Alternative Style Icon: Jimmy Wang Yu in The Man From Hong Kong

There are things we always want to reclaim from our past, even from its most confused, bittersweet moments. In my case, the thoughtful moments driving home late at night down Santa Monica Boulevard decades ago from an essay-writing extension class at UCLA. With the top down on my coincidentally Australian-built convertible (a deathtrap, a future girlfriend would call it, and refuse to get in), those summer evenings seemed flower-scented, ripe with potential that would go wasted, still and quiet and beautiful in a city that was not mine.

I was taking this after-work class after feeling like I was losing my marbles, wanting to find a way to collect myself after college. College had beaten any confidence in my ability to write for personal expression out of me. I would not rediscover that in that class, in fact not for decades until blogs like No Man Walks Alone reached out to me and I could process and piece back together parts of myself, those disjointed, uncalm, uncollected pieces of myself. At the time, I was young and unmoored, and the station at the lower end of the dial I’d listen to on those drives back reflected that feeling of unreality and detachment. It played everything, ironically or not, everything from the Laverne and Shirley theme to what would have at the time been cutting-edge electronica. And one-hit wonder Jigsaw’s strange “Sky High”, whose refrain “You’ve blown it all sky high” was sung altogether too casually for someone to be expressing the upheaval of their entire life.

I was pleased to rediscover the song playing as the main theme to 1975’s The Man From Hong Kong, whose star Jimmy Wang Yu is today’s Alternative Style Icon. The song’s strangely flip attitude towards destruction works perfectly in this bizarre, bizarrely interesting movie, which ends on the climax of Wang Yu blowing former James Bond George Lazenby and an entire floor of Lazenby’s apartment building to kingdom come. After setting Lazenby (yes, Lazenby himself, in a practical effect that actually did leave him with burns) on fire by kicking him into his open-plan 1970s fireplace…

Lazenby had blown his own career sky high by walking away from a multi-picture Bond film deal to instead star in 1971’s Universal Soldier, a confounding mashup of Easy Rider and The Dogs of War whose chief point of interest is that feminist writer Germaine Greer plays a minor role. Lazenby claims that his friend Bruce Lee was set to star with him in The Man From Hong Kong until Bruce met his mysterious end at the hands of either a Dim Mak death touch or a medication allergy. Jimmy Wang Yu stepped into the role and Lee’s vacant shoes and acquits himself well in all respects except the unfair and unwinnable one of being in the shadow of a deceased legend, deceased so very much larger than life.

The Man From Hong Kong showed how exploitation films could be strangely liberating, indeed subversive. It was a so-called Ozploitation film by dint of its Australian production, going so far as to have its first scene a fight atop sacred landmark Ayers Rock, where a future Mad Max actor actually beats legendary martial artist and fight choreographer Sammo Hung. It also exploited many other period trends:  the Kung Fu, international thriller, and loose cannon cop fads, with Wang Yu a polished Hong Kong police inspector able to charm very white Australian beauties out of their hang-gliding pants and bikinis. Nearly a half century later, moviemaking still is rightfully criticized for emasculating Asian men, yet in this 1970s exploitation film an Asian man got to carry out the old seduction tropes of the regressive, lily-white British spy movie, even if (as Alice Caldwell-Kelly has observed) the characters do engage in racist banter about it.

This is very much a Jimmy Wang Yu showcase. It’s certainly not Lazenby’s fits that stand out in this movie. As my friend Matt Spaiser of The Suits of James Bond has pointed out, Lazenby has to dress the part of a playboy bigwig villain, and wears old playboy clichés like gold-buttoned blazers with draggy 1970s long collars and fat ties, all in combination with the long sideburns and Zapata ‘stache that make him look like a more butch Peter Wyngarde. Wang Yu, instead, makes a deep blue his theme color, first in a rollneck with light salt-and-pepper tweed jacket in his suave arrival scenes in Australia, then as the color of the jumpsuit he wears in a viciously violent car chase and final fight where, as agent of the most chaotic good, he smashes through the windows of Laz’s penthouse apartment. That jumpsuit could have been iconic, were it not eclipsed by the yellow jumpsuit that would turn up in Bruce’s boss fights in Game of Death, released infamously long after Lee had died. In the shadow of the legend, shadows of legend. In contrast, Wang Yu’s dark green corduroy suit that he wears for his first confrontation with Lazenby is iconic and uneclipsed. Despite its 1970s exaggerations of style and details, its material, color and dash are very much contemporary, corduroy being one of the casual materials in which suit designers are trying to lure us out, even if might wear a bit warm for hot girl summer or whatever the current name of this current uncertain, tentative summer is. Perhaps hang gliding should make a comeback, although not in Sydney airspace.

Uncertain and tentative, you do what you can to collect yourself, invest at the time in what you can of yourself, and decades later maybe, maybe, you get somewhere, even if you can never stop looking back.

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