Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Mighty Peking Man (Hong Kong, 1977)

(Spoilers?) A cast of thousands! Over the years, the original King Kong (1933 / trailer) has inspired more imitations, riffs, sequels and remakes than COVID has variants, and some of those big ape flicks are pretty bizarre. And while it is perhaps a matter of taste when it comes to claiming which Kong-inspired flick out there is the most psychotronic, it is without doubt that Dino De Laurentiis's announcement of his planned production of a remake — the subsequently financially successful but artistic and critical flop that is John Guillermin's King Kong (1976 / trailer) — definitely resulted in one of the most enjoyable bastard mockbusters around. No, we're not talking about decidedly low-rent comedy Queen Kong (1976 / trailer), a German-English production which even hit its few screens before De Laurentiis's project, but rather the camp classic best described as "King Kong goes to Hong Kong" that is the Shaw Brothers' rip-off usually known as The Mighty Peking Man. 
Trailer to
The Mighty Peking Man:
It is arguable that this movie might have remained a mostly forgotten blip on the landscape of international film had Quentin Tarantino not only claimed that the movie is one of his favorites but also re-released it on DVD. The version we saw had the title Colossus of Congo, which offers a slight indication of the schizophrenia of the movie: a colossus — whether a giant ape or a giant hairy man is open for discussion — from the Congo that originated in the Himalayas in Asia but is taken to Hong Kong advertised as a giant version of a subspecies of H. erectus originating from China, the Peking man.
In truth, the finer details of the goliathan's origin vary from country to country, version to version, edit to edit, so perhaps they are immaterial; but if you're lucky enough, the version you catch might include the two alternative takes featuring the movie's innocently naïve jungle babe Samantha (Evelyne Kraft) topless. Without or without the seconds-long added attraction of love pillows, however, The Mighty Peking Man remains an absolutely wonderful clusterfuck of a movie. Seldom has there been a movie that gets so much right by doing so much wrong.
The plot is old and familiar, with but a few new twists to add some full-color sleaze and exploitation shots that definitely (if cheesily) trump the scenes of Kong snacking on natives and the Fay Ray boob shots that were once found in the original pre-code version of King Kong. The Mighty Peking Man opens with the origin of the titular gargantuan, which is freed from entrapment within the Himalayas by an earthquake and promptly lays waste to a jungle village. In Hong Kong, possibly years later as one must assume that enough time has passed for the jungle babe and "Peking man" to meet and become friends, asshole tycoon Lu Tien (Feng Ku of Vengeance [1970], The Web of Death [1976], Peking Opera Blues [1986 / trailer] and so much more) finances an expedition to capture the creature, hiring the freshly brokenhearted Johnny Feng (Danny Lee of The Killer [1989 / trailer], Infra-Man [1975 / trailer], The Oily Maniac [1976 / trailer] and more) to lead the undertaking.
The results are breathtaking: they travel through the jungles of India on ox-drawn cart, get attacked by lions and elephants, and fall off the faces of cliffs in scenes that are anything but exciting or thrilling (unless, perhaps, you substantially prepubescent) but for the most part wonderfully entertaining and laughter-inducing — but then, the film as a whole is laughter-inducing. People die, people kill people, things fall apart and suddenly Johnny is deserted and left behind by the entire team.
But then Johnny ends up meeting Samantha (Evelyn Kraft [22 Sept 1951 – 13 Jan 2009]), the less-breast-heavy first cousin of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. Before you can even say, "She survived an airplane crash in the jungle that killed her parents as a child and was raised by the Peking Man" — something that, timeline-wise, really doesn't cut the mustard in any way – Johnny and Samantha are prancing through the forest to disco music, doing the vertical tango to baleful eyes of the creature, and having all sorts of jungle fun.
Too bad Johnny is a dumbfuck and convinces the always scantily clad innocent with perfect makeup not only to go back to civilization with him, but to get the Peking Man to come along, too. The rest of the story, barring a few soap opera additions and the numerous scurrilous peculiarities of the movie, is familiar territory. You more or less know the ending, of course, only instead of falling from the Empire State Building or Twin Towers, the creature takes a dive from Jardine House (formerly known as the Connaught Center), at that time the tallest building of Hong Kong.
Truth be told, no description of the film or what transpires during its 1.5 hours of running time can properly convey how wonderfully off-the-wall and entertainingly oh-so-wrong but oh-so-right The Mighty Peking Man is as a whole. Director Meng-Hua Ho, a man who has helmed many a WTF movie, if not an occasional Hong Kong or Shaw Brothers classic, seems unperturbed (like normal?) by the idiocies of the script and keeps the narrative flowing at a speedy pace, moving quickly from animal attack and leopard love to stormy seas to emotionally indecisive men to rape to mob rage and army attacks to one pissed-off Peking Man on the rampage.
The movie never comes truly across as cheap, and the cinematography and miniature work are for the most part pretty good, occasionally even excellent, even if the miniature work is often not exactly of the greatest verisimilitude. The ending is unexpectedly tragic in a manner beyond that of the simple and expected death of "Utam", as Samantha calls her gigantic surrogate parental figure, but even that is oddly laughable, if only for all its irony.
Speaking of Samantha, or the forgotten actress Evelyn Kraft* to be exact, she really does deserve some respect for the job she delivers. While all the men play their parts in the almost burlesque manner typical of most Chinese and/or Hong Kong movies of the day, she actually tries to conduct her acutely ridiculous role with a level of sincerity. Occasionally she even succeeds, like in the scene when she gets her first kiss: her look of confusion turns to enjoyment, but her technique remains obviously inexperienced. There is more to her possibly limited talent than just her looks and appearance, the latter of which is generally one of a constant threat-of-falling-out-of-her-costume.
That aside, she and almost everything she does nevertheless continually instigates laughter, if only due to the comprehensive and advanced level of the movie's campiness — a campiness which deeply infuses most of the movie. But unlike movies that are intentionally campy (see, for example, Psycho Beach Party [2000] or Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [1968 / trailer]), the campiness of The Giant Peking Man is an unintentional but innate aspect that obviously, and fabulously, arises on its own. Somehow, this makes even the campiness more enjoyable.
Children would probably love The Giant Peking Man, though exploitive scenes like the snakebite-sucking scene or the previously mentioned rape scene, or the scene in which Lu Tien shoots a man dead in cold blood after the latter has had a limb torn off by a tiger, definitely move the movie outside of the kiddy-film realm. Spectacularly inept in almost every way, this slab of prime-quality cheese doesn't require viewers to accept its idiocy and ridiculousness as much as it slowly but surely simply infects you with enjoyment. The Mighty Peking Man is in no way a good movie, but it is also without doubt a great movie. Two thumbs up!
* The Russia-born Swiss actress cum business woman Evelyn Kraft had a relatively short career in the 1970s, but her short list of 11 film projects over nine years includes some fun stuff that should have ensured that her name would enjoy at least some level of lasting cult popularity. Not exactly untalented, and definitely attractive, she inexplicably remains pretty much forgotten, if not simply unknown. Aside from the camp masterpiece of cheese that is The Mighty Peking Man, she played the lead in Lady Dracula (1977 / trailer, see Walter Giller), another film that should have given her cult respectability. Equally entertaining, if more obscure, are the Hong Kong Charlie's Angels ripoff, Three Deadly Angels (1977 / trailer), and her turns in the serious slices of Eurotrash, The Fifth Commandment (1978 / film in German) and Assassination Attempt (1981 / trailer). Her fame, however fleeting it was, was probably propelled the most by the two hit comedies (in Germany-speaking countries) Superbug, the Wild One (1973, see Walter Giller) and Superbug, the Craziest Car in the World (1975, see Walter Giller). Both are Herbie the Love Bug (1969 / trailer) rip-offs and it is doubtful they ever reached any English-language shores... Evelyn Kraft is, in any event, a viable candidate for a future Babe of Yesteryear spotlight here at a wasted life.

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