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Monday, December 23, 2019

Celluloid Trails: The Making of The Super Inframan


"Society as a whole has a vivid imagination. People like to dream. In our own literary works we have such fantasies as 'Journey To The West' and 'Investiture of the Gods'. People want to lose themselves in a fantasy realm where they gain extraordinary strength to overcome natural disasters and eradicate great evils in the name of peace. For today's advanced age, the appearance of a scientifically created superhero can replace the magical knights and Gods of old and be accepted by viewers. The purpose of making this movie is to capture the audiences imagination; to make them believe the unbelievable."--Director Hua Shan, HKMN, February 1975

Winding down his slew of co-productions with European and American companies, Run Run Shaw was ready to both expand his Movie Town empire to accommodate future co-productions with foreign companies; and also to tackle a new breakthrough for Hong Kong's film industry. His next bold idea was to launch a special effects boom in the mold of Japan and America; with more accent towards the former. Essentially, Run Run Shaw wanted to do for the virtually non-existent Chinese special effects industry what George Lucas did for the American blockbuster and the SciFi genre with STAR WARS (1977). In December of 1974, Run Run Shaw wanted to make Chinese audiences believe a man could fly; so he commissioned the filming of one of their more unique motion pictures, the first Chinese Science Fiction movie.

"Chinese movies have entered a new era. Advancements in film technology and special effects cannot be exclusive to foreigners. The use of Chinese special effects did not begin today, but when it comes to a comprehensive approach and large-scale attempts, this 'Superman' is unprecedented."--HKMN blurb, April 1975

Incidentally, Science Fiction wasn't a proven commodity in Hong Kong; nor was it very popular. The closest to SciFi were the wilder examples of the Wuxia pictures with their flying swordsmen coupled with optical laser effects that became especially prominent after STAR WARS (1977) wowed global audiences with its groundbreaking FX work. Earlier examples such as the Shaw-Taiwan co-production NA CHA AND THE SEVEN DEVILS (1971) featured giant monsters in a martial world setting. Chang Cheh's own NA CHA, THE GREAT (1974) had fantasy elements, but nothing to the level of what THE SUPER INFRAMAN had to offer. *In the insert image, Art Director Johnson Tsao and Director Hua Shan go over designs for the idea-heavy film*.

In Japan, Toei Company, Limited was making a bundle with their small-screen SciFi-Action programs with the likes of the wildly popular KAMEN RIDER series; an enormously influential superhero show that began in 1971 and is still going today with only occasional interruption over the years. KAMEN RIDER, as well as other Japanese Tokusatsu programming was very popular in Hong Kong and Singapore on television (see insert: Director Chu Yuan with a kid wearing a "Superman" mask). The toys and comic books based on Japan's ULTRAMAN shows and various similar series's were popular items with the children of Hong Kong as well. Run Run Shaw had a fascination with Japanese special effects and their marketing involved in selling both the TV programs and their respective toy lines. His intention was to duplicate their small screen success with a feature-length, big-screen imitation.


With two months of pre-production, filming began on what was tentatively titled 'The Super Man' in January of 1975. Hong Kong's premiere special effects extravaganza was one of those "round-the-clock" productions; construction crews rotated out day and night to design and build sets, costumes and props for the first such Hong Kong produced superhero movie. By American standards, such an auspicious undertaking was painfully low budget. But for HK, it was impressive, slickly made, and unlike anything to come out of the then British-owned territory.

Heavily hyped as "The most eye-catching movie of the year", on paper, the film was described thusly in January of 1975: "A thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption buried many monsters beneath the Earth. They did not die but adapted to the environment miles below the Earth's surface. After earthquakes and other natural disasters release the creatures, a scientific research institute designed to deal with strange phenomena, creates a superman to fight the monsters. Loaded with metal instruments and injected with animal stimulants through a process of electro-optic induction, the subject is invulnerable from the elements. The Superman engages the monsters in thrilling battles, enduring incredible dangers. It's the most exciting movie for all the younger fans."


Shaw's vastly talented Art Director, Johnson Tsao Chuang Sheng (see insert), designed Inframan, and the numerous monsters and minions he does battle with. Tsao worked on most of Chang Cheh's pictures and many others; including a handful of the co-productions that came in the wake of Kung Fu Fever that spread around the world after the unexpected success of KING BOXER (1972), aka FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH. An incredibly talented man, a production of the caliber of THE SUPER INFRAMAN was certainly among the most challenging for Tsao's skills as an Art Director.

"With the Shaw company's strong financial, material and manpower advantages, the ingenuity in props, set design, and costumes will leave audiences breathless. Specially for this production, we've ordered new photographic equipment from the United States."--Shaw Brothers Studio production manager Cai Lan, HKMN magazine, February 1975.


Michio Mikami, a Japanese monster modeler and special effects director, was invited by Run Run Shaw to participate on the movie. One of the members of the Yagi Brothers Ekisu Productions, Mikami had worked on movies like the original 1954 GODZILLA, RODAN (1956), the aborted Daiei monster rat movie, 'Giant Horde Beast Nezura', GIANT MONSTER GAMERA (1965), and the KAMEN RIDER series--the most obvious influence on the Shaw Brothers picture. After finishing work on THE SUPER INFRAMAN and Shaw's bizarre 1976 fantasy musical monster mess THE SNAKE PRINCE (including work from another Ekisu ex-pat, Keizo Murase), Mikami founded his own company, Cosmo Productions, with other former Ekisu members; all of whom worked on Shaw's even bigger monster epic for 1977, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN. *In the insert photo, Johnson Tsao inspects a Mikami mold for one of the monsters later dropped from the movie*.



In the early stages, over twenty monsters were designed for inclusion in the movie. This was then whittled down to a dozen; although that number would eventually dwindle further to eight, then seven. Some of the monsters modeled for the picture were cut. Scenes were shot with at least one of these additional beasts, the Chameleon Monster. Shots of this creature menacing Yuan Man Tzu were filmed but discarded for unknown reasons. The Chameleon, much like its real-life inspiration, changed numerous times. From its conception, to its suit design, to the way it looked in what little footage was shot with the monster, it's likely the filmmakers were simply dissatisfied with it and decided to cut the beast from the movie altogether. In the finished version, the only monster that menaces the lovely Yuan is the Mutant Drill.



Above at right is the early concept art for the Chameleon Monster. You can see how it changed from its actual suit construction (see insert) that later went through some additional alterations when compared to the discarded shot with actress Yuan Man Tzu seen above. 

Other beasts (or "weirds" as they were billed early on) that never made it to the screen were described as having origins of snake, lizard, scorpion, snails, and even squirrel creatures; but according to vintage articles, suits were made for all of these. Eight official monsters were selected for the movie, with seven of them making the final cut. From the concept art above and elsewhere, you can see how those designs were dropped or changed--some more drastically than others.

However, in an interview in the March issue of Southern Screen, director Hua Shan remarked that some or all the monster suits were redone in-studio. "Shaw originally commissioned a special effects man from an outside company to make the monster suits, but they didn't work well; later, they were redone by Master Hsiao of Shaw's molding department. He did a very good job. Each of the 12 monsters have their own unique look and the actors are able to move with a level of flexibility that meets the needs of our filming."

Director Hua referenced 12 monsters that had suits built (and, in this case, some or all were rebuilt). Likely under the impression there was too much crammed into a 90 minute movie, selected creatures were dropped--possibly to be used later in case a sequel was greenlit. Furthermore, the monsters were not the only characters and or gadgets that went through major changes during the hectic shooting of THE SUPER INFRAMAN (1975).


The Inframan himself reportedly went through ten plaster models before the filmmakers were satisfied with the look. The Chinese Superman was also hyped with a number of super powers that audiences never saw. His final look had only a few modifications from the original concept to the outfit worn by Danny Li Hsiu Hsien in the movie. Blades attached to the forearms were eliminated and changed to hidden, razor-sharp moon-blades encased within the Thunderball Fists made for him late in the movie. Some of the powers described that were not seen are the Cold Light Gun and the Super Magnet. Among the most powerful of Inframan's abilities is the Soul-Seeking Kick, which is a variation of Kamen Rider's finishing maneuver in those days, the Rider Kick.

And much like KAMEN RIDER, Danny Lee's Lei Man (like the rest of the good guys) rides a motorcycle, but only in human form. The motorcycle Li rides in the movie was borrowed from a Macau racing champion who agreed to allow the crew to modify it for the purposes of the movie. It was originally fashioned with a machine gun attached to the front, and bomb and rocket-firing capabilities on both sides. Apparently, this didn't work on-camera so these accouterments were discarded. With so many ideas and bizarre characters, the script was constantly changing as to the abilities of the monsters and the title superhero built to combat them. *In the insert photo, Danny Lee (Li Hsiu Hsien) explains to a local student on a set visit the foam material used to make the robotic monsters weaponry*.

"Since this is a Chinese movie, I have to make it with the spirit and characteristics of our culture, regardless of the subject matter. I believe the film will be loved by Chinese audiences; especially by our children. They will love the variety of monsters, their unusual abilities, and the Infra Man's transformations. I think even adults will be impressed."--Director Hua Shan, HKMN, April 1975


With this being the first Chinese Science Fiction movie, there was just as much hoopla surrounding the set design as there was the many monsters and special effects. For the first time, concept art was required; so attention to details was heavily paid to the design and construction of the Astronautic Research Center Control Room and the room where Inframan is born. The futuristic institute was modeled on the similar scientific facilities seen in the various ULTRA series's up to that time. Art Director Johnson Tsao, Production Manager Cai Lan (see above: Cai Lan with DP Nishimoto Tadashi), and others that contributed to the look of the picture, did a remarkable job mimicking Japan's unique approach to superhero programming; only with THE SUPER INFRAMAN, it wasn't a television endeavor.

The same level of hype was given to Shaw's importation of new photographic equipment from America for using rear projection and bluescreen work. Shaw's had used such camera tricks in some of their older Wuxia movies, so these upgrades were an improvement. Since Science Fiction and Fantasy were popular genres in places like America and Japan, such filming techniques were commonplace; but were rare in the cinematic heritage of Hong Kong and other Asian territories. *In the insert photo, the crew film a special effects shot on a miniature set*.


The Shaw's publicity department was among the wildest hype machines on the planet; you'd think they were making an epic along the lines of Cecil B. DeMille; for Hong Kong of the day, that would be the equivalent. Shaw's movie was genuinely extravagant and attracted a lot of attention, primarily from Europe and Canada (see above: Danny Lee explaining a scene to French-Canadian documentarians), attracting reporters curious of this new type of Hong Kong action spectacular. 


Occasionally, Shaw's Southern Screen, one of their movie publication magazines, would print a comic strip interpretation of an early script draft of one of their pictures being made in the studio. THE SUPER INFRAMAN was one of those occasions. Artist Lin Mao Long, who participated in the film's conceptual design, drew comic panels of the first draft that contained monsters that never made it to the final stages; and some sequences that were radically different in the original script. Initially more gruesome than the finished product, one scene had the Spider Monster dissolving one of the researchers hands with its poison acid attack. 

 
Elsewhere, the Chameleon Monster--looking even more different from its other stages--battled Lei Man in human form and being finished off with a special gun (see insert at right). Another scene had some of the good guys attacked by a giant tree thing that possibly morphed into the Plant Monster and his ability to turn his tendrils into enormous beanstalk-like appendages by the final scripting stage (see above left insert). In another major alteration, the destruction of the Spider Monster was originally very different (see above). Instead of growing to giant size, the beast could fly, and battled Inframan atop a bridge and was blown to smithereens, its burning body tumbling into a river below.

"Special Effects in Hong Kong aren't as accomplished as other countries, and Shaw intends to remedy this. As a cinematographer, I have been paying a lot of attention in this area. Last year, Shaw's collaborated with Hammer on THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES and with Warner Brothers of the United States on CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD. I learned a lot about special effects from these two movies and I feel comfortable enough adapting what I learned to make this film."--Hua Shan, Southern Screen, January 1975

Li Hsiu Hsien (Danny Lee) was something of the go-to actor for Shaw's experimental works. He'd initially started out as a member of Chang Cheh's camp of masculine actors that found stardom relatively quickly. A graduating member of the first session of actors from Shaw's Film Training Center, Li showed so much promise, he began receiving film work even before he graduated the training courses. Li was chosen for the role of Lei Man/Inframan because of his proficiency in Judo and Karate (styles that suited performing within the limitations of suit acting). He was also chosen because of his riding skills, particularly motorcycles. The constant sweating and overbearing heat while working inside the costumes (exacerbated by the 90 degree heat from the lights in the studio) ensured this role would be one of, if not his most difficult, and uncomfortable of his career.


At the time, this was the biggest movie on Li's resume; not just because he was the lead, but because nothing like it had been done in Hong Kong before. In the days leading up to THE SUPER INFRAMAN's release, Li was extremely nervous about the movie being a hit with audiences. *In the above photo, you can see Danny Lee giving an over-heated suit actor a swig of Coca-Cola*.


The variance of Li's credits includes his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the controversial BRUCE LEE & I (1976); the lead Swamp Thing-like monster in THE OILY MANIAC (1976); and Shaw's other, even bigger monster movie spectacle, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977).

Li's success as an actor was unique among his colleagues in that he was blessed with a rejuvenation in the mid 1980s when the HK New Wave style took over the industry. He would co-star with another Shaw alum, Chow Yun Fat, in movies like RICH AND FAMOUS (1987), TRAGIC HERO (1987), and the critically acclaimed John Woo Gun Fu classic THE KILLER (1989). Li became a versatile force in the industry--behind the camera as well in front of it.

Terry Liu (Liu Hui Yu) was another successful student, but a graduate of the third class. Like Li Hsiu Hsien she too landed some substantial roles prior to graduation. One of the most significant is the WIP action exploitation movie THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS (1973). Known mostly for erotica cinema, her role as the vicious, Japanese lesbian warden preceded Dyanne Thorne's infamous portrayal of real life Nazi Ilsa Koch in ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1975). THE SUPER INFRAMAN was Liu's first action-centric role.

One INFRA-MAN actor who didn't become a big star at Shaw's but did find fame once he left the company was Huang Chien Lung, aka Bruce Le--one of the most famous of the Bruce Lee clones. Born in Burma, the half-Chinese Huang began learning Kung Fu at the age of 11. Eventually adding other styles to his repertoire like Karate, Huang soon settled in Macau and took up teaching martial arts. A learned man, Huang was likewise proficient in English and Mandarin; and upon joining Shaw Brothers in late 1973, he began studying Cantonese. His first role at Shaw Studio was Wang Feng's RIVALS OF KUNG FU (1974). During the filming, someone remarked to Huang that he looked and moved like the late Bruce Lee. Huang replied, "I look and move like Huang Chien Lung". This is ironic considering Huang left Shaw Brothers roughly a year later and embarked on a long series of Kung Fu movies where he imitated the late superstar in movies like BRUCE'S DEADLY FINGERS (1976), RETURN OF BRUCE (1977), BRUCE THE SUPERHERO (1979), and THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE (1980) to name a few. What's also ironic is that, while there were those at the studio that commented on his resemblance to Bruce Lee, it's a bit strange Huang didn't play Bruce in Shaw's BRUCE LEE & I (1976) instead of Danny Li Hsiu Hsien; although the latter was already an established name.


Dana (Tsen Shu Yi), at the time, a new, upcoming actress, stars as the Bewitching Demon Girl; the Demon Princess's subordinate with eyes in the palms of her clawed hands that fire laser beams. A twenty-year old graduate of Shaw's third training school class, she was most often cast in soft-core comedies and erotic pictures. According to the actress, she didn't mind going topless so long as it was integral to the plot; and those were the types she often played--sexy vixens in various stages of undress intrinsic to whatever characters she was essaying. Stating she used to be fat, she became more comfortable with her body upon trimming down. She was particularly fond of her lead role in THE GIRL WITH THE LONG HAIR (1975); a film where she was required to be noticeably tanned. Her first on-screen appearance was as a prisoner that comes to a bad end in THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS (1973). Her image as a sex symbol was exemplified in minor appearances in movies like the HK-Japan co-pro GOLGO 13: KOWLOON ASSIGNMENT (1977) and THE IMAGE OF BRUCE LEE (1978). Dana (see above on-set photo with Danny Lee and insert) was at her bitchiest in the sleazy COBRA GIRL (1977) directed by Sun Chung.

"THE SUPER INFRAMAN is a film made almost entirely on special effects. This is an attempt never before made in Chinese films. At any rate, it should have a huge impact on our film industry. After watching the dallies, [THE SUPER INFRAMAN] should be a success. Because of our limited talent and equipment involved there are more demands, and I am satisfied with our progress. Although special effects are not unfamiliar to Chinese films, our market strategies and production policies do not place great emphasis on special effects. What we've filmed so far, some of them are actually pretty good! These are things we've never done before. Sometimes it takes a few days to get a good effects shot. At the beginning, some people felt this project was too big for me. I took it and it's going well. However, for us, special effects photography is still a long way from competing with advanced technology of other countries like America. If this movie is a success, I will raise the bar of Chinese special effects to an even higher level."--Director Hua Shan, HKMN, August 1975 

Formerly a cinematographer, director Hua Shan was a new directing talent at Shaw Brothers. He joined the company in 1963 as the assistant DP to Ho Lan Shan (Nishimoto Tadashi). Twelve years later, Ho Lan Shan would be the DP for his former apprentices first directorial effort (see insert: Nishimoto and Hua Shan discuss a shot at left of image). To give Hua Shan such a massive production to helm clearly meant the Shaw's had confidence in his abilities. Over the course of the next several years, Hua Shan seemed most comfortable directing gritty period pieces or modern day crime pictures; with a penchant for quick cuts and brutal bursts of violence.


He took over Cheng Kang's extremely troubled THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978), sharing a co-directing credit; directed the action-packed, ultra-violent Triad movie BROTHERHOOD (1976) and the surprisingly potent crime drama THE BROTHERS (1979); was at the helm of some popular independent Kung Fu flicks like CRYSTAL FIST (1979) and KUNG FU ZOMBIE (1981); and he directed the exploitation swordplay trash of BLOODY PARROT (1981) and one of the wildest, goriest Wuxia-horror hybrids in PORTRAIT IN CRYSTAL (1983). *In the above photo, director Hua Shan poses with actress Terry Liu*.

In addition to the plethora of monsters and special effects, there's plentiful pyro in THE SUPER INFRAMAN as well. A Mr. Liu Sheng was the explosive expert on the show and, according to articles of the time, there were a number of concerns in setting off explosives inside a studio, and a fair number of on-set mishaps as a result.

One instance of late-night filming for a scene that was cut from the movie involved an explosion with the Mutant Drill exiting a cave built inside of Shaw's studio set 10. Director Hua was at first concerned there might be too much explosives loaded that might destroy the entire set and endanger the staff and stars inside. There was also a worry that the explosion might be undercharged and not look impressive on camera. Fortunately, everything went fine with no accident other than some shaken nerves of worried cast-members; like Yuan Man Tzu, who was reported to have been very nervous being on-set during the chain of explosions set off in the film's final moments.

During the filming of the fiery finale in the control room, a larger explosion than intended nearly burned actress Dana's face off. There were other minor injuries, mostly burns to Li Hsiu Hsien and crew members. Singed hair, burned hands and feet were among the wounds incurred in the name of art.


During one take where Inframan's feet firing off sparks does damage to a monster, it actually set the costume on fire in mid-air. In an interview, Li told about this potentially dangerous story involving that on-set mishap: "There are many scenes of explosives in this movie. We have a pyrotechnician on set installing and detonating the charges. Just a short time ago, an accident occurred. One of the explosives was mishandled and both my hands and hair were burned. Another time, I was on a wire being hurled at a monster with the sparks shooting out of my feet. Unexpectedly, the sparks set the monster suit on fire. It's funny in a way, but a staff member ran up and asked to take a few photos before we put out the fire. It's scary, but funny to think that you catch fire and you have to wait to have your picture taken."


Shooting lasted over 100 days with the picture wrapping principal photography in mid-April of 1975. All that remained was adding the optical effects ahead of its scheduled August theatrical premiere. By May of 1975, HK advertisements listed the film with its English title of THE SUPER INFRAMAN. The Chinese title translated to THE CHINESE SUPERMAN. *You can see in the magazine promotion above there are a few images that are not in the final edit of the movie*.


The Shaw Brothers publicity department utilized assorted promotional tools to drum up interest in the movie over the course of filming. In March of 1975, they invited kids to write in and guess which of three stars in the photo (see above: Li Hsiu Hsien, Chiang Yang and Huang Kin Lung) would be the Inframan. Elsewhere, the November 1975 issue of Shaw's English-language film magazine, Movie News featured a SUPER INFRAMAN coloring contest where participants could only use paints and water-colors (see insert). Winners received free movie tickets among other prizes. The picture was also being hyped on the international market as one of the company's top titles alongside their trendsetting horror-fest BLACK MAGIC (1975); the promotion on the latter utilizing Enrico Torres Prat Vampirella artwork.

"Watching this kind of special effects movie, it's 100% entertainment. Without having to think too much, children and their elders will have a good time. Superhero programs on television are minor league compared to this presentation."--Southern Screen blurb, June 1975 

The Shaw Brothers style of promotional showmanship was akin to the old-style ballyhoo of William Castle in America. Sometimes they'd have an attention-grabbing gimmick; and other times a motion picture premiere would be a charity event. THE SUPER INFRAMAN's debut was the former. Shortly before the film's August 1975 HK premiere, the Shaw's threw a huge publicity stunt in Victoria Park with two hot air balloons lent by Cathay Pacific Airways on a sunny Sunday afternoon on July 20th, 1975. Li donned his Inframan costume and was joined by Actor Training Center graduate, Li Zi Yun, and took to the air to promote the movie. They took pictures with the mob of kids and curious onlookers that converged on the park to watch the stunt. Li Hsiu Hsien found wearing the costume outside in the summer heat was much the same as being inside the studio underneath the hot lights--having to frequently remove his mask to breathe and remain conscious so as to answer the numerous questions asked him by the many excited children that surrounded him. Curiously, this grand ballyhoo wasn't allowed to be televised in Hong Kong. Judging by the crowd and this impressive promotional campaign, it would seem THE SUPER INFRAMAN was destined to be a smash success in Hong Kong.


Unfortunately, during its first run in HK, the picture didn't perform to expectations, barely making its money back. Presumably, many stayed home as they could watch similar fare on television for free; or adults simply weren't as interested as the children were bound to be. By comparison, both Chang Cheh's fantastic martial arts drama DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975) and Li Han Hsiang's sprawling, award-winning epic THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (1975) were top hits that year. Others like BIG BROTHER CHENG (1975), THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975), MARCO POLO (1975), and the trendsetting THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) performed well. *In the insert photo, Yuan Man Tzu, Wang Hsieh, and Li Hsiu Hsien pose for a picture*.

For all the time and effort put into it, the failure to turn THE SUPER INFRAMAN into a major HK blockbuster must have been like a gut-punch to all involved. Even more of a crushing blow, two of the Shaw's glossiest, biggest budgeted co-productions, BLOOD MONEY (THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER) and CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD fared far worse at the HK box office.

It wasn't all bad news for Shaw's SciFi spectacle, though...

On the international front, THE SUPER INFRAMAN was among 12 titles in Shaw's sales brochure for the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. Apparently, Run Run Shaw was so proud of the picture, and determined to put HK on the special effects map while highlighting what they were capable of, he even included an early example of their fantasy works, the classic THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966) directed by Ho Meng Hua. Also being showcased at Cannes that year was Chang Cheh's experimental fantasies NA CHA, THE GREAT (1974) and THE FANTASTIC MAGIC BABY (1975)--alongside his greatest work, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975) and one of his last sprawling epics, THE BOXER REBELLION (1975). Of the dozen being offered for sale at the famous French festival, four were fantasy works; two horror features with Ho Meng Hua's trendsetting BLACK MAGIC and Chang Yi Hu's NIGHT OF THE DEVIL BRIDE; one sex romp in THE GOLDEN LOTUS (1975); Li Han Hsiang's epic award-winner THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (1975); Chang Cheh's Kung Fu favorite FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974); and Chang Tseng Chai's crime thriller QUEEN HUSTLER (1975) rounded out the twelve titles.


American exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner picked up THE SUPER INFRAMAN for US exhibition. Adding an hilariously awful English dubbed track, new music, and changing the title to INFRA-MAN, the movie was an unexpected success in America; particularly for a distributor not known for family-friendly fare. INFRA-MAN also garnered surprisingly good critical notices--one of which came from Roger Ebert, one half of the famous movie reviewing duo of Siskel & Ebert. In his sterling 1976 review of the picture, Ebert's ecstatic write-up stated, "The movie even looks good: It's a classy, slick production by the Shaw Brothers, the Hong Kong Kung Fu kings. When they stop making movie like INFRA-MAN, a tiny light will go out of the world."


Not every review was as genuinely praiseworthy, though. Janet Maslin of the New York Times was less forgiving, but seemed to appreciate the film's energy if not its production values--referring to it as "deliciously awful"; and noting all the monsters (wiggling mutants as she calls them), "are dressed more or less like garden vegetables".

Reportedly, Run Run Shaw was so impressed by the film's good box office in the USA, he planned an 'Infra-woman' to begin shooting in the summer of 1977 with an American actress in the lead role. Unfortunately, this never materialized.


THE SUPER INFRAMAN didn't ignite a sub-genre of similar movies, but was a possible influence on later swordplay fantasies that included monsters and various other wildly fantastical elements. One picture that had a Japanese feel to it but backed in Chinese mythology was 1976s THE BIG CALAMITY, aka WAR GOD. With the announcement of Dino De Laurentiis's KING KONG remake, Shaw Brothers tried one more time to make a big budget (for HK) giant monster-disaster movie with the similar THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977). After that, the market of giant monster movies dried up with only an occasional city-trampler like 1984s KING OF SNAKE (also starring Danny Lee)


Remaining a popular cult item, THE SUPER INFRAMAN aired regularly on television for many years after its theatrical showings. It played in my town in 1983. Our school received tickets to see the picture, playing on a weekend at our local theater. Prism released it on VHS in a big-box clamshell in 1985 followed by a later Goodtimes budget video release. It received its remastered Hong Kong release in 2005 via IVL (Intercontinental Video Limited) as part of Celestial Pictures restorations of the Shaw Brothers Library. It was also released in a special edition containing two small action figures of Inframan and one of the Skeleton minions. It was later released to DVD in the USA; and eventually on Blu-ray in Japan, Europe and, most recently in Hong Kong.

"Without fantasy, without imagination, there is no world today."--Director Hua Shan, HKMN, August 1975

 
THE SUPER INFRAMAN is a genuine cult favorite, whose admiration and fan base has only grown in the last 40+ years since its original release. It's a movie that is filled with big ideas; even if those ideas are borrowed from--and expanded upon--the Nipponese inspirations that influenced it. Run Run Shaw may not have succeeded in ushering in a Hong Kong special effects boom, but he did succeed in creating a unique one-off that has remained in the imaginations of the children who saw it; and in the minds of the big kids who continue to remember--with great affection--that Chinese Superman who also possessed the super power to keep them all young at heart.

5 comments:

AntiHero said...

I’m gonna need to track down a copy of this and rewatch it with a new appreciation for all the work that went into it. Great read!

jcintro said...

You must have known that this article would make a great Christmas gift, as I am a HUGE Super Inframan fan! The items you gathered as far as behind the scenes photos and photos of some of the comic strip are things that I knew existed, but have not seen until now. Thank you again for this article, a great read!

venoms5 said...

@AntiHero: Thanks! I hope you enjoy the film even more next time around! I have the HK DVD, the Japanese blu-ray and recently ordered the HK blu-ray, so I'm a fan as well.

@jcintro: Actually, I did think of this as a Christmas post. I had originally intended making it two parts like the previous Celluloid Trails 'Making Of' on THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974); but decided last minute to leave it as a single piece. Thanks for the kind remarks, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it!

Pooplos-Z said...

Man, this is wonderfully researched! Really great read, answered a lot of questions I had. I'm definitely sharing this with as many people as I can. Thank you so much!

venoms5 said...

@Pooplos-Z: Thank you for the kind words! I had a great time putting it together.

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