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Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Super Inframan (1975) review


Li Hsiu Hsien (Lei Ma), Wang Hsieh (Professor Liu Ying-te), Yuan Man-tzu (Liu Mei-mei), Terry Liu (Demon Princess), Tsen Shu-yi (Bewitching Demon Girl), Huang Chien-lung (Lu Hsiao-lung), Lu Sheng (Lei Hsiao-hu), Lin Wen-wei (Chu Ming), Chiang Yang (Chu Chi Kuang)

Directed by Hua Shan

The Short Version: The first Chinese Science Fiction movie comes from the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong; a fast-faced, action-packed, special effects spectacle that is the epitome of creative camp. A revered cult favorite, THE SUPER INFRAMAN's power to entertain targets both Kung Fu fanatics and the POWER RANGERS crowd; while fans of weird and wild cinema will no doubt be caught in the fray. This Shaw Brothers classic is one every kid should see, and one every kid at heart should return to.

Freed from thousands of years of suspended animation below the Earth's surface, and encased within glacial ice, the Demon Princess releases a small army of monsters to conquer Hong Kong before moving on to the rest of the world. Professor Liu, the brilliant scientist who runs the Astronautic Research Center--formed to investigate strange phenomena--creates a bionic superman to combat the mutant threats from inner Earth.

Wrapping up a lengthy string of co-productions with European and American film companies, enterprising movie producer Run Run Shaw turned his attention to Science Fiction. Noting the local popularity of Japanese programs like ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER, Shaw thought the time was right to inaugurate a special effects boom in Hong Kong and other Chinese-speaking territories. Handing the assignment to DP turned director Hua Shan, and inviting a handful of Japanese technicians to work on the picture, anticipation was high that 'The Super Man' would be a big box office success.

The aim was to cram the kid-oriented movie with as many monsters and as much laser blasting action as possible within the film's brisk 87 minutes. Plot is secondary, but what is there is identical to the routine storylines of its sources. The picture slows down just long enough to set up the next cliffhanger moment before the screen is once again riddled with explosions, monster battles, or Earth-bound disasters.

This Chinese ULTRA-style one-off is remarkably fun and entertaining; arguably surpassing the Japanese programs that inspired it. For Hong Kong, this was new territory for them. There had been nothing quite like THE SUPER INFRAMAN attempted on the island; and outside of a few scarce, similar productions, it wouldn't be done again.

Excessively gaudy, THE SUPER INFRAMAN revels in unadulterated campiness. The plentiful special effects, while certainly cutting edge for Hong Kong at that time, are crude, if inventive. Some of the effects shots are actually quite well done. The opening earthquake is a seamless stitching of miniature and live-action; the model city engulfed in flames that follows it is just as impressive. The shots of the Spider Monster and Inframan growing to enormous size on a real location enhanced with miniatures is a cool effect--accompanied by low-angle shots and slow-motion to give the impression of enormity of size.

The set design and art decor are as ambitious as they are flamboyant. The artisans of Movie Town went all out to build the craziest sets their minds could dream up. With a budget around US$600,000, this was triple the cost of the average HK production. In earlier years, Shaw's had spent more on some of Chang Cheh's 'Cast of Thousands' epics; but by the mid-1970s, the market was enduring a low-ebb similar to the one that Japan had been hit with earlier in the decade due to the competitive nature of television.

The breakneck pace and noticeable lack of restraint is in every crevice of THE SUPER INFRAMAN; particularly in a few instances of Shaw's style of gruesome, over the top, cartoon violence. At the time, Toho's Godzilla series had implemented gorier monster action that was likely partially inspired by Daiei's even more kid-friendly Gamera series; those films having showcased bizarrely vicious scenes of dismemberments and geysers of spurting monster blood. On the small screen, ULTRAMAN and his brothers were slicing and dicing their intergalactic and inner-Earth enemies with a variety of outrageously lethal maneuvers that may have influenced the makers of the popular video game series Mortal Kombat.

I remember seeing the movie for the first time in the summer of 1983 and being shocked to the point of laughing and cheering at Inframan squashing his opponents and, in one sequence, slicing off a monster's regenerating head half a dozen times; indelible moments for any monster kid. Our third grade class received tickets to see the picture, playing at our local theater on the weekend. The ticket had an image of Inframan on it. I held onto that ticket for years. You'd of thought I'd received a golden ticket from Willy Wonka. Either that Christmas or the following year, INFRA-MAN (its US title) came on channel 48, a local channel that was THE television hub for everything monster, horror, and fantasy related. Me and a cousin sat and watched it at a relative's house while the other kids enjoyed their freshly opened toys.

Key to the film's longevity isn't just in its brazen goofiness, but in its near non-stop monster action and fantasy elements.

Eight monsters were designed for THE SUPER INFRAMAN, with some altered or dropped altogether. Seven made it to the screen and all were unique in conception. One of the most memorable is the lovably loud and obnoxious Spider Monster; particularly in the English dubbed version where he's blessed with a dubber who was overly energetic in his line delivery.

Taking on a couple dozen of our heroes at once while spitting explosive acid and firing off bombs that encase victims inside of webs, the Spider Mutant can also grow to giant size. When Inframan shows up, he goes giant as well, throttling his orange and black, multi-legged opponent to such a degree, he knocks him back down to size. What follows is one of the most hilariously gruesome death scenes ever put to film. Inframan literally puts his foot down, squashing the fleeing arachnid and splatters his guts all over the place.

The Plant Monster is the first to attack, and, like its web-spinning colleague, can grow to giant size. In this case, its beanstalk-like tendrils enlarge themselves and attempt to destroy the Astronautic Research Headquarters just as Lei Ma's transformation into Inframan is nearing completion. Other than going giant, the Plant Monster has an acid attack and can teleport from one location to another.

The monster that gets the most screen-time, though, is the Purple Mutant with the drill and clawed hammer for hands. Looking like McDonald's Grimace if he were evil and in shape, this hulking critter was a holdover from the KAMEN RIDER series. Managing to survive till the end of the movie, the formidable, purple driller killer has more opportunities to wreck havoc. He has no laser attacks, nor the ability to grow to enormous size, but is extremely strong and uses his drill to kill opponents.

One of the monsters is distinctly Chinese-looking, and that's the Green Dragon Monster with the red mustache and golden helmet. One of the few creatures designed for the movie that was retained, it was nonetheless drastically changed from its initial conception. It originally looked more like a Chinese dragon whereas the finished beast was given additional musculature and an outer body resembling ancient Chinese armor. Its attacks consist of breathing fire and teleportation.

The others are a long-haired, horned creature in red spandex that fires laser beams from the palms of its hands and horns. Inframan has a brief, if explosive, battle with this creature. And finally, there's a twin duo of robot monsters whose spring-loaded head and arms can shoot off and latch onto their intended targets. Inframan has a much lengthier battle with the latter. Aside from their retractable metal limbs, they have no other special capabilities.

Tang Chia's choreography in the monster battles are a step up from the Japanese originals in comparison of speed and rhythm. With the actors confined within restrictive suits, they do extremely well with limited means. Naturally, the Chinese stuntmen had the same problems the Japanese stuntmen dealt with in relation to exhaustion and difficulties breathing underneath the costumes.

Casting the title Superman was treated with the same level of importance even though anyone could have been under the red and silver Inframan suit. The filmmakers went with Li Hsiu Hsien (Danny Lee), a relative newcomer that had a growing amount of popularity since graduating Shaw's Training Academy in 1971. Li would not only play the role of Lei Ma, but also play the title science-born superhero; including doing most of his own stunts.

After a few background roles and Chang Cheh giving him his first breaks in THE WATER MARGIN (1972) and THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1973), Li's first solo came in Chang Tseng Chai's unremarkable, forgotten drama RIVER OF FURY (1973); a film with pacing that's anything but furious. He didn't have a major role, but Li was among the cast of the massive blockbuster Canto comedy THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS released later in 1973. A major role in Chang Cheh's ensemble THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) was another hit for the versatile actor. Years later he would co-star with Chow Yun Fat in a series of movies, the most popular on the international circuit being John Woo's THE KILLER (1989).

Terry Liu is the Demon Princess (called Princess Dragon Mom in the English dubbed version) spearheading the invasion. Her green and gold outfit is more memorable than her delivery even though she was considered an actress of promise at the time. Occasionally transforming into a flying, laser-firing lizard, the rest of the time Liu talks with her (clawed) hands and exudes menace the best she can till Inframan shows up at her volcanic fortress with a bone-theme for its interior. 

The biggest surprise face among the cast is the participation of Huang Kin-Lung, soon to garner international fame as Bruce Le. Bruce was one of the best known of the Bruce Lee clones that made up a sub-genre of mostly forgettable action pictures exploiting the name and mannerisms of the late martial artist and actor. Judging by photographs of the time, Huang had an intensity about him that illustrated his desire for stardom. He would both act and direct in many movies, and perform in other capacities in the pictures he worked on.

Released in America as simply INFRA-MAN, the film was very successful internationally, but not so much in its place of origin. THE SUPER INFRAMAN (1975) was a disappointment for Shaw Brothers in a genre that Chinese people don't have a great interest in anyway. Still, Run Run Shaw had vision, and director Hua Shan's exuberance in tackling such a unique project shared that vision. Much more popular everywhere else in the world, THE SUPER INFRAMAN went on to become a fondly remembered cult movie whose popularity will hopefully grow in size in the ensuing years.

*You can read our extensive 'Making Of' article on THE SUPER INFRAMAN by clicking HERE.*

This review is representative of the Region A Japanese Twin blu-ray. Specs and extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen; Chinese and Japanese language (no English options); original Cantonese trailer; original Mandarin trailer; new Celestial trailer; running time: 01:27:37

1 comment:

Briareos said...

Well now sci-fi has a lot of popularity in China since “The Wandering Earth” did blockbuster business there.

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