Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Super Inframan (1975)

Directed by:  Hua Shan
Screenplay by: Ni Kuang
Starring: Danny Lee, Wang Hsieh, Terry Liu, Bruce Le, Yuan Man-Tzu
Running Time: 90 min.
Tagline: “The Man Beyond Bionics!”

There must be something in the water because lo and behold, as soon as I decided that I’d be reviewing THE SUPER INFRAMAN for Psychoplasmics to mark its first year anniversary, both Teleport-City and 1000 Misspent Hours tossed up pieces of their own about Shaw Bros. Studios thoroughly loopy attempt to cash-in on Japan’s tokusatsu craze. Thankfully, rather than getting discouraged over somebody beating me to the punch, I took this as a pretty clear sign to do as the Romans instead. THE SUPER INFRAMAN is an infectiously joyous bit of B-movie obscura that deserves as much attention laid on it as it can get and my only slight regret in discussing it is that I don’t have an anecdote of my own to contribute along with the two aforementioned reviews of how they discovered this doozy of a movie when they were kids. Me? I just rented it off of Netflix a couple years back, give or take but I was fortunate enough to revisit the movie this year as the closer to the B-Fest film festival in Chicago this past January. It’s as much of a comment on how great it was to see this in a packed auditorium with a crowd of super-enthusiastic nerds as it is, unfortunately, a comment on the rather anemic offerings we’re having at the theater this year that I can say that nothing is going to top that as a movie going experience in 2016.

To swipe that line from Tim Lehnerer yet again because it’s too good not to, the first fifteen seconds of THE SUPER INFRAMAN are kind of slow but then a pterodactyl monster bellyflops onto a highway in front of a school bus full of children, an earthquake happens and Hong Kong explodes. Then things start to get weird. If nothing else, you have to admire this movie for not wasting time screwing around. This string of disasters – which dialogue indicates also includes monster attacks that they clearly didn’t have the budget to show but hey, take their word for it – culminates in the eruption of the long-dormant Mt. Devil, revealing a massive fortress topped off with a gigantic stone dragon head. Naturally, the Chinese government takes note of a supervillain lair popping up in their backyard, and enlists the help of Professor Liu Ying-de (Wang Hsieh), head of the Scientific Headquarters (of Somewhat Ambiguous Science) to figure out just what the blazing blue hell is going on. While scanning Mt. Devil, Professor Liu and his team intercept a transmission from the pterodactyl monster from before, who transforms into a blonde Chinese woman dressed up as some sort of draconic Brunhilda.

This would be Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu) – or Princess Elzebub if you’re going with the subtitles – which I can only assume was meant to be Princess Dragon Ma until somebody involved in INFRAMAN’s dubbing fell asleep at the wheel. She rattles off the usual evil overlord spiel about how she has come to conquer the Earth and it would be in all of our best interests to surrender to her and her forces right now. While I myself am completely okay with being ruled over by an evil sexpot who’s part dinosaur, the rest of the world isn’t so keen on that idea and therefore the authorities gather together for an intelligence briefing to determine what is to be done about this situation, which I quote, “is so serious it’s the worst in all of human history!” Profession Liu is present at this meeting and informs all assembled that he has determined that Prince Dragon Mom is a member of some prehistoric race which once ruled the Earth but was driven beneath the planet’s surface by the Ice Age and has spent the past few million years in suspended animation. Now revived, she’s declared war on the human race and has an army of mutants breed from prehistoric monsters to back her up. Seeing as Professor Liu has the best grasp of the situation, the Chinese government puts him and Science Headquarters in charge of the effort to combat this menace.

Now the name Science Headquarters seems to be something of a misnomer because as far as I can tell from the many times I’ve watched this movie, Professor Liu seems to be the only actual scientist employed at the place. (They do, however, have the requisite of every B-movie science lab: huge computer banks covered in blinking light that don’t seem to actually do anything.) The rest of Science Headquarters’ staff seems to be some sort of paramilitary disaster response team made up entirely of motorcycle riding martial artists, led by the heroic Lieutenant Rei Ma. (Danny Lee) Professor Liu realizes it’s going to take more than a bunch of guys in matching silver and blue jumpsuits to put a stop to the Princess’s evil schemes but fortunately, he has something up his. Taking Rei Ma to his personal laboratory, Professor Liu reveals his plans to transform a volunteer into The Inframan, an invincible, atomic powered cyborg superhero that can be more than a match for whatever Dragon Mom throws at them. Despite the very real risk of the operation killing him, Rei Ma agrees to undergo the transformation, which mostly involves him lying on a cruciform slab while Professor Liu glues computer parts to him.

Princess Dragon Mom, however, has no intention of waiting around for whatever Science Headquarters is cooking up. She recognizes what a threat the organization poses and assembles her legions of mutants to launch a pre-emptive strike and oh, what a collection of monstrosities it is. We’ve got her army of cannon fodder mooks, the explosive spear wielding Skeleton Ghosts. (Skeletons can have ghosts?) We’ve got her right hand henchwoman She-Demon (Dana Tsen Shu-Yi), a lady in silver booty-shorts who has eyes in the palms of her hands that can shoot lasers. There’s a pair of robots that seem to act as the princess’s elite guards and can extended and retract their heads and weaponized limbs  via wire coils. Then there are the mutants themselves: a lumpy toad man with a drill and shovel for hands, a tentacled plant monster, a humanoid dragon man, an onibaba-style demon with long hair, and a frankly adorable looking red bug monster. Toad Man and Plant Monster are dispatched first. Toady ambushes and kidnaps a member of Science Headquarters named Chu Ming (Lin Wen-Wei) – who, while every one else gets a cool motorcycle, is struck driving a beat-up Volkswagen – and takes him back to Mt. Devil to get brainwashed while Plant Monster attacks Science Headquarters’ um…headquarters itself by transforming into a cluster of massive vines and tearing the building apart. The damaged caused cuts off the power to the professor’s lab and nearly kills Rei Ma until somebody manages to switch on the back up generator. Being subjected to an invasive full body surgery and nearly dying does nothing to slow down Rei Ma, who promptly transforms into Inframan and gets to try out his new abilities by flipping around the professor’s lab and smashing some of his equipment. Professor Liu doesn’t seem to mind that much though, likely because that’s totally coming out of Rei Ma’s next paycheck.

Despite the Inframan being a top secret project not five minutes ago, everyone excitedly exclaims “It’s Inframan!” immediately upon seeing him spring into action. The plant monster puts up a good fight but in the end is no match for the super-powered Rei Ma. Good thing for Princess Dragon Mom that she already had a back up plan in place, as that poor sap that Toady captured, Chu Ming, has been brainwashed into turning traitor and is sent back to Science Headquarters to swipe Inframan’s blueprints so she can scan them for an exploitable weakness. Chu Ming gets caught in act but intervention from Toady, Red Bug and Onibaba help him get away, though not without the latter two monsters getting destroyed in the process. With the plans for Inframan in Dragon Mom’s hands, Professor Liu decides to upgrade Rei Ma with a number of new weapons to counter act whatever traps she may throw at him, leading to a favorite and off-quoted exchange among friends of mine: “To have success, it is necessary for you to have Thunderball Fists!” “I can have such a thing?” “That’s right. Thunderball Fists!” Well, those Thunderball Fists are going to come in really handy real soon because Princess Dragon Mom has Chu Ming and Toady kidnap Professor Liu’s daughter in order to force the Professor into building her an Inframan of her own. This leads to Rei Ma heading up an all-out assault on Mt. Devil with the other members of Science Headquarters and a massive battle royal as Inframan fights his way through a gauntlet of mooks, mutants, and deadly booby traps on his way to a final confrontation with Princess Dragon Mom.

Much like the term giallo, tokusatsu started as a general catch-all before transforming into a specific genre all of its own. Meaning “special filming,” it was coined in regards to the original GODZILLA, the first Japanese film to utilize special effects such as actors in suits and miniature sets on the scale that it did, and would later be used to refer to science fiction films in general. That shifted with the popularity of serialized television such as MOONLIGHT MASK, AMBASSADOR MAGMA, SUPER SENTAI, METAL HERO and the ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER franchises, which resulted in the term becoming more associated with Japan’s equivalent of costumed superheroes. They never fully abandoned their roots in the kaiju genre, however, as many episodes of these shows would climax with the rubber monster of the week growing to gigantic size and wrecking havoc in a model city before being stopped by hero / heroes who themselves can undergo such a transformation or summon a gigantic robot that they can pilot into battle. In fitting bit of cross pop cultural pollination, the American superhero of the time, The Amazing Spider-Man, would get his own tokusatsu series, complete with big dang robot, and United Artists would pick up the popular ULTRAMAN for American audiences.

As is expected, something achieving that degree of international success means other studios out there start looking for ways to cash in and one studio in particular would be the Hong Kong based Shaw Bros. Studio. Founded in 1925 as the Tianyi Film Company by brothers Runje, Runme, Runde and Runrun Shaw, the Shaw Bros. Studio is known today mostly for their martial arts output, with movies like THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS needing no introduction, but released films in a number of genres, including horror, spy thrillers, and exploitation flicks and would even collaborate with western studios for international co-productions. (Did you know Shaw Bros. had a hand in making BLADE RUNNER? Well, you do now!) By the 1970’s, though, the studio had never done a science fiction film and Run Run Shaw, a long admirer of the Japanese film industry, figured doing their own spin on tokusatsu shows was the way to go.

THE SUPER INFRAMAN isn't exactly shy about the fact that it is, in fact, a literal made-in-Hong-Kong knock off of ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER. Not only does INFRAMAN'S "Science Headquarters" scream "ULTRAMAN'S Science Patrol but with the serial numbers filed off" but INFRAMAN rather gleefully cribs a number of Ultraman's signature moves and abilities for its titular hero --  including the ability to spontaneous grow several stories tall, something that is neither eluded to beforehand or ever mentioned again afterward -- but it's no accident that Inframan's bug eyed helmet and biker jumpsuit get up invokes Kamen Rider's hero; Michio Makami, INFRAMAN's special effects director, created a number of monster suits for Toei's tokusatsu shows at Ekisu Productions. On top of that, the film's musical score mixed in a number of cues from ULTRA SEVEN and MIRROR MAN with Yung Yu-Chen's own contributions.

To direct the film Shaw enlisted Hua Shan, a cinematographer who had got his start as an assistant on COME DRINK WITH ME and lensed a number of films for the studio. Screenplay duties would be handed to Shaw Bros. regular Ni Kuang, who’s an interesting character. A former public security official for the CCP, Ni Kuang left China due to fears for his own life and set up shop Hong Kong where he found success as a writer / co-writer of serialized novels, including the Wisley series, Dr. Yuen, and the wuxia series Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. He would also contribute a staggering number of screenplays for Shaw Bros. including THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, and my personal favorite of the Venom Mob movies, CRIPPLED AVENGERS, as well as Bruce Lee’s international hit FIST OF FURY. A number of contract players would be tapped for key roles in the film, two of the most notable being Huang Jian Long and Danny Lee. Long, better known as Bruce Le, would be one of the myriad actors who would make a career in the seventies and eighties out of the fact that if he combed his hair just right and you squinted hard enough he could sort of pass for Bruce Lee, appearing in faux-sequels to The Little Dragon's films and truly weird Brucesploitation entries like THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE. Here he plays Xiao-Long, Rei Ma's right hand man at Science Headquarters, and even gets to show off some of his martial arts skills during a couple of big battle scenes. Danny Lee is probably the most recognizable actor in the film, thanks to the international success of John Woo's bullets and male bonding epic THE KILLER, where he played the cop determined to capture Chow Yun Fat's reluctant assassin, and has definitely had one of the most bonkers careers of anyone I've heard of. Lee (born Li Hsiu-hsien) turned to acting after his original plan of becoming a police officer flamed out due to difficulty completing the training exams and spent a number of years primarily as a "hey, it's that guy" supporting actor in a number of Shaw's films until he landed the lead role in INFRAMAN, which seemed to cement his status as Shaw Bros. go to guy for the studios battier productions. His later credits with Shaw would include BRUCE LEE AND I, a softcore film based around Bruce Lee's final days and relationship with Betty Ting Pei; the King Kong rip-off THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN; the nutso kung fu fantasy film BATTLE WIZARD; and something called THE OILY MANIAC, which, according to the IMDB, is about a "cripple taking revenge on criminals by using a magic spell that transforms him into an oily monster/superhero." Co-starring his INFRAMAN cast mates Terry Liu and Wang Hsieh, by the way. Lee would eventually cut ties with Shaw Bros. and form his own production company where he would regularly cast himself in the same "tough but honorable" cop role he would eventually play in THE KILLER and in the nineties release a number of rather infamous CAT III films. (Short for "Category III" a designation comparable to the American NC-17 rating.) The most successful of these would be the rather innocuous sounding THE UNTOLD STORY, which featured Anthony Wong as a criminal who takes a Sweeney Todd approach to the disposal of his victims. As Tim put it when he introduced INFRAMAN at B-Fest, "that's one hell of a resume!"

Unfortunately, despite the major marketing push, which apparently included a hot air balloon being used to promote the film -- and let me tell you how disappointed I was that wasn't able to dig up a picture of that -- INFRAMAN underperformed at the Hong Kong box office, forever denying us any further adventures of Lieutenant Rei Ma and Science Headquarters. Of course, the fact that I found myself sitting in a crowded college auditorium full of like-minded nerds whooping it up as THE SUPER INFRAMAN played across the screen makes it pretty clear that the film developed something of a cult following in the -- holy crap -- forty years since its initial release. Believe it or not, we very likely have Rogert Ebert to thank for that, as not only did the famous critic give the film a glowing review upon it's initial American release, not only did he feature it on Siskel and Ebert's "Guilty Pleasures" episode -- which is likely how a number of people first heard of it -- but when reviewing the video release of THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN, he announced that as much as he enjoyed that movie, he couldn't with good conscience give it a higher score than INFRAMAN and went back and added an additional star to the earlier film's score. That's just beautiful.

It's easy to see why one could come to champion this movie. THE SUPER INFRAMAN is a thoroughly delightful film, one that aims at being a frenetic adventure through a bizarre comic book world and succeeds at doing so with considerable flair. It's very episodic feeling, almost as if someone took three or four episodes of a television series and spliced them together, trimming all but the minimum necessary scenes that didn't revolve around punching monsters. As a result, there's hardly a moment in this movie that makes one lick of sense but thanks to the film's enjoyably crazed sense of pacing, you won't care as the film throws yet another bit of pure insanity your way before you can question just what happened in the scene previous. The highlight of this would have to be the climatic confrontation between Inframan and Princess Dragon Mom's monstrous true form, where Inframan blasts her head off with one of his many laser weapons, only to discover that she can regenerate. At which point, Inframan just blasts her head off again. And again. And again and again, creating a modest sized pile of severed dragon heads, until Rei Ma finally remembers he brought Thunderball Fists to this fight and lets her have it. The film's budget doesn't always back up its ambitions -- a number of its monster suits have visible seams and zippers and more than one suit actor is clearly wearing shoes -- but it's creatures are just cheap looking enough to be charming and the rest of the production more than makes up for it with inventive sets and action set pieces that are on a much bigger scale than your standard Shaw Bros. martial arts film. (In fact, the action scenes were so elaborate and expensive, INFRAMAN became the first Shaw production to use pre-production storyboarding.) There's motorcycle stunts, a miniature power plant destroyed in a battle between a giant Inframan and the Red Bug, a final showdown in a lair fitted out with everything from volcanic pit traps and death rays, and so many explosions, all supported by the quality martial arts choreography and stunt work that were Shaw Bros. standards. And let's not forget the film's wonderfully absurd English dubbing which just ads to the entertainment value.

As I said, it's a movie that wants nothing more than for its audience to have a good time and that earnestness is another factor that makes this movie so appealing, especially in this day and age when superhero comics and superhero comic films have maybe become too serious for their own good. Even friggin' Superman is in the hands of people who balk at the idea of a hero who smiles and wears bright colors, Batman is grimmer and grittier than ever and every superhero film seems required to be a two and half hour plus epic. So it's refreshing then to be able to kick back and enjoy a fleet-footed movie clocking in at just under ninety minutes and starring a colorful hero who doesn't have time for things like existential angst about what his transformation means for his humanity because he's just too dang excited about being able to beat down alien invaders with his shiny new Thunderball Fists.

A Little Something Extra:

"Monster Man" by Devo, which also features an off-brand Ultraman.