Sunday, January 30, 2022

Celluloid Trails: The Amazing Colossal Making of The Mighty Peking Man



 
"KING APE is about the nature of man and beast. On the surface it's just a fantasy-disaster movie. But what I like about this script is that it explores the treachery and cruelty of man compared to the so-called beastly nature of an ape."--Director Ho Meng Hua, HKMN October 1976.
 
It took two years, from conception to completion, to bring THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) to the big screen. For Chinese-language motion pictures at the time, it was an unprecedented production in the annals of Hong Kong cinema. With the international exposure from a slew of co-productions between 1974 and 1975, and the ambitious attempt to finally bring James Clavell's 'Taipan' to the screen, the Shaw Brothers were eager to put Hong Kong on the map as a major player in world cinema. This article is about Sir Run Run Shaw's ambitions to do that very thing; and the making of one of HK's greatest, and most ambitious cult sensations--its production, and bittersweet legacy. 

VISIONS IN THE MAKING: TAI-PAN & A GIANT APE EPIC

The 1970s was a transitional decade for Chinese-language movies. At the time, martial arts films were the dominant force in Hong Kong--one reason being there were so many of them. New trends--some homegrown and others having outside influences--would further transform the cinema of the then British colony. Kung Fu films brought with it the rise of Mandarin movies; and soon, other genre styles like horror, erotica and modern crime would keep Hong Kong's FCO (Film Censorship Office) busy beyond the typical Chang Cheh tale of gore-drenched heroism.

The late Sir Run Run Shaw modeled Movietown on Old Hollywood, and always admired the style of those studio productions. He was constantly influenced by them to the point he wanted to bring Hollywood to Chinese cinema; and later, to bring Chinese cinema to the foreign masses once outsiders showed interest in them. It was a little movie called KING BOXER (1972), more famously known as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, that sold the Asian mystique to the rest of the world. That film's massive global popularity opened the door for Bruce Lee's mega-star status, and led to assorted co-productions that further put HK on the world stage in the entertainment industry; only not on the level of respectability the Shaw's wanted to see them go.
 
"In the past few years, Disaster Movies have become a worldwide trend. Many major studios are making them. But in the Mandarin film world, no one dares to attempt such films. The reason is that in addition to the huge investment, the most modern special effects are needed to bring such a picture to life. However, this situation is changing. The Shaw Brothers Company of Hong Kong are currently filming 'King of the Apes', a motion picture that combines the Disaster genre with giant beasts. Judging by what's been shot thus far, it not only shows that Shaw Studio is qualified to make such a huge international Disaster movie, but that the filming is up to the standard of foreign films."--Southern Screen, September 1976.
 
On December 15th, 1971, Run Run Shaw opened the plush Cinerama Pearl Theater in Hong Kong. With various stars and government dignitaries in attendance, the first Disaster Movie, KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1968), was shown. The 'Disaster Movie' genre piqued Shaw's interest since their later distribution of THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) and EARTHQUAKE (1975) brought big box office; the same with JAWS (1975)--a horror picture and the first bonafide blockbuster--was lumped in with Disaster movies in Hong Kong. Such films relied heavily on special effects trickery. Chinese cinema had often dabbled in crude special effects techniques; but it would be a few more years before a Chinese-style spectacle with international appeal would grace theater screens in Hong Kong and other Chinese-speaking territories.
 
In the mid-1970s, three award-winning directors were highly respected and critically lauded--those three being Li Han Hsiang, Chang Cheh, and King Hu Chin Chuan. The last man, King Hu, was crucial in furthering Hong Kong's international recognition. Initially a commercial director at Shaw Brothers, he wasn't made for major studios--preferring an open, independent range for his artistic ideas that transcended being typical Oriental entertainment. Five years after it was made, Hu's A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971) won both critical prominence and an award for Best Foreign Feature at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. (insert: Roy Chiao Hung, Hsu Feng and King Hu at Cannes)
 

With the door opening further, Run Run Shaw had an ambition to broaden international interest beyond the popular Kung Fu pictures that foreign audiences craved; frequently made on the cheap and an easy sell. Even as THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) was still in production, Run Run Shaw saw the theatrical Kung Fu movie craze outside of Asia dissipating and said as much in an interview about his outlook for 1977:  
 
"I think in the future, we must raise our production standards. Only good movies get good box office. After many years of hard work, Chinese movies finally aroused interest from foreign markets. It's a pity that just as our movies were beginning to flourish, many crudely-made pictures were exported, discouraging foreign sales. From now on buying and selling will be more strict. However, there is a way for cooperation with major American and European companies to lay a foundation for global distribution. We are preparing to make 'Tai-pan' with Universal in the United States as an international co-production. With our financial resources we must not follow the film with the participation of foreign countries but lead the film. This is a big budget picture with a cost of more than $10 million US dollars. I hope that filming will begin in the summer of 1977. We can't just talk about making a good movie, but actually do it; and only with such a big production can we enter the international film scene."
 
Complications arose with the loss of some Asian markets after the communists took control of Vietnam in 1975. Another blow came in 1976 when other Asian territories like Indonesia and Thailand placed restrictions on Chinese-language imports to build up their own domestic film industries. There was also a censorship crack-down on excessively gory and sexy scenes in markets outside of HK. Then there was the oil crisis on top of everything else. Kung Fu movies were the most dominant genre but they too were suffering as some Middle Eastern markets were banning their distribution; possibly due to the religious symbolism that came with the surge of Shaolin pictures popularized by Chang Cheh. Dramas were seldom big hits in Asian markets so those were out for foreign appeal. Comedies were strictly a local style as most outsiders wouldn't get the humor unless the comedy catered to international tastes. It was time for a different kind of movie made by Chinese artists that could compete in overseas markets and garner notice by Anglo audiences, while bolstering revenue for movies made in Hong Kong.

In 1975 when the legal battle between Universal and Paramount began over who could make a new version of KING KONG (1933), the Shaw Brothers saw it as a good time to do one of their own. Over in the UK, there was another giant ape movie in the works titled QUEEN KONG (1976); and a South Korea-US co-production in the form of the 3D banana peel known as A.P.E. (1976); then there was YETI: THE GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY (1977) that hailed from Italy. 
 
While the high-profile 'Tai-pan' waited in the wings, the Shaw Brothers hoped for a lot of additional foreign exposure in their attempt to make a giant ape movie on a par with its headline-grabbing American counterpart.
 
As the US remake was coming out of its courtroom entanglements and encountering production issues of its own, the intention was to get KING APE made in six months and into theaters before the American KONG remake would hit Silver Screens everywhere. However, delays and problems of gigantic proportions never before seen on the tiny British-ruled island would cause filming to go on much longer than initially planned. What would later be known internationally as THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) became as much an adventure to make as it was to watch on the big screen.

DIRECTING THE BEAST
 
"Something else to grab your attention in this movie besides the special effects is the script; the relationship between human nature and the so-called beast nature. This is what I like best about this picture. The script exposes the treachery and cruelty of human beings. I'm not trying to make a preachy movie, but the audience is expecting a film that is both highly entertaining and has a certain story element attached to it."--Director Ho Meng Hua, HKMN, September 1976.
 
Filming for APE KING (or ORANGUTAN KING or GORILLA KING) began on June 27th, 1976. Having gained some experience in the problems of working on an effects-heavy movie during the filming of THE SUPER INFRAMAN, the Shaw's were a little more cognizant of what was ahead of them (or so they thought) when they split the production into two camps--one for special effects and the other for filming the actors. This was to make the filming more efficient in the hopes of arriving at the intended six-month deadline.

Award-winning Director Ho Meng Hua was no stranger to movies with special effects in them. One of his most celebrated works early in his career was a famous quartet of HK Fantasy films. Beginning with the hit THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966), the series continued with PRINCESS IRON FAN (1966), THE CAVE OF THE SILKEN WEB (1967), and culminated with THE LAND OF MANY PERFUMES (1968). 
 
Ho's THE MONKEY GOES WEST had recently been re-released in Singapore and the response was unexpectedly overwhelming. The Chinese normally don't like older movies. In 1976, MONKEY was already a decade old, so that it received renewed audience appreciation was a bit of a stimulant to everyone involved in the production of THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977); especially to its director who remarked in an interview, "In this era, the photographic advancements are changing daily. I'm surprised that MONKEY GOES WEST still holds such a strong appeal. With the technology of today, the special effects have certainly improved."
 
Director Ho's experience with movies containing special effects--and particularly the arduous, year-long undertaking Ho went through with 1975s THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (you can read our extensive Making Of HERE)--was the reason Run Run Shaw handed the script to him. Still, director Ho was nervous about taking on this one-of-a-kind movie, although he would not be directing the numerous special effects sequences; virtually all of which were being seen for the first time in a HK motion picture.

Going all out on this production, Run Run Shaw splurged US$90,000 for a front-projection camera and US$60,000 on a steadicam. The latter equipment making its debut photographing Sun Chung's JUDGMENT OF AN ASSASSIN (1977). This was another instance where it was evident Shaw was eying the US market. His earlier two-year co-production phase was an experiment that didn't entirely pay off, but did pave the way for the aspirational and market-savvy producer to roll the dice for the next several years.

Having overseen every aspect of the film's making, as well as the script changing twice, Ho Meng Hua was finding the production taxing on one's faculties early into the shoot. "APE KING is Shaw's biggest investment this year. The production department pays the most attention to it, and it's also the one film with the most meetings. It's particularly troublesome; there are so many special effects, models and various props. We'll also be doing location shooting so I have that to study too. I don't know anything about these kinds of special effects. Sometimes it takes as many as three days to get one good shot". As mentioned earlier, filming took much longer than expected, ballooning to over a year in total production time.
 
Another production hurdle to get over was the language barrier. Director Ho spoke both Cantonese and English on the set; Swiss actress Evelyne Kraft, fluent in German, French, and Italian, had been learning English for several months and that was how she communicated on set. Meanwhile, Yoshiyuki Kuroda (head of the first team of Japanese FX technicians that worked on the film), elucidated in his native Japanese that was then translated into Cantonese. Once a limited crew went to India for location work (none of the SPX staff or supporting cast like Hsiao Yao were required), there was another language to communicate with. Director Ho remarked, "I can't speak Hindi, and India had been under British rule for so long, so it was all English language with them."
 
DANNY LEE: HONG KONG'S LEADING SPECIAL EFFECTS ACTOR

Like many Chinese film actors, Danny Lee (Li Hsiu Hsien) viewed his profession as a job like any other; not being particularly vocal about script or choice of roles, but taking whatever the studio assigned to him. He wasn't pleased with his performance as Bruce Lee, though; as that film was shot quickly and also the pressure Li incurred from those around him. By October of '76, though, the then 23 year old actor was annoyed by the giant ape production due in part to the amount of special effects demanded of it that was dragging out the filming. 
 
The difficulties in its making surpassed the much smoother shoot of the previous years THE SUPER INFRAMAN (1975); the first Chinese SciFi-Superhero movie (you can read our extensive Making Of HERE). A lot had been riding on that picture, and Lee was excited about the prospects of starring in a major blockbuster. Unfortunately, the film failed at the HK box office. Lee had this to say about the picture in October of 1976: "I really enjoyed doing THE SUPER INFRAMAN. It is a fun film. I feel the release date was the wrong time so I missed my chance at starring in a big hit".
 
Having already worked on THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN for three months and with no end in sight, Lee had become frustrated by the lack of progress on this new special effects-heavy super-production. "The filming is moving very slow. Movies with special effects take a lot of time and often require lots of re-shoots that prolong the process. Shaw's are pouring a lot of money into this picture, and I appreciate they've chosen me to star in it; but the time it's taking to shoot and the number of retakes to get a good shot is affecting my personal income. I'm a contract actor. I'm supposed to do four movies a year and I can't even do two films this year because KING OF THE APES is moving too slow."
 
Lee began filming THE BATTLE WIZARD (1977) the year prior, and was being referred to as the company's "Special Effects Actor". Lee was amassing a number of effects-heavy titles on his resume unlike any other HK star at the time. Outside of starring in Hua Shan's THE SUPER INFRAMAN, Lee was THE OILY MANIAC (1976) for director Ho (it had just been released a few weeks prior); and the lead actor in THE BATTLE WIZARD (1977), Pao Hsueh Li's impressive spectacle that was, at the time, unfinished; and now, the biggest of them all, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977).
 
Lee's contract was for seven years and he had one more to go. At the time, he was dating Margaret Li Yen Ping, the daughter of exalted film director, Li Han Hsiang. To journalists in HK, Danny Lee's relationship with Li Han Hsiang's daughter was almost as big a story as the giant ape picture he was starring in. By the time the MPM crew had moved to India for location shooting, Margaret was sent off to the UK for four years to learn to be a fashion designer. Writing letters and talking on the phone everyday, the 18 year old Margaret took her classmates to see BRUCE LEE & I (1976) when it opened in Chinatown theaters there. 
 
Upon her return to HK, she would ultimately follow in her father's footsteps and take jobs as an assistant director to Mou Tun Fei on his 'Gun' segment of ARSON: CRIMINALS III (1977). Wanting to be a director like her father, she accompanied him to South Korea to work on THE ADVENTURES OF EMPEROR CHIEN LUNG (1977). With reports of the two's frequent bickering and the rumor that director Li didn't like the actor, the relationship didn't last. 
 
Lee, wishing to avoid the press as much as possible on his love life and find a lady of lower temperament, met an English-educated Malaysian air hostess named Grace (Ji Si) in May of 1979. On November 27th, they were married.

 
With the ballyhoo for the big gorilla building all over Hong Kong and the surrounding territories, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN was becoming Hong Kong's biggest spectacle up to that time. Meanwhile, there was another addition to the production that attracted as much, if not more, media attention than the Great Ape himself. 

EVELYNE KRAFT: THE BEAUTY & THE BEAST

Then 24 year old Swiss model and actress Evelyne Kraft was invited by Run Run Shaw to co-star in the movie. Spotted by a Shaw talent scout in Europe, Ms. Kraft was asked to do the picture as a one-off, intended for three months work. This turned out to be an extended vacation for her, and led to her participation in one additional movie, THE WOMEN DETECTIVES (THE DEADLY ANGELS) directed by Chang Cheh protege, cinematographer-turned-director Pao Hsueh Li.
 
She got her start in the entertainment industry at the age of 18 performing in stage plays and on television. Her dream at the time was that her gigantic co-star would be a smash on the international market, opening the door for an entrance into Hollywood. One of her films, SUPERBUG: THE CRAZIEST CAR IN THE WORLD (1975), played HK theaters shortly after filming on THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN was complete. 
 
Around the time that production for MPM started, the Miss Universe Pageant was being held in HK. Shaw hosted parties and tours of the studio for all 72 contestants. When Ms. Kraft was having her makeup done for publicity and her first scenes to be shot, the makeup artist remarked how beautiful she was and how she could have been a contestant in the pageant.
 
The Shaw's were adamant that a foreign woman play the main female lead; presumably to bolster the international appeal and to add to the exoticism the movie promised. One of the ladies that tried out for the role that eventually went to Ms. Kraft was Australian model Julie Catherine Spowage (see insert). She was among the thirty finalists (and the only foreign finalist) in the Miss Hong Kong Pageant that aired in May of 1976.
 
During Kraft's first press conference, reporters asked various questions--about her pay and if she'd ever seen any Chinese movies before; and if so, who her favorite Chinese film stars were. Refusing to reveal her salary other than stating it was quite satisfactory, Kraft couldn't recall the names of the movies she'd seen, but did state she admired Bruce Lee (and in a later interview, added Ti Lung to her list of favorites).
 
"In the eyes of Chinese people, Swiss culture is so easy to understand. I want to be more mysterious."--Evelyne Kraft, HKMN February 1977.
 
Due to Ms. Kraft being a non-Chinese, the reporters were obsessed with things like her measurements, love life, and feelings on marriage; in one article, the author described her body in detail in comparison to Chinese women. This level of analysis and scrutiny of physical appearance was normal for Chinese people. They were as curious about her as the onlookers gazing at Utam (the name Kraft's character gives The Mighty Peking Man in the export version). And while she didn't say it at the time, years later Ms. Kraft revealed this level of ogling was comparable to the treatment of the title beast in the movie she was starring in. 
 
Even more so than previous foreign actresses like Birte Tove, the Shaw's got the maximum amount of mileage out of Evelyne Kraft. She was as much a selling point for the movie as the giant ape was; and they made sure to promote her at every opportunity.

Having traveled all around the world, and visited virtually every other continent, seeing Hong Kong and the Mainland was a first for her. When she wasn't filming, Ms. Kraft, a quiet, country girl at heart, saw the sights in HK and noted in interviews how unclean it was in some of the urban areas. However, at the time, she had nothing but good to say about Run Run Shaw, his hospitality and Movie Town in general. A fan of the cuisine, Kraft learned how to use chopsticks while filming THE DEADLY ANGELS (1977); a movie that became a surprise box office smash hit in HK. 
 
Shortly after filming began on MPM in late June of 1976, Ms. Kraft was asked how the shoot was going. "I like this script a lot. I love animals and there's so many in the story and then there's the forest locations. I am at home in this kind of atmosphere". Back home in Switzerland, Kraft also raised horses and missed her dog terribly as she didn't expect to be in Hong Kong for over a year.

Her boyfriend at the time, a singer and amateur photographer named Wolfgang Young (of Polish and German heritage), visited her during the shoot. The necklace she was wearing bore his initial.
 
Asked about working with Li Hsiu Hsien, Kraft responded, "I've only worked with him on-set for a few days. We can't communicate, but things are translated for us. It can still be complicated. Sometimes we use hand gestures to get our meaning across, so it's an interesting situation."

Coming from Europe, Evelyne Kraft brought with her the openness of the culture; something the reserved Chinese weren't used to and, in many cases, weren't expecting. Even so, Kraft was a conservative woman who had no favor with the feminist movement and was a firm believer in monogamy and marriage. However, her costume (or lack thereof) raised many eyebrows during both the Hong Kong shoot and the filming in India. When she wasn't needed on-set, she often went to Deep Water Bay to swim; and frequently attracted a lot of attention when doing so.

ON LOCATION IN INDIA

"We shot in a place called Mysore, located in Southern India. It took two hours to reach where we were filming by car and by ox. For one sequence our explorers climb a 2,000 foot high waterfall where some of the expedition fall to their deaths. We wanted to shoot some closeups of Tsiu Siu Keung's death scene after he falls off the mountain and drowns. We thought the water was shallow so we told him to go under and hold his breath for 30 seconds. He knows how to swim but he didn't expect the water to be as deep as it was. So he's grabbing out of the water with both hands and Ku Feng yells to him, 'You're supposed to be a dead person, so hurry up and pretend to be dead!' Then this huge water snake appears and he swam away so fast. Wu Hang Sheng rushed over with a branch to try and draw the snake away, so it was some great footage."--Director Ho Meng Hua, Southern Screen February 1977. (in insert: Ho and Cai Lan in India)
 
The Shaw's wanted a real epic; and to accomplish that, they'd need to do some location shooting. Originally, the crew intended to film on location in Thailand, but chose India as there were fewer to no restrictions and the company had never shot a movie there before. The plan was to travel to India for filming after all the in-studio footage was completed in HK. This, too, had its own set of issues that further complicated things for a cast and crew that weren't accustomed to traveling beyond the borders of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.
 
Leaving HK on November 22nd, 1976, around a dozen crew members and principal cast made the journey to India where they remained till December 22nd, 1976. Filming out in the jungle a good distance away from civilization, director Ho, production manager Cai Lan (Chua Lam), and stars Li Hsiu Hsien and Evelyne Kraft would find themselves in an off-screen mini-adventure unlike the stress of making movies in HK. (insert: Fanny, Evelyne Kraft, Shaw Yin Yin pose for reporters upon returning to HK)
 
Asked about the trip, director Ho said in a January '77 interview, "It was hard work out there, and difficulties eating the food and trying to get any sleep. The Indian food was so spicy, especially if you're not accustomed to it. We had little appetite to eat so we mostly ate the dry food we brought with us. We stayed in a small Indian village and got up at 5am and shot till midnight so a lack of sleep affected us all". (insert: SPX director Sadamasa Arikawa with Yuen Chueng Yan rehearsing a scene)

Before the crew left for India, Shaw's production manager, Cai Lan, had made arrangements with a circus to utilize trained tigers, elephants, and leopards for filming. Two tigers were used--one that was trained in a zoo and docile; and another that turned out to be difficult to control and had the crew on edge. There were no tranquilizer guns on standby so if something went wrong the tiger would have been shot. It was decided that they would not use the aggressive tiger for any interactions, but only for shots where they needed it to bear its teeth and claws, and for jumping. The trained tiger, on the other hand, had been declawed; and the script called for Danny Lee's character to do battle with the cat. A double was going to be used but Li Hsiu Hsien wanted to tangle with the tiger on-camera. 
 
Now the concern on the set was if Lee was injured there was no way to get him to a hospital in time because they were too far away and no way to get anyone out from the air. Director Ho remarked, "Li Hsiu Hsien got in there to fight a 400lb tiger in one scene. He was scared but he couldn't lose face. To our amazement, the tiger ran off while filming that but the guides were able to retrieve him. Shooting with some of the other cats took many takes to get a good one. Sometimes the animal would get angry and the Indian trainer would have to calm him down."
 
Ho Meng Hua utilized hundreds of Indian extras for the Peking Man's emergence from the jungle. This, of course, was easier than working with animals. In addition to filming various scenes with big cats, the crew had scenes with a herd of stampeding elephants. A lot of the location shoot was spent working with the elephants for the big stampede. "There's a sequence with dozens of elephants destroying a small village in the jungle. We built the huts and then let the elephants loose to trample them. But when we finished shooting, the elephants became docile and some even helped clean up the mess!" 
 
Commenting further on his India adventure, director Ho went on to state, "Mysore was a suitable location for our movie; definitely not a great tourism spot, though. The inadequate equipment made filming even more difficult. I'm hoping the movie will be completed before the Lunar New Year. With all the time and effort we're putting into it, the box office should be even bigger than the Peking Man himself."
 
Director Ho had this to say about Evelyne Kraft working with the animals. "It was very dangerous in the jungle. Once we went in there you didn't know what was going to happen. Ms. Kraft's character was raised by the giant gorilla, so she is friends with all the jungle beasts. In real life, Ms. Kraft loves animals so she loved shooting those scenes in the jungle. She was so affectionate with the big cats, rolling around on the ground playing with them, even kissing them. She made the trainer very nervous!"

Evelyne Kraft not only loved animals, but she loved traveling the world and had been everywhere else but the Far East. The India trip was a big deal for her; but apparently she was the only member of the cast and crew that thoroughly enjoyed her time there. Her co-star didn't find it a pleasant experience.
 
According to Danny Lee, "I didn't expect trouble to occur on the first day of our arrival. We obviously weren't familiar with the terrain there or the culture, so we hired a guide to take us to scout locations. We also didn't expect our guide to drive erratically to the point we were afraid he was going to wreck our vehicle. The worst part was that he took the wrong route and got us lost. So I took over, found our destination, and then we returned to Mumbai. We wasted 28 hours in total. It was a miserable ride."
 
Lee recounted other problems that included the hotel they stayed at when a booking error left him and Ku Feng with a single room. When they finally got their double room, they discovered that it was smaller, and less appealing than the single. "There are many problems", Lee said, "When taking a bath in the hotel, there is often no water; so sometimes you're left there with soap all over you and no water to wash with. After that, I had a basin of water prepared ahead of time so if the water stopped, I can wash off". Drinking water was also an issue. "I'd get thirsty and want a drink of water. A waiter would bring it to me and it would be yellow. Why is it yellow?! So I would order a Coca-Cola instead. Everybody was drinking Coke there." (insert: Ku Feng and a makeup artist goof off between takes)
 
As previously mentioned, the crew also didn't take well to the Indian food; and some of the meat they brought with them spoiled. So they filled their stomachs on bananas out in the wild. According to Li Hsiu Hsien, "It was difficult to become accustomed to Indian food; so we ate lots of bananas to satisfy our hunger. We got tired of them after a while. Myself, Ku Feng, Evelyne Kraft and others bought a bunch of them for little more than HK$5. The Indians are very poor and we attracted many onlookers while we had all these bananas; so we gave them away. It was like a treasure to them so we became very popular after that."
 
 
Li also didn't enjoy the grueling work schedule, getting up at 5am to start work and not stop till late into the night. There were no recreation spots around so after work Li simply rested till it was time to get up and repeat. Some of India's entertainment celebrities did visit them out in the jungle locations that gave the production even more public attention. 
 
Apparently there were some humorous moments amid all the stressful ones Li found himself in. Upon their return, Li told a reporter, "There are many funny stories to tell, but I don't have time to tell them all. One of them involved Tsui Siu Keung when we were leaving India. Turned out his passport date was wrong. The clerk was adamant he stay behind because of the erroneous information. Obviously we can't leave him there so the clerk asked if he had any cigarettes. Two cigarettes was all it took to clear the customs!" 
 
Danny Lee and the rest of the crew returned to Hong Kong in December of 1976 where the shooting of the special effects continued. Incidentally, Evelyne Kraft remained in India for a brief vacation. She was photographed returning to Hong Kong on January 5th, 1977 accompanying Run Run Shaw; along with actresses Shaw Yin Yin and Fanny who had attended the India Film Festival. Since there was a cooperation between HK and India for location shooting on THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN, Run Run went there for a three day stay starting January 2nd to discuss opening up an Indian market for Chinese-language movies. Shaw screened Chu Yuan's THE WEB OF DEATH (1976) in an observatory for a small audience of producers. The trip was purportedly a success, as Shaw Brothers pictures were to be distributed there starting in summer of 1977.

FINISHING THE PEKING MAN
 
"Making a big budget movie isn't just about having the money to finance it. But there needs to be a willingness to do the work, endure the hardship, and have a level of talent at the helm."--Ho Meng Hua, HKMN June 1977.

Even with this massive movie to contend with, Ho Meng Hua began work in August of 1976 on an adult drama titled DREAMS OF EROTICISM (1977). It was a co-directing gig with the likes of Sun Chung, Hua Shan, and Mou Tun Fei. Making multiple movies at once was one of the notable differences between filming in HK versus the US. Ho's contract stipulated he direct four films a year so he had a few more to fit somewhere in his schedule that was virtually occupied exclusively by this monster movie.
 
By February of 1977, principal photography on Ho's giant ape opus was finished. That same month, during the Lunar New Year holiday, Ho ended up in the hospital with gastrointestinal bleeding. Resting at home for a couple months after surgery, when he returned to the studio in May of '77, all that remained was editing; itself an enormous undertaking. With nearly 40 hours of footage to sift through (200,000 feet of film), director Ho would oversee the editing process carried out by Chiang Hsing Lung (who seemingly slept with an editing machine), and Thom and Pepita Noble. British Thom Noble worked on dozens of prestigious US productions, and won an Academy Award for his editing on WITNESS (1985).

While he recuperated at his home in Waterloo Hill (Bruce Lee lived there, as did Polly Shang Kuan), he was interviewed about the status of his Ape epic. "From the beginning, Shaw wanted this to be a worldwide release. And it has been the most difficult movie I've ever done, mainly due to the special effects involved. Shooting special effects is many times harder than a normal film shoot. For this one we have lots of miniature and front-screen photography. Run Run Shaw purchased this expensive new camera from overseas. If more special effects shots are needed, the production cost itself will be over HK$6 million."

Compounding things for director Ho during the editing process, he was called on to re-shoot a quarter or more of THE BATTLE WIZARD (released one month after MPM in September) due to actress Lin Chin Chi being unavailable because of prior commitments on other film projects; one of which was in Taiwan. The original director, Pao Hsueh Li, was no longer at Shaw Studio, having left to form his own production company. THE WOMEN DETECTIVES (THE DEADLY ANGELS) was his last completed movie for the studio. Despite Ho's re-shoots, Pao retained sole directing credit on that picture.

By June of 1977, Ho Meng Hua was finally done with the PEKING MAN and had moved on to directing THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978) and prepping a horror movie titled THE PSYCHOPATH (1978). Ho Meng Hua enjoyed talking about making his giant ape film, but when asked by a reporter if he'd ever want to make such a big movie again Ho responded, "No, no! The length of time it took to make, and the hard work involved isn't worth it. My next two projects are ordinary movies so I can relax". (insert: unused shot of the dead Peking Man)
 
"This film has so many special effects and we shot more than 200,000 feet! The average length of a film released theatrically is 8,000-9,000 feet of film. We cut APE KING down to 10,000 feet."--Director Ho Meng Hua on the test-screen version, Southern Screen, July 1977.
 
With such an overwhelming amount of footage shot, a voluminous number of scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Some of these included attacks by man-eating vines during the jungle portion of the movie and destruction of trains from mainland China to HK. There were some additional scenes with the Peking Man in the water, such as Victoria Harbor, but these were either cut or never filmed. One sequence cut from the film had the Peking Man destroying the Cross-Harbor Tunnel. Alternate takes of existing scenes were trimmed such as the naked bathing scene between Danny Lee and Evelyne Kraft where they were filmed from behind a waterfall. A nude shot of her with Danny Lee in the river and aboard the ship when Ku Feng walks in and sees her topless survived the trailer but were trimmed from the release version. 
 
 
There were indeed two endings filmed--one wherein Kraft is killed and another where she survives (see above); a bloodied Samantha and Johnny looking down at the remains of the giant ape creature. None of the versions that have been on VHS, DVD, and blu-ray have featured the more upbeat ending. Ms. Kraft stated in interviews that the ending where Samantha survives were on the prints that played in India. When the movie was near release in Hong Kong, articles for the film gave the entire plot away, including the ending wherein both the title ape and his trusted jungle gal pal perish in the urban jungle.
 
In addition to THE BATTLE WIZARD (1977), the Shaw Brothers were producing another Fantasy movie in 1975; that being THE SNAKE PRINCE (1976), from dramatic director Lo Chen. It was arguably the most unorthodox variation on the famous Chinese folktale, 'Madame White Snake'; a tale produced multiple times by the Shaw Brothers Studio as far back as the 1920s. Shaw's Production Manager Cai Lan had hired a small Japanese special effects crew to create the giant snake monsters that feature prominently in the bizarre, musical-drama-fantasy's unusually violent finale. 
 
The crew belonged to Ex Productions and Twenty, both founded by Keizo Murase; a monster designer and modeler who had worked on Toho's Godzilla series and Daiei's Gamera series. The Shaw's would be so pleased with their work on THE SNAKE PRINCE that Cai asked Murase to stick around for another gig working on a movie about a giant, mythical ape.
 
BUILDING THE BEAST: SPECIAL EFFECTS & DESTROYING HONG KONG
 
Special effects weren't of a high standard in Chinese-language motion pictures even in their heyday. Inspired by the pioneering work of Georges Melies around the turn of the century, Chinese special effects techniques progressed little beyond that well into the 1970s.
 
The Shaw Brothers and the Japanese film industry had been cooperating together since the mid-1950s; such as their 1956 collaboration with Toho, THE LEGEND OF THE WHITE SERPENT. Shaw's partnership in an exchange of talent for both sides to learn the other's filmmaking techniques blossomed in the late 60s and into the early 70s. By late 1974, Run Run Shaw brought Japanese special effects men to HK to work on THE SUPER INFRAMAN, but they tended to drop what the Japanese had done and did it their own way. With THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN, that all changed as both teams worked together on the various suits, props, and effects required for this ambitious movie. 
 
There was an unheard of HK$6 million being spent on it (the budget reportedly ballooned to over HK$7 million). Shaw's needed to do this one right as one of the reasons for making it was the international marketing he had in mind. As director Ho put it, "There are more thrilling special effects than lengthy dialog exchanges. It's not an extremely violent movie, and since it will be released worldwide, all audiences will be able to see this picture."
 
Japan's SciFi industry, both on the big and small screen, was at a low ebb in popularity at this point. TERROR OF MECHA GODZILLA (1975), for example, was a superior and extremely serious entry in the Godzilla series. Even with returning master director Ishiro Honda at the helm, it failed at the box office. The series, as well as the Gamera series, were put on hiatus. The same happened with Tsuburaya's ULTRAMAN programs. When the ratings bottomed out for ULTRAMAN LEO (1974-1975), the live-action show was likewise closed down till the start of the next decade. With the Shaw Brothers producing the first large-scale monster-disaster movie ever made in Hong Kong, this presented a unique opportunity for Japanese SPX creators to do a big, effects-heavy movie outside their native Japan. (insert: early, caveman-like Peking Man suit from Kuroda's crew)

 
Yoshiyuki Kuroda (above with stuntman Yuen Chueng Yan), famous for his SPX on the still impressive DAIMAJIN (1966) trilogy, led the first team of Japanese special effects technicians that worked on THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN. Reportedly, the original designs were intended to closely align with the American-style King Kong. Obtaining the license was going to be impossible so this idea was scrapped. 

 
Various makeup tests were done to create the potential 'Orangutan King'; which was the film's literal translated title. One early design looked more like a caveman with long hair around the mouth and facial features. One style that was in use before ultimately being scrapped was a suit design using goat hair that resembled a relative of the Gargantuas in Toho's WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966). The results weren't satisfactory so the crew abandoned this look and tried something different.
 
Unfortunately, by the time they'd struck on something usable, the work Visa's of the first Japanese crew expired after the designated three-month period, and they all returned to Japan. Murase, though, was on-deck for the duration and remained alone till a second crew of eleven men, this time from Toho, was brought in to pick up where Kuroda and his team left off; working on, and finishing the special effects, over another three month period. 
 
Heading this new crew was Sadamasa Arikawa (at right with Yuen inside the suit), who worked on virtually all of Toho's giant monster movies in some capacity. He was special effects director on early ULTRA shows for Tsuburaya Productions, and on Godzilla movies like GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1967) and SON OF GODZILLA (1967). Joining the team as an assistant special effects director was Koichi Kawakita. He would become SPX Director on all the Heisei Godzilla movies beginning with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989) through GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995).
 

According to sources at the time, the Chinese staff collaborating with the Japanese FX crew worked around the clock in shifts to get the vast array of props finished. They made comparable work to the Japanese artisans that included a village temple and miniature cars seen in the mass destruction finale. Some 130 miniatures were reported to have been built for the movie. These included enormous cityscapes and popular Hong Kong landmarks. (above: another early, more humanoid design for the Peking Man)
 
The language barrier notwithstanding, Kawakita had a great time working on the movie, commenting in an interview, "They had equipment we didn't have in Japan, and the height of the studio was much bigger than in Japan. However, there was a shortage of equipment to accomplish the special effects. For example, there was no wind machine. So I went to the steel workshop they had and had it built. This was my first job upon arriving. I made a crane for filming, too."
 
Well known for sculpting, among many others, Varan in VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958) and Gamera from GIANT MONSTER GAMERA (1965), Keizo Murase was in charge of modeling the monster. This included a full-size suit, a smaller version, giant arms, some legs, and the many buildings the beast would summarily destroy during the wild final half. The HK miniature sets are stunning, and of a noticeably larger scale than what you saw in Japanese SciFi movies at the time. The miniature buildings towered over the men that designed them and even the Peking Man himself. As Mr. Murase put it in an interview, "The stages we shot in were about twice the size of Toho's 8th and 9th stages. Everything was finely crafted, and it was a wonderful experience replicating the city of Hong Kong."
 
Reportedly, Murase was also tasked with completing usable effects footage leftover from Kuroda's team, as well as editing all the SPX sequences once they were finished. On his time at Shaw's Murase remarked, "I stayed in HK for a year and a half. Working on THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN is an especially memorable moment in my life". (insert: Murase modeling one of the early forms of the ape creature)

Several years later, Murase's company, Twenty, would return to HK to do the special effects for the horror movie THE SEVENTH CURSE (1986).

The new, finalized suit was a more traditional, ape-like design, and a uniquely original one. Instead of goat hair, human hair was used to make the suit. Hong Kongers donated enough of their scalps for three Peking Man suits. Murase also made an animatronic Peking Man head for closeups.

According to magazine articles back then, the Peking Man was originally going to be played by two men. The one known actor that played the monster was Yuen Cheung Yan, brother to famous choreographer Yuen Woo Ping. Appearing in bit parts and stunt roles in countless movies, he's also notable for his major roles in his brothers THE MIRACLE FIGHTERS (1982) and its subsequent sequels like SHAOLIN DRUNKARD (1983). In the Japanese movies, the suit actors could only be inside the suits for minutes at the time due to the heat factor. Since the Shaw Studio wasn't air-conditioned at that time, this compounded things exponentially. Even so, it was easier on Yuen as he only needed to remove the mask to catch a breather.
 
As the KING KONG movies featured their simian giants climbing tall buildings, the HK version would do likewise. But whereas the '33 KONG climbed the Empire State Building; and '76 KONG the World Trade Center, the Peking Man traversed the 54-story Jardine House; known at the time as Connaught Center. Built in 1972, it was once the tallest building in Hong Kong, sporting round windows that will likely appear as odd to those unfamiliar with the building.
 
Filming the fiery finale atop the 54-story Connaught Building was a combination of on-location work, in-studio, and special effects filming. Taking three nights to complete, twenty meetings with city officials and law enforcement were required for the sequence that would utilize real police, fire department, and military personnel. Reportedly, thousands of citizens were used as extras. Seven cameras were required, along with five generators needed to supply 600,000 watts of lighting. (insert: on-set of the Peking Man suit being set ablaze)
 
The explosive final moments required the suit actor to be engulfed in fire. Yuen Cheung Yan refused to do this stunt. Attempted negotiations to insure him in case anything went wrong took around a week off the shoot as the crew waited till somebody would do the stunt so they could wrap the picture.
 
 
Murase, who had worked on the film for the duration, and had such a hands-on approach in the creation of the monster suit, decided to do the stunt himself. A model of the top of the building was made for when Utam would battle the fleet of helicopters. Explosions were then set off and the suit set on fire before the suit actor falls off the building on cue. The stunt was successfully done three times to the director's satisfaction. Yuen Cheung Yan wouldn't do the stunt himself, but was the first on the platform to put out the fire. Murase later received an expensive gold watch for his effort.

To give them their full due, the Japanese crew that completed the movie after Kuroda's exit are: Special Effects Director, Sadamasa Arikawa; Assistant Director, Koichi Kawakita; Peking Man Designed and Modeled by Keizo Murase; Cinematographer, Motoyoshi Tomioka; Special Effects Lighting, Masakuni Morimoto; Special Effects, Isao Kume; Special Effects Art Director, Yoshio Suzuki; and in Special Effects Art Direction, Mutsumi Toyoshima, Tamotsu Sato, Hiroshi Nakamura and Toshiyuki Suzuki.

RELEASE THE BEAST

"The budget went over HK$6 million. You could make many standard pictures for that much money. It's my job to try and make the best movie possible. It's the company's business how they sell it to the public or not. This is my principle. However, Boss Shaw has seen the finished film and is very satisfied with it. There are many factors to consider in how a film is sold to the public. I did my best, and the film has already been test screened. Audiences can decide for themselves when it's released in August."--Director Ho Meng Hua, Southern Screen July 1977. (insert: Yuen inside the suit rehearsing on the set)

As it wasn't practical for the Shaw Brothers to do it since they were making their own version, the studio's chief rival, Golden Harvest, bought the HK rights to KING KONG (1976) and released it in January of 1977. There was speculation if a Hong Kong-produced version would even be accepted by the public, and especially after HK audiences had now already seen the American giant gorilla movie. Director Ho went to see it himself on opening day to see how it compared to his own movie which, at the time, was still a few months from being completed. He noted in interviews that his film was very different from the Paramount KONG; particularly from an entertainment perspective.
 
"The content of ORANGUTAN KING and KING KONG are absolutely different. KING KONG is about the love between a woman and a beast. ORANGUTAN KING is about humanity and animality. The giant is a beast, but innocent in his feelings towards man. It raises Evelyne Kraft's character from a child. It loves and cares for her. It's a kind of friendship with her. They are both deceived by the human characters outside of the jungle setting to bring the giant ape to Hong Kong for the purposes of money. Nor is Li Hsiu Hsien's character entirely free of guilt."--Director Ho Meng Hua, Southern Screen July 1977.

A test screening was shown at the Studio a month prior to the film's HK release. It contained at least some of the excised shots including Evelyne Kraft's nude breasts that were ultimately cut for the wide release. Reportedly, some unnamed foreign filmmakers were in attendance of this pre-release version of "the Shaw Brothers mega-million HK dollars film", as one reporter described it. 
 
There was high hopes the movie would be a huge success. Run Run Shaw reportedly didn't care about the cost as he was focused on the big picture of HK becoming a major player overseas. Whatever the result, this one-of-a-kind movie was a first in a few ways. It broke a record for number of shots on a single movie made in the territory; as well as using equipment and SPX techniques new to HK filmmakers.

"THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN isn't a perfect film, but it is a milestone in Chinese special effects films. There is no doubt Ho Meng Hua will become well known all over the world because of this movie and all the dedication seen on the screen."--test screen reviewer for Southern Screen, August 1977.


Unfortunately, Shaw's giant gorilla epic wasn't a success in its native HK; but with higher ticket sales in Singapore and other Southeast Asian territories, foreign sales helped pad Shaw's massive investment in the end. Its domestic haul was only HK$1,254,812. It played HK theaters for eight days, from August 11th to August 19th, 1977. It was in 27th place for box office performers that year. Another blow was the patriotic Taiwanese war epic HEROES OF THE EASTERN SKIES (1977) released in July of that year; amassing big box office and flying off with six awards at the 14th Golden Horse Awards. Like PEKING MAN, it too, employed Japanese SPX technicians--creating impressive miniature planes for the dog fight sequences. 
 
With that said, 1977 was a better year for HK box office numbers compared to the previous year; so there was optimism the industry was rebounding. 
 
More than 130 movies were produced in Hong Kong in '77; Shaw Brothers accounted for more than 40 of them. By January 1978, thirty-eight of those pictures grossed over a million dollars. MPM was among that group, but due to the amount of hard work put into it versus its local box office performance, plans for any other similar type productions of that scale were discarded. Had MPM been a success, more in that vein were planned.
 
As mentioned earlier, Golden Harvest distributed Dino's KING KONG (1976) earlier in the year so there wasn't a lot of audience interest in a Chinese version. European playdates in 1978 came under different monikers like COLOSSUS OF THE CONGO in Germany and GIANT OF THE HIMALAYAS in Italy. It hit Japanese theaters in March of 1978. America, though, was late to latch on to the picture. STAR WARS (1977) had already come out and virtually overnight, changed audience perceptions of what movies could be. Even the SPX of Dino's KONG looked antiquated next to the George Lucas juggernaut. Monster movies in general were no longer in vogue; even in Japan, the country that had an entire industry built around them.
 
Three years later, Independent outfit World Northal quietly released the movie here in 1980 in an edited version under the title of GOLIATHON. Shaw's plan to breach the American market wasn't the big success he'd hoped for, but wasn't entirely a failure either. As mentioned earlier, Shaw's global initiative included taking HK cinema beyond the limited parameters of the Kung Fu genre. His aim to film TAI-PAN on a Hollywood-style budget fell through, which was the ultimate jewel he wanted to forge. 
 
 
Construction on a new facility to house foreign crews was completed while THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN was making its rounds in other Asian territories. It came in handy during the chaotic filming of the star-studded METEOR (1979) but got little use afterward. Famed martial arts director Liu Chia Liang had commented during the filming of HEROES OF THE EAST (1978) that it was such a luxurious facility that he wanted to move into the building. An air-conditioned studio at 20,000 sq ft and a $100,000 air-conditioned trailer for stars was also realized. Unfortunately, with the giant ape's box office collapse, the Shaw's even bigger plans for'Tai-pan'  failed to see fruition; despite Clavell's involvement and Carl Foreman on board as screenwriter. Ironically enough, TAI-PAN did finally get made in 1986 by producer Dino De Laurentiis. It became the first English-language film made in China; and was fraught with problems largely due to communist Chinese interference.
 
As for the Shaw Brothers Disaster epic, by December of 1977, the awe and splendor of THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) seemed to have been forgotten.
 
THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN, REVISITED
 
"What I do remember vividly is that when we were filming the scene where [Evelyne] swims with Danny in the lagoon, she just stripped buck naked and jumped into the water. I didn't tell her to do that and it wasn't in the script, she just did it. Well, the whole crew and all the local villagers watched from the mountainside. The hill was literally packed with people. It really shocked me."--Director Ho Meng Hua, Fangoria #182 May 1999.
 
In 1999, Quentin Tarantino's short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures, in collaboration with Cowboy Booking International, would re-release THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) in theaters on the midnight circuit. What was already a cult film was given renewed exposure in America. Director Ho Meng Hua was interviewed in periodicals like Fangoria magazine and Cult Films Magazine and was stunned that anyone, much less in America, would be seeing his then 20+ year old movie again. Elsewhere, Evelyne Kraft, who had been out of the industry since 1980, in seclusion and raising a family and being a successful businesswoman, found herself doing interviews for the film's re-release as well. She, too, was surprised at the newfound attention this old movie was getting. One such interview was conducted with The Dark Side Magazine's issue #81.

"I always said that the animals were closer to me than the Chinese actors. You know, animals you can judge better than people sometimes. They are very straightforward. People can be much more mean. I can handle animals better than some people. You know, all my life my dog was my best friend. He never let me down. Unfortunately, they cut out a lot of beautiful scenes with the animals from THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN. I was disappointed." She continued, "It was filmed in the real jungle and was sometimes very dangerous. We didn't have it like in Hollywood, a vet with those tranquilizer injections. so I got a few bad bumps and scratches. But the animals were still the best thing."

Shaw's major-budget monster movie did not lead to bigger and better Shaw productions. They did, however, exert financial backing for low and big budget foreign films like CANNONBALL (1976), METEOR (1979), BLOOD BEACH (1980), INSEMINOID (1981), and BLADE RUNNER (1982). Ultimately, it would be their competition at Golden Harvest that would expand on Shaw's plans for a global emergence as a powerful filmmaking force by collaborating on co-productions like DEATH HUNT and THE CANNONBALL RUN (both 1981).  Ironically, it would continue to be the Kung Fu and swordplay movies that led to the Shaw Brothers continued popularity in overseas markets. They kept the company going till 1985, when they ceased film productions and leased their enormous studio out to other companies. The Shaw name further thrived on television when their theatrical presence had diminished outside Asia where, once again, it was the martial arts movies that people wanted to see. Five Kung Fu Theater packages dominated the airwaves for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, it was the HK style of Kung Fu and modern-style action that took the American action and SciFi genres by storm, and has remained the norm ever since. 
 
 
Gradually, Hong Kong cinema garnered greater notice as well as appreciation on foreign shores as Sir Run Run Shaw had intended. Despite his persistence to show the world they were more than just Kung Fu, it was the martial arts pictures that made them, and HK movies in general, famous the world over. Overshadowed by kung fu pictures and barely remembered in its country of origin, THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) eventually became one of their best-loved cult movies the world over. Despite a poor showing on its original run, MPM is easily the best and most entertaining of the "King Kong rip-offs". Shaw's groundbreaking spectacle ultimately found both its audience, and its place as a rare one-off; a special effects extravaganza unique in the history of Hong Kong Cinema.

This article used over two dozen sources for its information and photographs from the following publications: Hong Kong Movie News; Movie News Magazine; Southern Screen; Cinemart; Fangoria; Dark Side Magazine; Monster Maker: Keizo Murase Treasured Kaiju Photobook.

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