If there was a place you could consider “Paradise Island” for exploitation filmmaking, it had to be the Philippines. From the late ’60s well into the mid ’80s, filmmakers in search of opulent surroundings and thrift-conscious resources for their cheap productions could go there and make the most meager budget stretch for miles.
Roger Corman was probably the prime producer who benefited from this state of affairs, making countless women in prison and sexploitation/action hybrids in collaboration with native filmmakers, but a few other enterprising souls got in on the action. A particularly fine example is Wonder Women, a glorious quickie that brought together a few savvy U.S. b-movie vets – director Robert O’Neill, distributor Arthur Marks, star Ross Hagen – with all the best that the Philippines had to offer such exploitation mavens.
The plot basically ransacks everything from Ian Fleming to dime-store detective novels to Sax Rohmer for inspiration, coming up with something that is like a ’70s men’s adventure paperback brought to life. Mike Harber (Hagen) is talked into going to Manila to hunt down a missing sportsman. Of course, he’s immediately in danger because he doesn’t know he’s on the trail of Dr. Tsu (Nancy Kwan), a femme fatale/mad scientist who is harvesting virile bodies to sell organs and body parts to a wealthy clientele. She’s got a fortress-like compound and an all-femme hit squad who steals bodies and silences enemies. Cue an array of punch-ups, explosions, comic book science and even a little “brain sex.”
As the above synopsis suggests, this one’s got everything. O’Neill kicks off the film with a delirious montage of Dr. Tsu’s femme-force kung-fu-ing and kidnapping victims set to pulsating funk music and never looks back. From there, you get detective-as-secret-agent hijinks that exploit every exotic setting Manila has to offer (even a cockfighting arena) as it dishes out action every few minutes. O’Neill’s direction takes maximum advantage of the varied visual textures the Philippines has to offer (kudos to Ricardo Davis for snazzy, colorful photography) and keeps the pacing nice and snappy. Carson Whitsett’s relentlessly grooving score enhances the film’s distinctly ’70s pulp flair.
Wonder Women doesn’t have the cash to pull off its Bond movie elements – the surgery room looks like a disco and the doctor’s failed experiments look like they escaped from an Al Adamson flick – but the film does pull of some impressive stunts, particularly in an epic car chase that destroys everything from a fruit cart to a traffic booth as it sends stunt people flying through restaurant windows and off of bridges. There’s also a fun fight scene where Hagen has to fend off De Aragon’s martial arts as she destroys his hotel room. In comparison to highlights like that, any shortcomings just add a little funky color to the proceedings.
Finally, the cast is tons of fun. Hagen had a hand in writing this script and he has a blast acting out all his Sam Spade/James Bond fantasies as he swaggers through the streets of Manila. In comparison, Kwan does a nice job playing her over-the-top characterization with a poker face and De Aragon and Collins seem to be having fun a-plenty kicking butt while dressed in mini-dresses. Even better, Sid Haig pops up (with hair!) as Dr. Tsu’s foppish money man and Filipino flick mainstay Vic Diaz adds a little comic flair as Mike’s resourceful jitney driver.
Simply put, Wonder Women is a prime example of the fun that ’70s Philippines-set exploitation cinema has to offer cult film fanatics. It’s colorful, eye-popping, fast and makes thrift a virtue in its pursuit of cheap thrills. May the b-movie gods bless all involved.