Foxbat [狐蝠] (1977)
AKA Operation Foxbat, Nato Code Name MIG-25
Starring Henry Silva, Vonetta McGee, Rik Van Nutter, Roy Chiao, James Yi Lui, Melvin Wong, Wong Hung, Nick Lam Wai-Kei, Phillip Chan Yan-Kin, Tong Chung-San
Directed by Po-Chih Leong
Expectations: High. I liked Jumping Ash, and this one’s on Blu-ray!
In 1976, Po-Chih Leong co-directed Jumping Ash, a film often cited as the beginning of the Hong Kong New Wave. The film was a big hit, and so the following year Leong made Foxbat. The film is interesting in many ways, perhaps most because it is a Hong Kong production shot in English and featuring an international cast. This sort of thing had been done prior by Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, but those I’ve seen have all been co-productions with a Western-based film company. Foxbat was made fully independently, so it carries none of the baggage that studio-based co-productions generally have; it is a film with a singular vision executed with style and confidence. Like Jumping Ash it exhibits many hallmarks of the Hong Kong New Wave films, specifically a noted influence from European and American films, location shooting, and the multi-tonality that would come to define Hong Kong filmmaking during the ’80s and ’90s.
The story of Foxbat is based in current events of the time, taking the defection of Russian pilot Viktor Belenko as its jumping off point. On September 6, 1976, Belenko landed his MiG-25 Foxbat jet at the Hakodate Airport in Hokkaido, Japan. The film begins here as well, showing us the defection with scenes shot at the actual Hakodate Airport where it happened. From here the fiction begins, with multiple groups desiring the chance to study the Russian fighter jet. The CIA send Mike Saxon (Henry Silva), a James Bond-style operative, and he captures all the pertinent info via his photographic fake eye. He hides the film inside a candy so it can pass unsuspected through customs, but things get hairy when a goofy Chinese cook, Cheung (James Yi Lui) mistakenly eats the candy!
This unfortunate ingestion happens at about the halfway mark of the movie, and it’s also the hinge between the two halves. The first half is more talky, setting up all the factions and drawing them together. It’s a little slow and without urgency during the espionage drama, but there is action sprinkled here and there. When Cheung eats the candy, the entire film shifts into a desperate chase to capture him and remove the film from his stomach. Long chase scenes through the Hong Kong streets kept me riveted, and when night fell and the hunt moved to foot, the tension only increased as Cheung made his way through a crowded street market (where Samuel Hui’s theme song to 1976’s smash-hit The Private Eyes can be heard on a radio). The second half effortlessly delivers its action alongside effective drama and comedy, and I imagine anyone who loves multi-tonal films will enjoy this one, as well. I re-watched the film a couple of days later with Po-Chih Leong’s commentary, and I should note that the entire film played better on a second go-round, with lots of intricacies and beats that I previously missed revealing themselves during the opening half.
Foxbat is a Hong Kong film, but it rarely feels anything like the usual cinema of the region. I’m sure this helped it to reach the Top 10 at the Hong Kong box office, outperforming every Shaw Brothers film except Executioners from Shaolin and Clans of Intrigue. Only within the film’s car-based action scenes is the Hong Kong production evident, as only in Hong Kong can you stage a chase scene involving a double-decker bus and an ambulance on busy streets without any sort of permits. Foxbat also purposely avoids kung fu fights to further distance itself from traditional Hong Kong films, lending the film a more international feel. This also delivers the added benefit of not having to worry about English-speaking actors performing ugly martial arts! 😀 There’s a conscious effort to always keep the film exciting and fresh, so each scene of action always offers something different from the last. A ludicrous fight between Henry Silva and a sumo wrestler recalls the bathhouse setting of Thunderball, and truly must be seen to be believed. Speaking of Thunderball, director Terence Young worked as a script consultant on Foxbat, and some for reason has since been erroneously referred to as the film’s co-director.
On his commentary, Po-Chih Leong mentions that the budget for Foxbat was very high for the time in Hong Kong, roughly $3 million dollars. This, coupled with the location shooting really makes Foxbat stand out from the crowd. I’m not sure that the film will play as well to American audiences just looking for an espionage thriller, but within the context of 1977 Hong Kong, it’s quite the achievement. I wonder if Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan are fans of this film, because the basic setup of Mr. Nice Guy, involving a Chinese cook who’s in over his head and being chased, is similar… not to mention that we meet both Jackie’s character and Cheung in Foxbat while they demonstrator the technique of twirling dough to make noodles. In any case, Foxbat should be a film on Hong Kong fans’ radar, specifically those interested in the Hong Kong New Wave or Po-Chih Leong’s filmography. It also features Phillip Chan and Melvin Wong in very early roles!