Arts & Entertainment

How Hollywood Movie Wonder Women Was Shot In Manila

Plot: An insurance agent investigates the kidnapping of a jai alai player involving a female death squad called Wonder Women.
IMAGE General Film Corporation
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Throughout the back half to the 20th century, the Philippines was an established location for low- to medium-budget B movies. With scenic vistas and beaches and a cooperative, English-speaking workforce, an ecosystem existed that allowed scores of Hollywood productions to quickly shoot and then give the cast and crew a few days off at the beach. 

Photo by General Film Corporation.
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Most of the films shot here utilized the aforementioned scenic vistas and beaches. However, 1973’s Wonder Women, directed by Robert Vincent O'Neil and starring Nancy Kwan (who I previously covered here), is unique in that it was shot in the city of Manila itself. The movie, which is about an insurance agent played by Ross Hagen investigating the kidnapping of a jai alai player involving a female death squad, presents a lot of uniquely Filipino aesthetics, besides a jeepney fight. 

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A fixer named Lapu-Lapu helps the American hero.

One idea that was unusual to American audiences, but not to Asians is that of the fixer, a local who can take you around, keep you safe, and get you what you need. The fixer and the fixer economy are important in less organized parts of the world that require haggling and protection. 

Photo by General Film Corporation.
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In Wonder Women, our fixer is affectionately named Lapu-Lapu and starts out as Hagen’s private jeepney driver. Lapu-Lapu performs a number of fixer duties, acting as Hagen’s translator, guiding him through a number of jeepney shootouts, and helping him locate a fisherman at a cockfight (to be discussed further). 

Lapu-Lapu is played by the great Vic Diaz, who Quentin Tarantino refers to as “The Filipino Peter Lorre.” He was a regular player in many of the foreign films shot in the Philippines, notably in a string of pictures in the early ’70s for Cirio Santiago and Eddie Romero, both whom at the time were pumping out Vietnam movies, women-in-prison films, and mysterious island pictures for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures and New World Pictures. These films were shot cheaply in the Philippines and then released in the United States, exposing Diaz to a large international audience. 

A cockfight leads to the Female Death Squad and actual fighting.

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As previously mentioned, a highlight of the film is when Hagen and Lapu-Lapu are directed to a cockfight to hunt down a fisherman with clues to the female death squad. Foreign audiences were most likely shocked by the bird-on-bird violence, but the scenes are handled with delicacy. In fact, the cockfighting is hardly shown at all. The focus of the scene is on the environment itself, the deluge of people in the fight, and the confusion and excitement emanating from it. 

Photo by General Film Corporation.
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Photo by General Film Corporation.

There are a handful of fight sequences and they are surprisingly non-judgmental. They’re well lit, shown in slow motion, and set to somber piano music, giving them the feel and scope of a renaissance painting, an objet d'art. Regardless of the nature of the cockfighting itself, it is without a doubt an indelible part of Filipino history and culture and deserves to be shown as such. 

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Makati (before Glorietta), a polo club, and a Chinese cemetery make an appearance.

Throughout the film are a number of Makati locations, most notably the InterContinental Hotel. As Ross Hagen pulls up, the camera pans around and gives a glimpse of the area pre-Glorietta. It is not yet a mess of apartment buildings, malls, and traffic but is, in fact, full of open air with hardly anything around it, far more peaceful than how the area stands today. 

Photo by General Film Corporation.
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Photo by General Film Corporation.

Another notable location, which may need confirmation, is the opening scene, which I believe takes place at the Manila Polo Club. It shows the Wonder Women kidnapping a polo player mid-game, as well as swimming naked in a pool, which may be found in the townhouses behind the Manila Polo Club. The houses feature white pools and massive gray bricks that are common in many Filipino homes.  

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Another location is the city of death, a Chinese cemetery, where Hagen and Lapu-Lapu go to find a character named Wonton Charlie and end up in a climatic tricycle fight. While again, I cannot confirm its location, it is most likely Manila Chinese Cemetery. 

A jeepney pulls up at a swanky hotel and makes heads turn.

Most notable of all is perhaps the large crowds that gather when they shoot in public spaces. People’s heads turn as they see Hagen and Diaz filming a Big American Movie at the airport. Then, when Hagen arrives at the Intercon, heads turn again as a private jeepney pulls up to the lobby of the expensive hotel, an admittedly unusual sight.

Photo by General Film Corporation.

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Minute but recognizable details are seen throughout, such as lace curtains, older security guards stationed at wood desks, and wooden basketball courts. While Wonder Women may not necessarily be about the Philippines, its director does not shy away from the unique texture the city brings and, in fact, integrates it into the film, allowing Manila to play itself. 


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Enrico Po
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