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Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Mighty Peking Man (1977) review

THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN 1977 aka GOLIATHON aka COLOSSUS OF THE CONGO aka ORANGUTAN KING (literal translation of the Chinese title)
Danny Li Hsiu Hsien (Johnny Feng), Evelyne Kraft (Samantha), Ku Feng (Lu Tien), Hsiao Yao (Huang Tsui Hua), Lin Wei Tu (Chen Shi Yu), Chen Ping (Lucy), Norman Tsui Siu Keung (Dr. Ah Long), Wu Hang Sheng (Dr. Ah Pi)

Directed by Ho Meng Hua

The Short Version: Jam-packed with giant monster action and human-sized eye candy by way of the blonde-haired charms of the lovely Evelyne Kraft, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN is a live-action Hanna-Barbera cartoon if it were made in Hong Kong. Intended to beat Dino's KONG remake into theaters before its December 17th, 1976 release date, the Chinese ape-fest encountered numerous problems as big as the Peking Man's footprints. The end result is one of the wildest cult movie spectaculars you'll ever see. One of the highlights is the last 25 minutes where Peking Man goes bananas through the streets of the city in an explosive array of miniature destruction and fiery catastrophe. A Hong KONG classic.

Down-on-his luck adventurer Johnny Feng gets the job of a lifetime--take a treacherous journey to the wilds of India to locate the mythical Peking Man; freed in the Himalayan mountains after an earthquake. The mission is to find the giant beast and bring him back alive to Hong Kong to put him on display for the world to see. The expedition finds the Mighty Himalayan giant, but also Samantha, a blond-haired jungle woman stranded as a child who shares a close bond with the great ape she calls Utam. Both are brought to Hong Kong where disaster quickly strikes. Enraged over his treatment and witnessing Samantha's near-rape, Utam breaks free, saves her, and is relentlessly attacked by the military. An all-out assault of mass destruction ensues, culminating in an explosive showdown atop the Jardine House.

The Shaw Brothers answer to mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis's KING KONG (1976), THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) is maximum level King Kitsch. A gargantuan entertainment, there's a jaw-dropping amount of special effects that, while varying wildly in quality, still manages to keep viewers riveted; and even surpasses Dino KONG in some areas. Intended to have been finished and released before America's grand gorilla stomped its way onto theater screens in December '76, filming dragged on into the early months of 1977. Still, nothing of the magnitude of PEKING MAN had ever been done in HK before. The result took a year to finish; and by then, KING KONG (1976) had already played HK theaters and elsewhere. 
What makes a comparison between the two so interesting is that the famed Italian producer had many more millions to work with and guaranteed global distribution compared to HK's Mighty Movie Moguls. It's Dino's $24 million vs. Shaw's HK$6 million+ (roughly US$500,000-$1 million at that time).
Despite its significantly smaller budget, MPM is loaded with special effects. Barely a minute goes by without some miniature, composite, or front-projection shot seen on the screen (the first time front-projection was used in a HK production); so depending on your love or tolerance for foreign-made fantastic cinema, you get far more bang for your buck with the Peking Man compared to the sleeker bombast of Ameri-Kong.
Aside from the obvious similarities, director Ho Meng Hua and others stated in interviews at the time how different the two films were. Below are some examples as to how both pictures stack up next to each other.

1. Paramount's theatrical cut of KONG is 134 minutes with lots of time spent on exposition; has stunning cinematography; a rousing score; and, considering the amount of money lavished on it, some not-so stunning special effects. PEKING MAN on the other hand, is a trim 90 minutes; a high-volume of special effects comparable to any Japanese Tokusatsu of the time, and certainly impressive in some instances. There's only a modicum of exposition--virtually all of it resting on the shoulders of the big ape and Samantha, his vine-swinging jungle friend played by Evelyne Kraft. Their relationship contrasts with Jessica Lange's starstruck wannabe actress who gets her closeup in the paws of King Kong.
2. The PEKING MAN monster suit is an impressive creation. The Japanese design (the work of Keizo Murase) looks different from the traditional monkey suit, with uniquely chiseled features and a believably coarse musculature. It stands fairly well against Rick Baker's grandiose gorilla suit in Dino's KONG. Arguably the best thing about the American remake is Baker's fantastic ape suit.

3. The finale of the '76 KONG is intense; the giant gorilla climbs the World Trade Center where he is gunned down by helicopters. For PEKING MAN, he climbs the then tallest building in HK; that being Connaught Center (now known as the Jardine House) where he meets the same fate as Kong, but in a much more spectacular fashion. Kong takes far less punishment than Utam at the hands of the military. Utam, however, is bombarded with bombs and endless bullets even before he reaches the famous building with the round windows.
Lessening the impact of the KONG finale are some botched shots of helicopters firing away from him that are supposed to be giving the impression they're firing into him. It's in the final moments of Ho Meng Hua's movie where the creativity of the film with the lesser funds soars passed John Guillermin's. Utam is encircled in a cyclonic formation by helicopters that riddle his body with bloody gunfire. One impressive shot shows a flurry of choppers surrounding him like vultures as he tries to swat them away to protect an injured Samantha. In another shot that still holds up, you can see the cityscape behind Utam as the model whirlybirds close in on him; all done with miniatures and other old-fashioned FX trickery.
Going even further, Shaw's giant ape picture isn't content with just shooting its title primate to death; they set him on fire, too. The top floor of the building has its water pipes filled gasoline and detonated in an amazing display of pyro that sends the Himalayan giant tumbling to his death; crashing through the Hong Kong Post Office building, blowing it up in the process.

4. As mentioned above, MPM is a slim 90 minutes. The mile-a-minute pacing rockets at a frenetic clip compared to its American counterpart. To compete with the double-digit millions of the Anglo ape epic, the smaller budget (huge by 70s HK standards, though) of Ho Meng Hua's movie piles on the action, perils and adventure. The ADD editing style of the movie barely allows one sequence to catch its breath before another one takes its place. 
For example, the movie spends little more than five minutes setting up the expedition to capture Chinese Bigfoot before the safari is already out in the Indian jungle. Almost immediately, our intrepid adventurers find themselves in the middle of an elephant stampede; followed by some of the supporting cast dying in quicksand; a tiger attack; then a treacherous mountain climb taking the lives of virtually everyone else; all within a matter of minutes. In between all that the movie takes a 60 second break for some expositional schmaltz with our hero before going at it full-speed again. MPM is the finest of exploitation compared to the slicker American movie.

5. Another area where MPM is different and arguably surpasses its inspiration is in the relationship between Samantha and Utam. It's essentially a live-action Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but there's enough time spent with them for the audience to care about her and her hairy guardian. There's great affinity between them in contrast to the sexual subtext of Lange's Dwan and Kong. They're plucked from their home and taken to a concrete jungle where they are ridiculed, tortured and misunderstood; exactly as Kong was in his films only here it's both of them being tormented in a presumably advanced society that is far more wild and untamed than the one they left behind. To a greater extent in Ho's movie, civilized man are the savages.
It looks over the top the way the public reacts to the jungle-dwellers, but the extremes of today's detached, tech-driven, seemingly emotionless society seems more topical now. 
If you're an animal lover, you'll find the sequence where Samantha says goodbye to her jungle friends tugging at your heartstrings. In a play on Dino De Laurentiis's famous KONG comment, the elephant cries. The leopard cries. Everybody cries. Making it even more saddening is that the leopard pulls on her skimpy clothing to let her know he doesn't want her to leave. The sentimental panthera even sniffles as she and Johnny walk away--never to see its blonde-haired friend ever again.

Two different Japanese SPX crews worked on the movie; members of which worked on assorted Daiei and Toho monster movies from Japan's Golden Age. Shooting went way longer than anticipated, with various designs being tested; so when the work visa's for the first group expired, a new team was brought over. What was accomplished was extraordinary for a HK production at that time. Nothing of that magnitude had been attempted before on the once British colony. 
Looking at it today, there's still some impressive work in the movie--from the composites, to the miniatures, to the pyrotechnics. If it had been a success, there would have been more big event movies like it in Hong Kong.

Possibly had MPM been released in HK and other Asian territories before the US KONG remake it might have made a bigger mark at the box office. Additionally, had STAR WARS (1977) not been released and drastically altered audience perception of the blockbuster, it might have made a more noticeable mark internationally.
In trying to make an American movie with an Asian sensibility, the filmmakers surpass expectations in nearly all the wrong ways. The exaggerated human performances work in a period setting, but come off as misplaced in a modern one. Nonetheless, it only adds to the many charms Ho's movie offers.

As for those human performances...

Li Hsiu Hsien (about a decade before he became known as Danny Lee) had been a star at Shaw Brothers since Chang Cheh gave him both minor and sizable roles in bloody chivalry epics like THE WATER MARGIN (1972) and its direct sequel ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973/1975). In interviews at the time, Li stated that his scenes in the former big budget ensemble spectacle were handled by Pao Hsueh Li, one of two co-directors Chang Cheh was grooming for their own solo work behind the camera. 
However, then recent new director on the block, Chang Tseng Chai, gave him his first major lead role in the drama RIVER OF FURY in 1973. The film didn't do any business, so it would be a few more years before Li would headline a movie again. He was better served in other Chang Cheh ensemble actioners like the Eastern Western THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) which, according to Li, was the first time he was directed exclusively by Chang Cheh. 
When THE SUPER INFRAMAN (1975) came along, it was the motion picture that brought Li cult film status and international recognition. Li further varied his resume from most other actors at the studio with the bizarre horror flick THE OILY MANIAC (1976). He even portrayed Bruce Lee in BRUCE LEE & I (1976), co-starring with Betty Ting Pei, Bruce's lover and the last woman to see him alive. Unfortunately, Li didn't enjoy the experience playing Hong Kong cinema's most famous export; feeling his performance was lacking due to the rushed nature of the shoot and other issues that occurred during filming. 
Much like the bionic superhero movie that brought him overseas notice, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN was another international production for the actor that, in this case, was designed to be shown all over the world. Ten years later, Li would return to giant monster fantasies, starring in an awful Taiwanese-made monster movie called KING OF SNAKE (1987). 

Li's career got a second wind globally under the aegis of John Woo in 1989s box office smash THE KILLER, starring alongside Chow Yun Fat, another former Shaw Brothers alum. This era of his career was his most rewarding. The Shaw's gave him the chance to direct in 1981s ONE WAY ONLY; but the award winning actor really hit a directorial stride in the 90s helming the Cat III favorite DR. LAMB (1992) and then producing the notorious international horror true crime flick THE UNTOLD STORY (1993). Danny Lee stands out among his peers as having one of the most fascinating careers in Hong Kong cinema.
Li's co-star, Evelyne Kraft, had a relatively brief acting career; and hadn't been in the business long before being flown to Hong Kong to co-star in THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN and THE DEADLY ANGELS (both released in 1977). The former took so long to make the latter was shot rather quickly and released in March of 1977. A Kung Fu fighting, high-octane version of America's hit TV series CHARLIE'S ANGELS (1976-1981), Pao Hsueh Li's lady detective action flick became a surprise smash hit at the HK box office; bringing in over a million more than MPM cost to produce.
Behind the scenes and off-screen, Kraft had a remarkable life. When she decided to enter the entertainment industry, her original plan was to be a producer. Only 20 at the time, she used her own money to help finance THE FRENCH SEX MURDERS (1972); starring alongside aging actress Anita Ekberg. Naive at the time, Kraft was taken advantage of, losing her money in the process. She took the bad experience behind the camera and decided to pursue one in front of it. Realizing it wasn't the career for her, she eventually retired to become a wife and businesswoman by 1981. 

When her husband lost his business, she would start her own in real estate as well as a vineyard. Having traveled the world, her passion for culture and preserving it led her to build a company in Nigeria to further the education of children there. Missionary work to bring Christians and Muslims together caught the attention of Pope John Paul II, with the two meeting in 1998. Sadly, and shockingly, Ms. Kraft would pass away from heart failure on January 13th, 2009 at just 57 years of age.

Award-winning actor Ku Feng plays the unscrupulous businessman who sets the expedition in motion in a by-the-numbers role. It's hard to feel sympathy for anyone but the monster and the girl, really. Ku Feng's Lu Tien isn't much different from the thousands of HK citizens that come to see the enormous creature on display at Hong Kong Stadium. It amounts to a modern-day coliseum, recreating an ancient time where patrons demanded blood from their spectacle. There's a brief moment where Lu Tien appears to have a conscious creeping in upon seeing the vast crowd throwing food and other objects at the big ape. This doesn't last long, though, as minutes later, Lu is attempting to rape Samantha, prompting the Peking Man to have finally had enough; breaking his bonds and going on a rampage.

Hsiao Yao was a promising actress and a discovery of revered director Li Han Hsiang. She had a very short career in the industry, and wasn't that fond of it as she was a private person and doing movies didn't afford her that luxury. During downtime in filming MPM, she reluctantly took the lead role in COBRA GIRL (1977) under Sun Chung's direction. Having a fear of snakes, her role required her to handle them; and ended up being bitten on-set. Yao would abruptly quit the industry during the filming of THE FLYING GUILLOTINE II (1978) upon leaving for Taiwan on a Christmas vacation in December of 1976.
The actor inside the monster suit (for most of the movie) was Yuen Woo Ping's brother Yuen Chueng Yan; frequently a bit player with an occasional major role and martial arts choreographer in dozens of movies; including US movies like CHARLIE'S ANGELS 1 and 2 (2000/2003). Yuen doubles as a military man and shares a scene with Corey Yuen Kwai (above kneeling), who became famous in later years directing Jet Li; as well as having choreographed and directed action movies in the United States. 

Queen of HK Exploitation Chen Ping, star of films like Ho Meng Hua's KISS OF DEATH (1973) and Sun Chung's THE SEXY KILLER (1976), has a cameo of sorts; seen on television monitors singing inside the TVB Studios. She's billed in the credits but she has no scenes in the actual movie.

With its unmistakably 70s Hong Kong vibe and relentless ability to entertain, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN is the Jolt Cola of big ape movies. Over the top and irrepressibly chaotic from beginning to end, Hong KONG is among the mightiest of the Shaw Brothers cult film catalog; a grand and gaudy good time.
You can read even more about the making of the movie in our in-depth and massive article HERE.

This review is representative of the Japanese Twin blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1; Making Of documentary; original HK trailer; Celestial HK trailer; running time: 01:29:42

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