johnson would go on to do second unit cinematography on Predator (1987). Allegedly the original cut ran about 105 minutes but to get most out of their investment Raw Force was trimmed down to a more grindhouse- and audience-friendly 86 minutes. When, and if, there’s ever going to be a fully restored director’s cut is anyone’s guess. A sequel, purported to have starred Jonathan Winters as the ex-husband of Hope Holiday's character and Mitchell reprising his role as Captain Dodds, was planned (hence the “to be continued” in the credits) but as fate would have it, Woolner tragically passed away some three years later in 1985. Understandably, the promised sequel never materialized. Some things just are better without any sequels. Raw Force is one of those things.