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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.