They Call Her...Cleopatra Wong

Certificate: 18
Running time: 110 mins
Director: Bobby A. Suarez
Starring: Marrie Lee, Franco Guerrero, George Estregan
Genre: Exploitation, Action
Country: Singapore, Philippines

Somewhere someone is printing counterfeit currency so good it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between it and the real thing.  Somewhere someone is planning on floating Asia with this currency in order to cripple the economies of nations and seize control.  Somewhere someone has called Cleopatra Wong to help.  Somewhere someone is going to pay…

Writer/Director Bobby A. Suarez was on the sharp edge of the blade when the Americans moved out and the Filipinos began making their own Exploitation films.  Straight off the back of The Return of the Bionic Boy Suarez casts (again) Marrie Lee to star as Cleopatra Wong – the female equivalent of Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007.

Like The One Armed Executioner Suarez pulls together a genre piece with a deeper message, one filled not just with political difficulties of the day but one that points to the cultural and historical intrusion that Asia has had to bare witness to over the years.  He’s the man to do it too, alongside Romeo Galang he has managed to craft a narrative that not only covers all the codes and conventions of the genre but one that tells the greater story.  The use of the Catholic Church as the base of operations for those trying to flood the Asian market is an interesting one; what’s more interesting is how the racial make-up of the evil organisation is an equal mix of Caucasian and Asian trigger happy henchmen.  The Philippines is a nation of deeply rotten religious beliefs.  Every year Ernesto de la Cruz (or Weng Weng to his admirers) would dress up as Santo Nino in Baclaran for the annual parade.  Whether the use of this location was Suarez attempting to make a statement about the separation of church and state in Marcos’ Philippines is a question lost to time but it does give the film an added level of intrigue that furthers the narrative beyond what is usually offered up in the Exploitation/Action genre.

Visually the film has a natural beauty that to this day goes undiminished.  Whether it’s the lavish countryside locations, the cinematography or the heavily stylish costume design there is something effortlessly and universally cool about They Call Her…Cleopatra Wong.  In another time under other circumstances would have made Marrie Lee an Exploitation icon in the same way that Coffy or The Big Doll House did for Pam Grier.  In recent years that fame would have cooled and she'd be opening Walmart's across the country but she still would have had it.  The action sequences are incredibly well choreographed and executed.  The flood of Nuns armed with AK47s spitting out rounds in the grounds of the white marble church is a sight to behold and surely one that has been assimilated into many many films since then (see Ms. 45 and Nude Nuns with Big Guns to name but two).

Marrie Lee is a bona fide revelation, her career is a tale of what would have been as she had been cast to star alongside Patrick Wayne and Antonia Fargas in Charlie Chan’s Number 1 Daughter when the Screenwriter’s Guild Strike of 1981 shut this and all other projects down.  When it was resolved the actress who performed so many of her own stunts, many death defying and in this film, had wed which led to her retiring from what would have certainly been an amazing career.  Many actresses in these strong female leads have one element or another.  They are either highly physical and combative or more feminine and seductive.  Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy would cause many to wince as she seemed incapable of throwing a convincing punch but Marrie Lee had both qualities in abundance.  How amazing it would have been to have seen her starring in her own U.S based Exploitation franchise showcasing the amazing on screen abilities that the camera only had to try to capture.  Franco Guerrero (One Armed Executioner) is also unsurprisingly incredibly strong in Cleopatra Wong.  The review of the One Armed Executioner detailed his physicality on screen; he is an incredibly powerful screen athlete and a highly compelling actor.  Some of the supporting cast are a little suspect, the Chief of Interpol being prime suspect, but rather than take anything away from the film it only serves to highlight how Filipino cinema at the time was straddling between amateur and professional and how impressive They Call Her...Cleopatra Wong really is.

They Call Her…Cleopatra Wong is the unsurpassed jewel of the Female Asian Exploitation film, a rich and entertaining film that only gets cooler with age.


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