FROM THE VAULT: 1969
Starring: Gregory Peck, Francisca Tu, Keye Luke
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Gregory Peck was one of Hollywood's most mild-mannered, gentlemanly and morally upstanding actors. Not at all the type you might expect to be burned in effigy in Hong Kong, or anywhere else for that matter. But this, according to the liner notes that come with this new DVD release of cold war thriller The Chairman, is exactly what happened here in November 1968. What's more, 'a fake bomb was set off on a statue of Queen Victoria and a warning issued that it would be a real one next time if the crew set foot in Hong Kong'.
These claims are backed up by a Time magazine article from the period, which quotes an unnamed local communist newspaper as saying that the filmmakers were inviting 'very serious consequences [by] insulting the Cultural Revolution and provoking 700 million Chinese people'. According to the same article, the Hong Kong government subsequently withdrew permission for filming. But it was all much ado about very little.
Based on a novel by Jay Richard Kennedy, the film's plot has an American scientist visiting a former colleague (veteran Chinese actor Keye Luke) on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution in order to steal the code for a synthetic enzyme that can make crops grow in any climate or environment. His trip is sanctioned by the Chinese government, which needs help with the project but is unaware of his covert task. While there, he meets Mao Zedong (played by Conrad Yama), and witnesses some of the zealous excesses of the Red Guard.
Director J. Lee Thompson did film several scenes in Hong Kong, supposedly in secret, and there are some nice shots of the harbour, Kai Tak airport, and other locations. There's also some rarely seen newsreel footage of the 1967 riots. Several Chinese character actors put in brief appearances, notably Anthony Chin, Robert Lee (the Star Ferry officer and the Nam Kok barman, respectively, from The World of Suzie Wong), and the incredibly prolific Burt Kwouk (he was in several James Bond and Pink Panther movies). Unusual in that it focuses on China instead of Russia as the cold war threat, and has some believable and even heroic Chinese characters, The Chairman makes for interesting viewing, especially for a Hong Kong audience, even if it does skirt the edges of believability from time to time, especially towards the end.
The extras: Several scenes, a couple containing brief nudity, were cut from the American print and these, with some already seen, are included in a strange 17-minute 'mini-film' which tells the whole story in abbreviated form. Lee Pfeiffer and Eddie Friedfeld provide a commentary that has more than its fair share of errors. The Mandarin Oriental is mistakenly identified as the Peninsula (check the hotel rooftop point-of-view shots of Kowloon), and the man pointed out as being Burt Kwouk is actually Eric Young. Perhaps the biggest gaff comes when Pfeiffer - after giving a confident stock synopsis of the Cultural Revolution - wonders why Mao Zedong is always called 'Mao', but Hitler is never referred to as 'Adolf'. These two have done commentaries for several Fox Cinema Classics DVDs recently (all of which appear in the trailers section), and they seem to be overextending themselves just a little. The widescreen-enhanced transfer and stereo sound are both fine, and the above-mentioned liner notes supplement the film nicely.