These days James Hong, the prolific Asian-American actor seen in just about every type of film and television show since the mid-fifties, is probably best known for his voicework in KUNG-FU PANDA.
This week a number of blogs are celebrating A WEEK OF HONG, highlighting some of the lesser-known works of this wonderful actor whose smallest roles are often the most memorable in any given show he’s in.
Today, here, we take a look at CHINA GIRL…and CHINA GIRL, two very different films. The first is from 1975, the second from 1987. The sole thing these two disparate films have in common is James Hong as a Chinese-American mob lord.
1975’s CHINA GIRL is proof that Mr. Hong really has appeared in every type of movie as this is actually a hardcore, XXX-rated porn film. If you know anything about the actual history of adult films, though, you’ll know that the mid-seventies was the era when raincoat porn mixed with genuinely artistic and well-made low budget independent films that just happened to have explicit sex in them.
This is actually one of the best of that type of picture. There’s good direction, a well-done score, occasionally striking cinematography, some nice location shooting in San Francisco and a plot that actually makes it seem as though the sex scenes are getting in the way instead of the other way around.
Seventies porn legend Annette Haven stars as a top scientist. Once you suspend your belief to accept that, the rest of the picture is quite enjoyable. Hong, billed as James YOUNG, appears in none of the sex scenes. He’s a British-accented member of Dragon, a criminal organization attempting to get their hands on a secret formula known partially by Annette and partially by her colleague.
The opening scene is a wonderfully atmospheric one shot partly in silhouette as Hong’s character, Chen, arrives on a rain soaked dock to meet a fellow criminal who has a kidnapped man in a sack. Hong….err…Young questions him briefly, then gives the sign and leaves. The other man rolls the bag into the ocean. Cut to the almost James Bond-style opening credits.
Haven’s associate is kidnapped by minions of one Madame Woo, the titular China girl, who works for Chen. He is tortured by Madame Woo until he talks but her brand of torture is hardly traditional. In fact, she tortures with sexual pleasure, injecting her subjects with a chemical that increases their physical enjoyment but prevents them from ever reaching a climax, thus driving them mad.
Hong himself, disguised as an “Engrish” speaking waiter in a Chinese restaurant, arranges Dr. Annette’s capture while her hapless, handsome but perpetually bad-coiffed bf searches for her. He follows the waiter to a fancy hotel and then to Madame Woo’s where Haven is now undergoing the sex torture as four girls rather blandly pleasure her to a nice, vaguely oriental flute score. The musical score for CHINA GIRL, by the way, is done by jazz saxophonist Hadley Calliman who had worked with the great Dexter Gordon. A jazzy bass is brought into the soundtrack as males replace the women onscreen with Annette.
Since this is, in fact, a XXX film, the skinny female scientist with the drawn on eyebrows manages to outlast and exhaust her assailants without revealing her secret. As porn actresses go, Annette Haven is better than most but she still can’t read lines and this is a plot-driven picture.
As they await the arrival of Chen who is said to take pleasure in sadistic torture, the Doctor seduces Madame Woo with the intent of getting her assistance to escape. Meanwhile, the boyfriend follows him to the location with the intent of rescuing her only to be himself captured
Chen tells the enemy spy who wants the formula that he’ll kill both Woo and the doctor to get the final portion. “Do you enjoy watching pain?” he asks. Chen offers Madame Woo the chance to kill herself but she instead takes that chance to shoot him in the back as he walks away. In the confusion, the boyfriend manages to escape and free our heroine, leading to an incongruous punchline ending to what has been a fairly serious film.
Well…not too serious. The maguffin of the formula is never really explained in any depth and the sex scenes go on far too long to keep up with the plot. It’s almost like there were two films here edited together poorly.
Written and directed by Edwin Brown (and produced by his wife), the fact that this is listed on the TCM site may mean that there is, in fact, a version with the sex scenes edited out.
At its best, CHINA GIRL is a good example of the type of low budget filmmaking that was expected to lead to hardcore being mainstreamed by the end of the decade in films. The coming of video during that same period, detoured that and led to more films of just wall-to-wall sex and no plot at all.
The original posters advertise that the “male and female leads” were well known from television shows like HAWAII 5-0. Certainly that description would fit James Hong but not really Pamela Yen who plays Madame Woo and certainly not Annette Haven. With this picture, Hong joined the select group of legit actors to appear in non-sex scenes in porn films. Just prior to CHINA GIRL he had appeared in the prestigious TV play THE MISSSLES OF OCTOBER as UN Secretary-General U Thant. Without missing a beat, he went directly back into TV guest roles and, in time, bigger and bigger roles at long last.
Twelve years later, however, in 1987, he played a role very similar to the one he played in CHINA GIRL…in CHINA GIRL.
1987’s CHINA GIRL was a sort of non-musical remake of WEST SIDE STORY, itself a musical version of Shakespeare’s ROMEO & JULIET. Beautifully photographed in the streets of New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown, this is said to be the favorite film of its director, the controversial Abel Ferrara (MS. 45).
It’s an old story—Tony falls for Tye on the dance floor only he’s Italian and she’s Asian, the title China girl. The Italians don’t like the Chinese and the Chinese don’t like the Italians. And that’s putting it mildly. The big brothers of both characters are big men in the street gangs and Tony’s presence on Chinese turf leads to a rumble and that leads to an endless cycle of getting even with the other side. Very violently.
The local gangsters don’t care for the uncouth behavior of the younger generation. It upsets the age-old uneasy truce between the Chinese and the Italians. James Hong is once again a classy gangster, erudite but intimidating, powerful yet civilized. He meets with his opposite number and they call upon he gang leaders to police themselves and make the problem go away.
Not privy to this, Tony continues to sneak away to see Tye and he begins to see the Chinese as more than subhuman rivals. The older boys don’t want to hear it, though. Tye has similar problems.
The acting is across the board with David Caruso giving a suitable scene-chewing performance and James Russo solid in ostensibly the lead role as Tonys ill-fated big brother. The problem is that Richard Panebianco, almost prettier than his costar Sari Chang, shows little emotion toward his supposed love, even during a mild and awkward sex scene. Sadly, she’s even blander. At least he gets to go a little nuts toward the end at his brother’s funeral.
As must all versions of this particular boy meets girl story, the events don’t end well at all.
Hong has only a few short scenes but each time his class and charisma shine brightly and make his appearances among the most memorable in the production.
The 1987 CHINA GIRL is visually impressive and has an appropriate soundtrack of then contemporary music. Neither it, though, nor the 1975 CHINA GIRL, would be as memorable without our man of the week, James Hong! Villain, hero or innocent bystander, always a class act.
MORE HONG HERE:
Monday April 9th
Fist of B-List - The Dynamite Brothers
From the Depths of DVD Hell - Big Trouble In Little China
Tuesday April 10th
Direct to Video Connoisseur - South Beach Academy
Lost Video Archive - Teen Lust
Wednesday April 11th
She Blogged By Night - Seventh Sin
Lost Video Archive - Cyber Bandits
Thursday April 12th
Booksteve's Library - China Girl
Lost Video Archive - Gladiator Cop
From the Depths of DVD Hell - Balls of Fury
Friday April 13th
Direct to Video Connoisseur - Caged Fury
Lines That Make Things - The A Team (TV episode)
Saturday April 14th
Illogical Contraption - Bloodsport III
Explosive Action - Ninja III: The Domination Lost Video Archive - Blade in Hong Kong