Towards the end of Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore, Peter Bogdanovich tells the book’s author Ben Slater: “Some of the best things are things that just happen once and then don’t happen again. They just don’t. No matter how much you want them to.”
It’s a fitting observation for a film I have always regarded as a one of a kind, Bogdanovich’s 1979 adaption of the book by the same name by Paul Theroux, about a small time Italian American hustler (played by Ben Gazzara in the film) living in Singapore in the early seventies whose ambition is to open up his own high-class brothel.
As the film begins, Flowers is very much a bottom feeder, eking out a precarious existence on the fringes of Singaporean society. He’s so skint he has to haggle with his Chinese bosses for the taxi fare to pick up William Leigh (Denholm Elliott in the film), a mild mannered English accountant sent from head office in Hong Kong to audit the books. The one currency Flowers has no shortage of is contacts. Taking Leigh and a visiting American businessman on a tour of the island’s nightlife, Flowers is on first name terms with every hooker and tout he meets.
Flowers eventually establishes his brothel in a magnificent British colonial villa. Things are going well until one of the local Tong gangs, resentful he’s cutting in on their action, trash the place, beat Flowers up and tattoo obscenities in Cantonese all over his arms.
He is thrown a lifeline in the film’s third section by a mysterious spook, Eddie Schuman (Bogdanovich), who wants him to run a US army sanctioned operation on the island catering to American soldiers on R&R from Vietnam. Schuman sets Flowers up in a huge compound complete with pinball machines, alcohol, girls and a loudspeaker system piping continuous Country and Western. While Flowers appears to be in his element, he quickly grows disillusioned. Although Flowers wants out, Schuman has other ideas and offers Flowers $25,000 to gather incriminating evidence on a closeted gay anti-war US politician (George Lazenby) who is visiting Singapore.
Saint Jack has fascinated me ever since I saw it several years ago. It is one of the few films I am aware of to examine the phenomenon known as the ‘Asia hand’, the name given to a particular sub species of Western male who’ve spent a long time in Asia, surviving however they can, usually by means which described as semi-legal.
Living in Asia for six years in the nineties, I met a lot Asia hands. They were very much creatures of a specific historical period, the latter half of the twentieth century, before globalisation and technological change transformed Asia, made expatriate communities less rooted and more mobile, less isolated, less secretive and, let’s be honest, less mysterious.
Saint Jack is also a glimpse into a Singapore that no longer exists. The poverty, the faded expatriate drinking clubs and seamy nightlife and poorly lit streets are totally unrecognisable from the tightly controlled air-conditioned island state of today. Of course, as Slater makes clear in Kinda Hot, Singapore was massively changing even as Theroux arrived there in the late sixties to teach English at the University of Singapore and it was changing even as Bogdanovich and his crew shot the film.
But I knew very little about the making of Saint Jack until I read Slater’s book. The origins of the movie are no less interesting than the film itself. “The idea for the film Saint Jack begins, as many other things do, with Orson Welles,” writes Slater. In the early seventies, Bogdanovich, a huge fan of the ageing Hollywood maverick, was hanging around with Welles, and dating actress Cybill Shepherd. Welles and Bogdanovich had been tossing around ideas for potential movies on which the two men could collaborate, and Welles had suggested they film Theroux’s Saint Jack, but the rights were already taken.
Around the same time, Playboy magazine had done one of their ‘Sex in Cinema’ spreads, a semi-regular feature in which the magazine took images of all the actresses who had appeared in movies movies nude over the last twelve months and strung them into article. This particular Sex in Cinema article included grainy scenes of Shepherd in Bogdanovich’s 1971 movie, The Last Picture Show. Shepherd, who had been reluctant to do the scenes in the first place, felt her privacy was invaded and initiated court proceedings.
Coincidentally, Playboy Enterprises had the rights to Saint Jack. Welles suggested Shepherd settle her law suit against Playboy Enterprises with the rights to the movie. Shepherd agreed and discussions started which eventuated in Bogdanovich and Playboy collaborating to make the film.
While Singapore had stood in as the anonymous Asia backdrop for a raft of western movies in the fifties and sixties, unfortunately for Bogdanovich, by the time he wanted to make Saint Jack, its movie industry had collapsed and the authorities were intensely suspicious of foreign film makers. A key motivation for the latter sentiment was the controversy in the wake of a visit to Singapore by a German film crew in 1973 to shoot scenes for one of the Shocking Asia documentaries. The Shocking Asia films focused sexual practices, religious rites involving animals, magic, etc, across Asia and were popular in the grindhouse cinema circuit of Europe at the time. According to Slater, the Singapore episode featured a night-time walk through the red light area of Chinatown and graphic footage of a sex change operation at one of the hospitals where a pioneering professor had performed Asia’s first sex change in 1971.
Sensing, correctly, the Singaporean authorities would never allow him to film Saint Jack, Bogdanovich submitted a fake synopsis for romantic caper movie called Jack of Hearts (what the director called a cross between Love is a Many Splendored Thing and Pal Joey) to officials and shot the real film guerrilla style. Slater chronicles in detail the lengths the Saint Jack production team went to avoid detection, a feat helped by the fact that the hugely popular Hawaii Five O series was in town shooting two episodes at around the same time and occupied most of the media and government’s attention.
I have only focused on some aspects of Slater’s book, but it examines every aspect of the film, including the interactions between the cast members, the tensions in the crew during the incredibly difficult shoot, and the numerous occasions in which it appeared the Singaporean authorities were onto Bogdanovich’s real intentions. Slater tracked down and interviewed many of the local crew members, picked from the remains of Singapore’s film industry, and most of the local cast. He also deals with the film’s reception, particularly in Singapore, the government of which was incensed by the deception and banned movie until as late as 2006. Talking to Singaporeans, the movie is clearly the subject of considerable debate, even now, for its politics and depiction of island state.
Much of the dramatic feel of Saint Jack comes from the sense of world-weary sangfroid Gazzara injects into the character of Jack Flowers, a similar performance to his role of Cosmo Vittelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But while Cosmo was in denial about life, Flowers’ exudes a palpable sense of opportunities lost and paths not taken. In the tradition of the best noir characters, Flowers knows his decisions will lead to trouble but is powerless to do anything else. An ex-Korean war veteran and failed writer, we are not told why he came to Singapore. All we know is if he’s going to be the eternal ang mo (foreigner), he’ll do it on his terms, no one else’s.
But it is the local cast, played by assorted members of the expat community and the denizens of the island’s tourism and ‘entertainment industry’, that give the film its gritty authenticity. By all accounts, most of these extras had no idea about the story they were actually shooting, a movie about their world, and watching it now it feels like they are just playing themselves.
There is no other film like Saint Jack. There never can be and Kinda Hot explains why. It’s a must read. Slater, who is based in Singapore, also has a terrific website which is full of detail about Hollywood film making on the island state, past and present.