An Introduction to Bobby Suarez11 min readReading Time: 8 minutes
Living in the Internet Age, it has never been easier to connect with just about anyone else in the world. With the march of progress, it seems reasonable to conclude that the current moment should be when international and regional film cooperations are the most entrenched.
Enter Filipino film producer, director and screenwriter Bobby Suarez, the man behind several international hit movies in the 1970s. He is perhaps most well known as the director of the cult film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, cited by Quentin Tarantino as a key inspiration for the Kill Bill character.
On the surface, Suarez’s films are definitely of its era and are based around the dominant genres of the time, namely spy thrillers and martial arts flicks, peppered with a healthy dosing of violence, nudity, suggestive content. While the films may be easily dismissed as lowbrow, what is of key interest is the depth of international collaborations both behind and in front of the camera, and how his films are almost tailormade for the purpose of being hits in the broader international market. His films are transnational in every sense of the word.
It’s a sharp contrast from today’s regional film landscape, where while co-productions remain commonplace, their intentions have seemingly skewed away from the international profit-making successes Suarez reached for. With Indonesia’s The Raid probably being the most notable exception in recent years, regional films that have found international footing are, by and large, of arthouse cinema, where there tend to be difficulties translating the critical acclaim received in festival circuits to box office figures.
The takeaway from Suarez’s career, however, shouldn’t be that regional co-productions should orientate towards exploitation cinema or bandwagon on international film trends to find success. Compared to today’s filmmakers, Suarez had the advantage of Hollywood trends and hits being far less costly to emulate with a smaller degree of disparity film equipment-wise compared to today.
Instead, this introduction to the late Bobby Suarez is more of a celebration of his always-optimistic vision for cooperation and how, in so many ways, his films are deceivingly ahead of their time in terms of intent.
Who is Bobby Suarez?
Born during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines in World War 2, Roberto “Bobby” A. Suarez’s early years were tremendously difficult, having to support his sick mother and three young siblings. After his mother passed, he and his siblings grew up in an orphanage.
Suarez would attain a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce while being employed as a janitor-messenger for the Philippine Branch of Arthur Rank Film Distribution, where he rose up the ranks to become the company’s assistant sales manager in 1963.
Two years later, he became the Sales and Marketing Director for Fortune Films, before venturing into Hong Kong to establish Intercontinental Film Distributors. Over there, he produced several Chinese movies and acquired Far Eastern rights for international movies co-produced by Italian, French and German companies, dubbing them in English if they are commercially viable before distributing them to international markets.
Forming key friendships and partnerships along the way, Suarez would head back to the Philippines in 1977 to establish BAS Films International, where he would produce, direct, and write hit films and sell their rights to all corners of the world, including the hard-to-penetrate North American market.
His contributions to both the Philippines and the region at large have been recognised through the various awards he received in his later life, including the Ciriaco Santiago Memorial Award for introducing Filipino-produced movies in the international market. In 2010, Bobby Suarez passed at the early age of 67 after a series of heart attacks and a kidney operation.
The Films of Bobby Suarez: Filmmaking in 1970s and 1980s Philippines
To cut costs on location and production, American films, mostly of exploitation cinema, found a second home in the Philippines in the 1960s and 1970s. The archipelago was the scenic and exotic backdrop for countless films by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. The political climate at the time created a peculiar contrast between these overseas productions and domestic films.
Domestically, “bomba” films, or erotic films, flooded cinemas since their emergence in the 1960s but their popularity would be quelled by 1972 when martial law clamped down on provocative films (the genre would live on but features way less explicit content). However, it was business as usual for American exploitation films filming in the Philippines, where infamous sexploitation films such as Night of the Cobra Woman and The Big Bird Cage were shot. It was also in the preceding years that ushered in the second golden age of Philippine cinema, which saw the rise of acclaimed filmmakers, such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, and their social-realist films.
Bobby Suarez launched his filmmaking career in 1972 amidst this attention-grabbing bookmark in Filipino film history. Although not in the same heights as in the decade prior, exploitation films, such as the works of Cirio Santiago and Eddie Romero, remained popular domestically. Yet despite creating films in the same genre, Bobby Suarez largely remained unknown at home and only gained attention abroad.
The Films of Bobby Suarez: An Unrelenting Focus on the International Market
Throughout the 1960s on his overseas trips, Suarez formed friendships with prolific film distributors in Europe, where deals were struck proliferating his films throughout the continent via television, video and the big screen. It seems that it is no coincidence that the 4K restoration of Suarez’s most well-known film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong (now screening at the Oldham Theatre) is made possible by release prints from Europe.
Suarez returned home from Hong Kong in 1977, partnering with Malaysian Mohamed Ashraf and Singaporean wrestling-promoter-turned-film-producer Sunny Lim to start BAS Films International. The film studio aimed to “revive the film industry in Singapore and Malaysia” and to enter the Hong Kong and American markets.
Suarez’s philosophy to filmmaking remained unchanged throughout his career, designing films with the purpose of being hits overseas even if it comes at the expense of a domestic appeal. He was behind over two dozen films with an overwhelming majority of titles riding on American pop culture trends.
Be it Brucesploitation with They Call Him Chop Suey, or actioners on Vietnam War veterans like American Commandos, Suarez’s films, despite being produced in East Asia, would not have felt out of place side-by-side Western contemporaries — at least when judged by the artworks on movie posters and VHS covers. To ease the link, film promotional materials would often directly reference their influences: “Deadlier than Shaft!”, “Faster than the Six Million Dollar Man”.
Contrary to domestic contemporaries, Suarez’s language of choice for his films was English instead of Tagalog. Beyond the popular genres tackled, his films are decidedly transnational with their multinational casts and crews. The idea of a national cinema — films that are distinctly from a nation — was completely discarded in favour of creating an action world that is difficult to pinpoint on the map. This is particularly the case with Bionic Boy, They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong and Dynamite Johnson.
Multinational characters hop around Asia taking on multinational threats. Stories often emphasise cross-border cooperation. Countries are mentioned but little to no cultural divides arise between nationalities. Perhaps this emphasis on cooperation also led the filmmaker to create a proto-cinematic universe, where the leading characters from Bionic Boy and They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong crossed paths and teamed up in Dynamite Johnson, not unlike today’s Marvel blockbusters.
At least with the three aforementioned films, Suarez creates an optimistic — but never naive — vision of the region in his films where collaboration feels natural, purposeful and achievable. They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong is perhaps one of the very few (if not only) film examples where ASEAN is seen as an integral site of cooperation worth fighting and dying for.
Approach wise, the focus similarly lies in language-transcending modes of communication, namely martial arts fights, car chases, nudity and sex. There is no doubt that Suarez’s films were designed to be hits that appeal to the mass audience. Even when stories get unnecessarily complicated, they will still conclude into dazzling shootouts with one or more casualties from the cast to punctuate the emotional resonance.
Provocative scenes rarely dilute the storytelling tone. Characters are never tongue-in-cheek and take every threat and every antagonist seriously but still know when to pause and have some fun along the way. Hollywood may be the key influence but, for how Suarez’s films incorporate an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western influences, they arguably transcend imitation to become peculiarly unique works.
Today, Bobby Suarez is perhaps most well-known amongst B-movie fans and film academics. It is arguable whether his films have aged well or not (they have) but, beyond their entertainment value, there is a lot from Suarez’s filmmaking career to learn from, to be excited by, and to celebrate — especially here in Singapore.
1981’s One-Armed Executioner is one of the first Filipino produced movies theatrically released in North America, South America, Latin America, Asia and Europe despite being made with a shoestring budget. It’s a tremendous feat, even by (and perhaps especially by) today’s standards, that was realised through Suarez’s relentless pursuit for success in the international market.
While his recognition abroad can be attributed to his filmmaking approach, the place in time of his career is just as important as well. In the 1970s, the meteoric rise in popularity of VHS and cable television revolutionised the way people consumed films. Both video store chains and cable television networks were constantly trying to get their hands on any content they can get.
This rush of excitement definitely precipitated the international reach of Suarez’s films. Together with the American-Filipino co-productions of Cirio Santiago and Eddie Romero, Suarez’s films were among the few Filipino and Southeast Asian films that landed on American and European shelves.
Singapore films owe a lot to Suarez’s work. With Bionic Boy and They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, Suarez created two of Singapore’s first international action stars in Johnson Yap and Marrie Lee. Reportedly, Bionic Boy merchandise was particularly popular in Singapore and Malaysia after the film was released. In a 2003 Straits Times interview (where he also praised Glen Goei’s Forever Fever), Quentin Tarantino shared that Cleopatra Wong was a “gigantic inspiration” for the Kill Bill character. Perhaps more importantly, given how so little was shot of the country after the era of studio films, both films are also filmic preservations of 1970s Singapore.
There are several takeaways from Suarez’s success story. There is the understanding that filmmaking is, first and foremost, a business where making international connections, adapting to the times, and tapping on global trends are essential.
Beyond financial success, Suarez’s main focus with his films was always to give his audiences a good time; to send the crowd home happy in one form or another by any means necessary. Although his films are comparatively of a lower budget than Western contemporaries, none felt like half measures or sheer imitation. His films brim with commitment and confidence, leading to the creation of memorable characters that have transcended beyond the exploitation genre.
Filmmakers such as Bobby Suarez blazed the path for the regional co-productions of today. Yet, somewhere along the way, films from the region started to look inwards rather than outwards — which isn’t necessarily an alarming trend as much as it, perhaps, reflected the growing needs and wants to reaffirm national identities and cultures to carve out a space in today’s ever-shrinking world.
In between all the action madness, whether intentional or not, Suarez’s films so often offers a quirky glimpse of what could have been if we saw ourselves as more than where we are from.
More so than just being able to connect with anyone on the planet, Suarez’s films reflect perhaps the high-water mark of globalisation, where the world isn’t dictated and connected by massive business conglomerates but through enterprising visionaries and everyday people who understood the essential need for cooperation.