Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday Review: The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

    In which we get over our ex by meeting a naked jungle girl and her 50 foot tall monkey pal…

     The Shaw Brothers Studio is best known today for their period kung fu epics, but they were a movie studio like any other, and thus put out a variety of films: goofy comedies, gritty crime dramas, and utter weirdness such as The Mighty Peking Man. Released in 1977 and made to capitalize off of the DeLaurentiis King Kong remake, The Mighty Peking Man is a strange, wonderful concoction of a film - pushing beyond the simple King Kong riffs and becoming something entirely its own in the process. The touching love triangle of a down-on-his-luck adventurer, a bikini-clad vixen and the Man in Suit who loves her, The Mighty Peking Man revels in both bad taste and fantastic cheese. In other words, it’s kind of perfect.

    Long before he blew away scumbags and shared homoerotic tension with Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer, Danny Lee enjoyed a brief run as a Shaw Kung Fu star, part of the utterly bizarre “Bruceploitation” actors the studio utilized to capitalize off of Bruce Lee’s superstardom. Lee’s got all the right moves for Johnny, the mercenary hired to lead an expedition through the Himalayan mountains in search of the mythical Peking Man, a giant ape with a penchant for destruction. Johnny’s getting over the love of his life after he discovers her cheating on him with his brother. He starts the movie drinking a lot and having hazy flashbacks of him and his one-true doing couple stuff like dancing and running by the lake and sticking lobsters in each other’s faces in slow motion. Luckily for him, he soon runs into the Peking Man himself, and discovers the blonde bombshell Samantha living in the jungle. They soon fall in love and have their own slow-motion montage, and Johnny’s over that other girl faster than you can say, “animal-skin bikini.”

    As Samantha, Evelyn Kraft is a vision, looking like she just stepped out of an old pulp cover. Her acting talent is somewhat more in question, but the role of Samantha doesn’t require a whole lot of emotional complexity, other than loving her giant monkey pal; which Kraft conveys well enough. Samantha is a great addition to the movie, sort of a female Tarzan who gets through the jungle by swinging on vines and has a special connection with wild animals like leopards and tigers (although not, it’s important to note, poisonous cobras). Samantha spends the entire movie either in or out of her bikini, which threatens to become silly when she and Johnny take the Peking Man back to Hong Kong… Well, okay: it is silly, but the fact that no one seems to notice or care that this white woman walks down the street barefoot and nearly naked just adds to the bizarre charm of the movie.

    Also adding to that charm are the delightfully low-rent special effects, which come to a wondrous conclusion when the Peking Man demolishes half of Hong Kong at the film’s end.  Director Ho Meng Hua makes no attempt to even disguise the various tanks and vehicles as anything other than miniatures, but the suit used for the Peking Man is oddly affecting: there’s a good bit of emotion wrangled out of that mask and it’s limited facial movements. The fact than the Peking Man is the only giant monster of the film means that there are sadly no kung fu antics like in that other Shaw Brothers monster classic Infra-Man, but the sheer chaos the Peking Man wreaks in the last twenty minutes is notable. But the film also features stuntmen wrestling with live tigers, getting trapped in quicksand and the irresponsible murder of rampaging elephants, so that more than makes up for it.

    In the end, the film goes back to its Kong roots, as the Peking Man is shot down by helicopters atop a giant building. But Mighty Peking Man takes things a step further: not only does the Peking Man die, but he does so by going up in a giant explosion rigged to go off on the roof he’s standing on. And not only that, but Samantha dies as well! The last shot is Johnny holding her dead body as he looks out over the Hong Kong skyline. It would all be horribly depressing, if only the film managed to get us to care about any of its characters.

    Equal parts sleeze and cheese, The Mighty Peking Man achieves its own special brand of exploitation perfection.

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