The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go has the distinction of being the only feature-length film directed by Burgess Meredith. It also has the distinction of being the only spy movie narrated by the Buddha. From the introduction:
“During the fifth moon of the year 5000 B. C. Chun Li Chu’an discovered the Elixir of Life and invented the power of transmutation.
Chu’an was the chief of the eight immortals.
This power was lost in the 10th century B. C.- some say through vanity and rediscovered by Gautama Buddha in the 6th century before Christ.
Buddha has never again lost the secret but uses it sparingly and only at certain cycles of time.
The cycle is during the fifth moon of each 50th year.
Should the course of human events need changing, Buddha sends a beam of light from his inner eye and it strikes just one human being. Whatever that human being is doing, he or she does just the opposite.
Sometimes the great Buddha himself is amused at the results.”
The esteemed British actor James Mason plays Y.Y. Go, a man of Chinese and Mexican ancestry who works as an influence peddler in Hong Kong. “We exist in the vacuum between enemy nations”, he later mentions. The first scene has him undergoing acupuncture therapy from Burgess Meredith. Meredith, best remembered as the arch-villain Penguin in the original Batman TV series, plays “Dolphin”, a traditional medical herbalist who, although obviously Caucasian, dresses in Chinese robes. Mr. Go asks Dolphin to arrange his funeral.
We next see Mr. Go in the presence of a recovering American scientist. The scientist (Peter Lind Hayes) was rescued by Mr. Go’s minions after the plane he was traveling in was shot down over mainland China. Mr. Go wants to buy the scientist’s anti-ballistic missile laser system. The scientist refuses, but Mr. Go has some information on the scientist he will later use.
And then there’s Jeff Bridges in one of his first film roles. He plays an expatriate American, Nero Fitzgerald, slumming and living off his Chinese girlfriend, Tah-ling (Irene Tsu). It’s not said how she makes her money, but a sex work is implied. To get some cash to support his writing aspirations, Nero goes to see Mr. Go. Mr. Go has a job for him: pay a visit to the scientist with the laser weapon. The scientist likes young guys. With the uhm evidence of Nero and the scientist tryst on film, Mr. Go has no trouble getting what he wants from the scientist
But the American government isn’t taking all this back action without doing something. The director of the CIA, played by mega-heavy Broderick Crawford, dispatches a top-secret agent to prevent the laser weapon from falling into the wrong hands. Their agent, Leo Zimmerman, is played by famous Irish stage actor Jack MacGowan. He’s been selected for his James Joyce knowledge. You see, bohemian Nero is a JJ fan and has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything the great man has ever written. When agent Zimmerman hits the soil of Hong Kong, he makes his way to the nearest location of Nero and the two head off into the night spouting Joycean lines.
But, as he is “the embodiment of pure evil”, Mr. Go has decided that Nero and his lady friend have become a problem that needs solving. While he arranges for Tah-ling to be kidnapped by Zelda, an enemy agent with her own designs on the laser weapon, Mr. Go takes Nero for a helicopter ride. While another henchman levels a gun on Nero, Go tells the young man how he and his lady friend know too much. “It’s a great story,”Nero sobs.”Too bad I won’t be able to write about it.”
And then the Buddha intervenes….
I’ve watched this movie several times. As another commentator has noted, you find something new in it each time. There’s the joy in watching James Mason deliver his lines flawlessly while in character. Burgess Meredith hams it up all he can, leading the bad guys on a chase through Hong Kong at one point. Jeff Bridges is busy channeling his inner “dude”. And Irene Tsu is mighty pleasing to look at, but she can also create the most vulnerable expressions when needed. And the music: it’s a light breezy pop score similar to what the 5th Dimension was producing at the time.
I just can’t figure out how much of the final movie was director Burgess Meredith’s original idea and how much the producers added to the final film. Or took away. It has a wonderful ending where everyone gets what they want. James Mason plays the villain to perfection: a bad guy who doesn’t see himself as such. Meredith would later disown the movie and claim little remained of his ideas. The scenes with the CIA director and the narration by The Buddha appear to have been added by the producers.
Another problem with film is the pathetic condition of the source print. I doubt very many copies were struck when the movie was first released. It wasn’t released in the US until 1973 and supposedly by National General Pictures, a holding company which closed down the same year. The print from which most video and digital copies have been sourced looks washed-out and faded. Not every film gets the library of congress archival treatment. Perhaps a decent copy or negative will surface someday.
In the meantime, you can find the movie on the Internet or in budget DVD. It’s no President’s Analyst, but Yin and Yang of Mr. Go is far better than I had expected. It was produced toward the end of the spy movie craze of the 60’s, when producers where looking for different ways to keep the genre relevant. I can think of few other existentialist spy movies.