Film Review: Entertaining Romp ‘They Call Him Chop Suey’ Is a Cut Above Brucesploitation5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Chop Suey, a kitchen assistant who is a fan of Bruce Lee, finds himself embroiled in a battle against an extortion gang when his aunt is unable to pay the protection fees in time.
Director: Jun Gallardo
Cast: Ramon Zamora, Romeo Rivera, Jennifer Kaur, Pugak, Nick Romano, Eva Linda, Arnold Mendoza, Patria Plata
Runtime: 94 minutes
In the decades following Bruce Lee’s death in 1973, a wave of martial arts films starring Lee lookalikes emerged throughout Asia. Produced by notable Filipino producer and director Bobby Suarez and directed by Jun Gallardo, 1975’s They Call Him Chop Suey is perhaps the most well-known ‘Brucesploitation’ film from the Philippines.
While Suarez himself described the film as a comedy-martial arts spoof, They Call Him Chop Suey is by no means any less inferior to its inspirations. The film stars the late Ramon Zamora, affectionately dubbed as the “Bruce Lee of the Philippines”. Equally known for his comedy work on popular sketch comedy TV show Super Laff-In, Zamora brings an incarnation of the martial arts icon that is far from a pale imitation.
He stars as Chop Suey, a kitchen assistant who idolises Bruce Lee. Chop Suey and his grandfather make ends meet working at a Chinese restaurant, but he is often distracted by daydreams where he dispatches scores of goons like his hero. His daydreams soon morph into reality when, following his grandfather’s sudden death, Chop Suey moves to Manila’s Chinatown to help out at his aunt’s restaurant but finds it under siege by an extortion gang.
They Call Him Chop Suey, like its leading character, pays faithful homage to Bruce Lee’s films, but goes far and beyond simply riding the ‘Brucesploitation’ wave to stand tall on its own. The entertaining mix of martial arts finesse and comedic chops Zamora brings plays out spectacularly in the film. It’s a performance that is well worth the price of admission alone. But fans of exploitation films especially will absolutely love Chop Suey.
From how its action is shot to the outrageous twists and turns the story takes, the film is quintessential of its genre and era. The stationary camera in Chop Suey, more often than not, fails to capture all the ongoing action. Awkward cuts and cutaways to reaction shots from another room in between punches feel hokey, especially through modern eyes.
Yet, it doesn’t feel right to characterise Chop Suey as a ‘so bad, it’s good’ B-movie either as its synopsis and over-the-top plot would suggest. The film language in Chop Suey may feel archaic but the storytelling remains solid — albeit still flawed in some areas.
Above all, Chop Suey is obsessed with bringing audiences a fantastic experience. Action scenes, somehow coming off as both choreographed and impromptu, move at an absorptive pace of ‘go, go, go’ only slowing down (sometimes literally) to emphasise the impact behind every roundhouse. The film features a depth of representation modern films would kill for, with the multinational, multicultural cast all delivering solid performances.
The comedy duo of Zamora and Pugak (another Filipino comedy icon), who plays comic relief sidekick Siew Mai, never fails to bring levity to the film. Romeo Rivera, portraying the sinister mob boss/restaurant owner Jackson, thrives as a slimy antagonist, giving the story’s fantastical escalations enough plausibility without taking away from any of its playfulness.
It all forms a thrilling adventure not too far off from a young man’s daydream, featuring plenty of excitable moments to constantly keep the escapism alive, including unnecessary nudity and imaginative gadgets that would make even James Bond jealous.
However, it’s this same fantastical tone that leads to the film taking ridiculous leaps between plot points, which can be more head-scratching than entertaining. There are clear endeavours to tell a cohesive story with plenty of visual cues and throwbacks to keep audiences engaged. But there are just far too many dizzying turns along the way, exposing gaping plot holes that even the film’s sheer scale and action-packed scenes cannot cover up.
They Call Him Chop Suey is, overall, far more tightly constructed than its exploitation film label would unjustly imply. Being a product of its time brings up just as many bothering quirks for the modern eye as its charming quaintness. Beyond simply an enjoyable romp, there are several aspects of the film that will perk academic interests as well.
An international co-production designed for mass international appeal featuring a multinational cast and a respectable film budget — it’s what dreams are made of for filmmakers and film industries in the region today. And amidst all the wild fun in Chop Suey, it can be oh-so-delightfully crazy to realise that this was the norm decades ago.