A charmingly of-its-time spy flick that attentively piles on coincidence, complications and melodrama…
Forced to flee Manchuria by Japan’s 1931 conquest, young maiden Li Tsui Ying (Pai Hung) has to be a travelling street performer doing song, dance and comedy to the accompaniment of her father (Ko You-Min) to eke out a living. Upon making a mistake in front of the crowd, her father starts beating her relentlessly to “apologize” to them, until a young man at the name of Chou Ling-yun (Ko Chun-Hsiung, The Bride Who Returned from Hell) intervenes. Chou can’t believe that anyone would do that to his own daughter so publicly, until he’s told by the old man that the devil made him do it — the invading Japanese devils as they were called, that is. With a full-scale invasion in 1937, Li’s father is killed as they flee to Shanghai, leaving Li the last surviving member of the family. On his dying breath, papa tells Li that she must avenge him (to expect vengeance upon an empire like that from someone who hasn’t done anything beyond street performances, he sure has a lot of confidence in his daughter!)
Fast-forward a few years later. Ms. Li is now a popular singer at one of Shanghai’s most lavish hotels, The International. She catches the eye of the affluent, late-middle-aged Minister Chen Chao-chun (Tien Ching): “Japan’s most trusted Chinese citizen” (could there possibly be a more damning compliment by implication for the audience?) whom she doesn’t exactly like. But not so much by pure happenstance as like-minded ideals and drive, Ms. Li also runs across Mr. Chou again, as Chou also fled thereupon the fall of Beijing to stay with his uncle.
The two soon fall in love, taking romantic excursions in Shanghai. But happenstance quickly shifts into heartbreak, as Ms. Li (did anyone tell you she’s also a spy now?) is shocked to get a call informing her that she needs to abandon her relationship with Chou and accept the advances of Minister Chen — even if they go as far as an engagement ring. Then Chou is even more shocked to later find Ms. Li — no, Mrs. Li — now living in the same mansion as him….and as his (younger-than-him) aunt! (Did anyone tell you Minister Chen also happens to be Chou’s uncle?)
Meanwhile, a special resistance group led by “Heaven #1” sent from Chongqing (the temporary capital after the fall of then-capital Nanjing) is going into full action, assassinating a Japanese ambassador at a lavish dinner. But their main target is collaborator Minister Chen, who in turn is actively sending men led by the loyal, bumbling spy Capt. Wan (Hu Tou) and informing the Japanese to catch resistance leaders. In other news at the mansion, Minister Chen’s girlish daughter Ai-li (Liu Ching) is developing feelings for cousin Chou after he’s already deemed Mrs. Li completely off limits for #1 being married, #2 being married to a TRAITOR (yes he also lives with Chen, but his being related wasn’t his fault), and #3 being his Aunt. So we’re left with one big, happy family with a tangled web of romance, at least two spies in the house, and others with opposing loyalties who may be plotting against each other (sometimes without even knowing it.)
By 1964 with the buzz around the 3rd 007 movie Goldfinger, pretty much the whole world had caught spy movie fever (with the general exception of The Second World aka communist bloc which often suppressed it as one of the most obvious excesses of capitalism.) Both regarding watching James Bond flicks and doing their own versions, no matter how poor or just in the process of developing a place and its film industry was, in terms relative to their wealth most would splurge on the genre. Even nearby industries in Asia had started some of their most lavish productions they’d ever had when embarking on this genre (see The Kamikaze Guy, which somewhat switches this movie’s dynamics with Japanese spying in Taiwan.) So in a genre defined by the lavish, the flashy and the outlandish, The Best Secret Agent — as Taiwan’s first major spy movie — is something of an anomaly with a budget that clearly isn’t that big and no big explosions (they manage some little ones though), jet-setting, speedboat chases or anything of that sort.
The movie makes up for its lack of technical prowess and budgetary spectacle well enough with natural and cultural varieties, whether it’s the glamorously embroidered qipaos and other costumes for Pai, or the pleasing tranquillity established between the traditional music and scenery as with the leads’ walk through a garden. The action is neither frequent nor spectacular, but is built up with a good sense of purpose. So if viewers are able to accept Agent as an almost thoroughly of-its-time-and-place product in its constraints, they will end up also being able to appreciate it most from that very same attribute.
There are several other ways Agent deviates from the (rest of the world’s) unwritten rules on modern popular spy cinema. First, while 60s-generation Western spy movies made it a point not to be overtly political (with most opting for fictional non-state actors or transnational villains like SPECTRE), Agent wears its Japan-smashing mood on its sleeve and features patriotic songs usually sung by Li, though part of that is also because it’s a partial remake of an immediate post-war Shanghai film. Also, while this genre was known to get out of its way to avoid anything loosely resembling sentimentality or mushiness (or in terms of their usually-male heroes, commitment), the characters here veer far into the opposite extreme.
Pai’s performance is a hoot as a woman proudly acting as a cold-hearted, openly endogamous vixen — doing as well with the persona in her walk, posture and even recline as in her speech — when actually having a very vulnerable side. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes beyond curious how quickly she switches from one disposition to the other; meaning she’s either very inconsistent in the bluffing skills, or she has quite the Mrs. Hyde side. Regardless, seeing the frequent attention-grabbing changes in her wardrobe are just as fun as the ones in her demeanour, making it known why she would spearhead the genre with several more Taiwanese spy movies including three sequels for this one (it’s an unusual fact that many and probably the majority of both Taiwan and Hong Kong’s major 60s spy films had female leads.)
Things can get rockier with Ko, who while entertaining in his own way, allows himself to get completely lost in his character’s outpourings. He bawls and moans considerably more intensely than the heroine, and with a more deliberately theatrical acting style (including his movements.) But the certified drama queen Chou comes off as is not fully the actor’s fault, as he also gets the sappier dialogue. It’s hard to even tell whether one moment where he literally backs down tilting from Li as she gets in his face with lover’s quarrel grievances is intended to be comical — but either way it truly is. This matter goes beyond romantic dialogue too, with the way Chou slowly turns his head to the sky with burning anger and renders one simple word into pure melodrama with, “JA-PAN-NESE!”
I thought 1970s Bollywood was unmatched in its reliance on coincidence; but no one really knows coincidental cinema until they’ve seen 60s Taiwan, which tended to thrive on it in addition to melodrama. Since spy movies no matter where they were from were also prone to coincidence, that element is not too surprisingly amplified to the second power here; yet that turns out to be the movie’s strongest asset. While neither winning many points for subtlety nor plausibility, Agent weaves together an astoundingly intricate web of entanglements (a couple which I didn’t even mention) to drive its main conflict and plot.
Melodrama and coincidence compliment and enhance each other, leading to amusingly quaint situations and dialogue alike (“Why are you always avoiding me?” “Because you are my aunt!”) One scene comes to have three characters sneaking around the same mansion room trying to get the lowdown on each other or their allies. Truth be told, all of the spy leads seem awfully emotional to be considered as trusted secret agents — then again, it’s no more plausible that uncontrollably horny and materialistic men would regularly make the most dependable spies either.
Even with so many entanglements, Agent is surprisingly clear in presenting real themes of torn loyalties three times over for the political, familial and romantic varieties. Traditional Chinese culture quite strictly said never to go against one’s family (especially to a point that their lives are endangered); but also-mighty Chinese politics (KMT or CCP) said never to go against one’s nation or race (it’s notable that one of the most severe epithets in Chinese is said as 漢奸 [in Mandarin] Hanjian — not exactly traitor to the nation but “traitor to the Han race”); but universal popular movie culture said never to go against love and what the heart wants. But the leads are thrown into such an imbroglio that not even close to all of those feelings and ethics can be fully adhered to.
Unless they were especially considering children, however, I can’t be sure if the makers of the movie were just winking at the audience with how bloody obvious they made the secret identity of Heaven #1 (yes, there should be two choices, but a fairly early scene pretty much tosses one away.) So it’s actually a lot more difficult and a little more fun to guess where the characters’ personal struggles will go than figuring out their secrets or most of the results of the anti-Imperial struggles. Still, it can be said that Li does get surprisingly and amusingly hardcore in how far she’ll go to achieve her goals (with the wiles, the sometimes indeed nasty deception and when necessary, direct means.)
For anyone who’s never seen a 1960s Taiwanese movie (before the exploitation-heavy 70s and the art/New Wavy 80s), The Best Secret Agent is about as representative of an example as can be found. From everything I’ve seen at least, it features all four of the strongest common elements of the period’s popular cinema — melodrama, coincidence, musical numbers and nationalism — in harmonious droves for a tellingly and thoroughly localised take on a global genre craze.
“You are nothing but a scammer! You have swindled my innocent heart! I — hate — you!”
The Best Secret Agent screens online as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh 2021, running from 25 to 31 October. To find more information and purchase tickets for screenings visit the official website.
While established actors locally, this movie’s main stars would have their most famous outings outside Taiwan decades later in international projects. Pai Hung would become best known westward for her final role before retiring, in the 1972 Taiwan-HK cult kung fu movie The Prodigal Boxer (though she’s more recently gotten a little more festival exposure from the bizarre 1961 children’s movie Fantasy of Deer Warrior.) Far later in his career, Ko Chun-Hsiung would again star as a rival to the Japanese Empire in Shohei Imamura’s 1987 Zegen — only that time in a pimping competition.