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The Mighty Peking Man

by Glenn Erickson Jan 11, 2022

A monster ape-man smashes Hong Kong accompanied by his adopted daughter, a sexy blonde in a daringly abbreviated bikini. The lavishly produced King Kong rip-off was released here under the title Goliathon; Quentin Tarantino raised its profile with a 1999 ‘Rolling Thunder’ reissue. Beyond absurd, all the way to insane, the Shaw Bros.’ crazy kaiju hybrid is now the lone non-martial arts title in Arrow’s multi-disc Shawscope: Volume One mega-box. With 12 features on eight discs, it’s a gift from heaven for the average fan of Hong Kong action movies.


Mighty Peking Man
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
Included on the Arrow Video Shawscope: Volume One 8-Disc Limited Edition
1977 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 90 min. / Goliathon, Xing xing wang / Street Date December 28, 2021 / Available from Amazon / 179.95
Starring: Evelyne Kraft, Danny Lee, Lu Tien, Hsiao Yao, Ted Thomas.
Cinematography: Tsao Hui-chi, Wu Cho-hua
Art Director: Johnson Tsao, Chen Ching-Shen
Film Editor: Chiang Hsing-lung
Special effects: Sadamasa Arikawa, Koichi Kawakita, Keizo Murase, Sokei Tomioka
Original Music: Chen Yung-Yu, DeWolfe
Written by Ni Kuang
Produced by Runme Shaw, Vee King Shaw
Directed by
Ho Meng-Hua

Just a couple of weeks ago Arrow debuted their Shawscope: Volume One 8-Disc Limited Edition box, a release given a special edition patina one would expect from a museum publication. The holders of the Shaw Brothers library is Celestial Pictures, a company which for over twenty years has been releasing the hundreds of SB ‘Shawscope’ features to video. This lavishly appointed box set can be truly called a collector’s item: the packaging, the accompanying text (much more than just promotional copy) and all the extras. It’s user-friendly, too. I occasionally fear that I will damage a disc trying to get it out of a particularly ‘creative’ disc holder.  The engineering on these disc holders is excellent — the discs are firmly snug in their sleeves, yet come out without undue fuss.

The 60-page book is a quality item too — it reminds me of a Hammer book with a two-page illustrated spread for each title, with reference information and liner notes of substance.

I say all that because as a reviewer I am in no way qualified to write about Hong Kong martial arts and action movies; I’d just embarrass myself. But I can’t pass up discussions of ‘giant monster’ movies and their attendant special effects. One of the films in the Shawscope Box is 1977’s Mighty Peking Man, aka Goliathon for its U.S. release. It’s one of a slew of copycat productions that trailed behind Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 King Kong remake, inspired by the copycat shark pix whipped up to cash in on Spielberg’s Jaws.

 

I’ve reviewed both King Kong Lives (actually De Laurentiis’s own sequel) and the Korean movie A.P.E. in 3-D; neither held my interest except to see how a movie can somehow get worse as it goes along. Mighty Peking Man is a staggeringly primitive and infantile drama. The Hong Kong filmmakers clearly designed their pictures to be playable in any language, to illiterate audiences if necessary. The storyline is King Kong altered just enough to avoid international court proceedings. The production itself is in no way cheap: six million were sunk into location work in Mysore, India, and elaborate special effects. Those were arranged by an imported group of Japanese specialists, who collectively had their fingerprints on every most classic Toho monster fantasy from Gojira forward.

Mighty Peking Man got on the cultural map in 1999 courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, who made it one of his “Rolling Thunder” revival releases. If the Rolling Thunder trailer seen here is accurate, Tarantino released the film in subtitled Chinese — knowing that audiences would love laughing through the whole thing. The original dialogue is so strange, doing a comedy “Tiger Lily” version would be redundant. Part of the film’s perverse appeal is its bad taste, at least as judged by the U.S. mainstream. The jungle heroine’s costume and the rape scenes have no business in a kiddie film. There’s also too much implied violence to animals. Some of it may be real, as when we see a tiger chomping down on a big snake.

 

The movie begins as a bad joke, a poor excuse for anything … and then in its own puerile way, the final act comes through with an impressive onslaught of first-class kaiju effects filmmaking, Tokyo-style. We’re also impressed by the stamina and charm of the leading lady Evelyne Kraft. She always seems in control, even though her costume throughout is an insubstantial cavegirl bikini less reliable-looking than that worn by Victoria Vetri in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. In fact, it’s frequently completely unreliable, leading us to suspect that censors snipped out a dozen ‘interesting’ moments for various international markets. The Shaw Bros. take the ‘something for everyone’ credo to an extreme: their show is basically for little kids yet has more than enough skin to attract adult voyeurs.

Greedy Hong Kong entrepreneur Lu Tien (Ku Feng) decides to capture a giant ape man that was sighted in the Himalayas fifteen years before (?), and hires ‘adventurer explorer’ Chen Zhengfeng (Danny Lee) to lead the expedition. Along the way, a party of perhaps twenty is reduced to almost nothing, killed by an elephant stampede, quicksand, and a mass plunge from a cliff. When Chen insists on not giving up, the cowardly Lu Tien shows his true colors and sneaks away, leaving the honest Chen to die alone. Chen instead meets Ah-wei (Swiss-born actress Evelyne Kraft) a Tarzan-like jungle-lady. The stunning blonde was orphaned in a plane crash and raised from childhood by Ah-wang, a seven-story colossus who caters to his adopted daughter. After an idyllic time eating fruit and romping in slo-mo, Chen elects to bring both his discoveries back to civilization. He reconnects with the craven Lu Tien, and Ah-wang is chained to a cargo ship for transport to Hong Kong. Ah-wei refuses modern clothing (no blame there, it’s hideous) and doesn’t realize that Lu Tien hasn’t freed Ah-wang from his chains — he’s being exhibited in a giant arena. A romantic misunderstanding sends Ah-wei on her own in downtown Hong Kong. The furious Ah-wang breaks out of his confinement and wreaks havoc across the city and atop its tallest building.

Quentin Tarantino found Mighty Peking Man to be great entertainment for audiences that ask, ‘astonish me.’ Jaws surely drop in disbelief at screenings, but most of the astonishment is over the film’s blatant lack of finesse or subtlety. It’s so resolutely simple-minded, it’s almost innocent. Events are telegraphed in broad gestures — one doesn’t need to know any language to follow the story.

Part of the perverse appeal comes through a collision of Kindergarten silliness and soft-“R” sexuality. In this original cut Evelyne Kraft’s itsy bitsy goat-hide bikini comes off three or four times, as if the Shaw Brothers wanted to have one more reason to keep males in the theater seats. That dastard Lu Tien tries to rape Ah-wei as well. We’re constantly being taken by surprise by the unsubtle vulgarity. A certain strata of Mexican exploitation is far trashier, but never with the Shaws’ glowing production values.

 

Unintentionally (?) delightful in the comedic “Airplane!” sense are three or four flashbacks that communicate key information in as crude a way as possible. Ah-wang’s initial rampage in a Himalayan village is present to give monster fans what they want, 40 minutes before Chen discovers him. Then we see a ridiculous flashback montage of Chen Zhengfeng’s ‘traumatic’ romance with the unfaithful Wang Cuihua (Hsiao Yao), just so there’ll be a romantic upset when Wang and Ah-wei collide later on. To explain why Ah-wei is doing an imitation of ‘Sheena of the Jungle,’ we’re given a flashback to the plane crash that made her an orphan. As Ms. Kraft waves her arms like a Gooney Bird the screen dissolves to a shot of a small plane waggling its wings in a storm. Tarantino clearly dug this absurdity — the moment is retained intact in his 1999 trailer.

The filmmakers don’t want anybody to become bored. The movie maintains a forward momentum because individual scenes are so abbreviated. When covering familiar material or exposition, we see only bits of dialog or action before moving on. Most of the safari plays like a montage, with disco music covering the transitions. The disco tracks date the show almost to its precise year — and give it that extra edge of cultural giddiness. Arrow’s promotional copy pegs the film’s overall effect with an appropriate word: it’s simply ‘daft.’

Everybody’s got something to hide except for Me and my Monkey.

All of these events take place in a logic vacuum where normal human rationality does not exist. Chen just up ‘n’ decides that the three of them will go back to Hong Kong. He reunites with Lu Tien, with no mention that Lu Tien earlier abandoned Chen to die. Neither Chen nor Ah-wei seem to know that Ah-wang is being subjected to cruelty in his stadium show. The noble boyfriend Chen ‘loves’ Ah-wei, yet doesn’t seem committed to her — he offers zero resistance when his old girl Wang puts the moves on him again.

 

The big surprise are the film’s special effects, which are lavish in a classic Toho sense — enormous detailed miniatures, a man-in-suit rampage, an abundance of pyrotechnics. The ex-Toho experts give the Shaw Bros. value for their money, and the massive city sets are as elaborate as anything in Toho’s classic kaiju and sci-fi fantasies. On the 2005 Mysterians DVD, the Toho effects experts Koichi Kawakita and Shinji Higuchi said that when ‘big’ Godzilla pictures were rebooted in the 1980s, they could no longer afford extravagant live action scenes with many extras. Peking Man has some tacky production shortcuts, but not of that kind. When mobs run in the streets of Hong Kong (often ignoring Ah-wei’s lack of clothing), the shoots are serious large-scale undertakings.

There’s something pleasingly organic about pre- CGI visual effects: it’s simply relaxing to enjoy all those fantastic toys and super miniature cities. The monkey-man himself is underwhelming, better than the awful Kong of fifteen years before but no beauty either in design or performance. Off-scale fire is also a frequent issue. Compensation comes with the frantic, precise editing in the final action scenes. It raises the excitement level through sheer overkill of jarring images.

The ending imitates De Laurentiis’ version’s ugly machine-gunning action, only not quite as disturbingly violent. And the finale is pointlessly downbeat, negative. The original Daily Variety review from an August 31, 1977 screening at the Shaw Bros. Hong Kong headquarters, said the show was 100 minutes long, and had the ‘international ending’ — apparently what we see on this remastered edition. The reviewer said that Asian prints carried a happier conclusion. Their final assessment: the show is ‘high camp, Chinese style.’

Final question. Did I miss something?  This monster ape guy Ah-wang originates on the Indian side of the Himalayas, and he’s transported to Hong Kong. So why does the big arena show bill him as ‘The Mighty Peking Man?’

 


 

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Mighty Peking Man is on one disc of the 8-disc Shawscope: Volume One set. The flawless restoration makes the original Panavision color look exceptionally good. The sharp images let us appreciate the care taken to keep Ms. Kraft looking tip-top throughout; a busy hairdresser must be off to one side at all times. The effects are given a fine showcase. They’re always creative even when they’re not perfect. The ape costume of course looks exactly like what it is. It doesn’t cut well with a head marionette for shots where the monster roars.

A pre-restoration Standard Def version is present as well; Arrow’s notes say that its dull colors may better represent the appearance of original prints.

The 12 features in the Shawscope box are laden with extras and Peking Man is no exception. Travis Crawford delivers a busy commentary that rambles yet always finds something interesting to say. He definitely knows his Shaw Bros. history, all of which sails right over my head. But he and others misidentify some of the old-school visual effects methods on view, so I thought I’d try out some basic explanations. Peking Man uses only a few traveling matte opticals, mainly to place the monster on that tall Hong Kong building. The result does not look good. For several wide shots of people fleeing the havoc, split-screen static mattes combine lower-frame live action with upper-frame monster action on the miniature street sets. Those well-designed shots appeal even when the mattes are not perfect.

Crawford and others don’t recognize all the Front Projection work in the show, which is easy to spot. It’s when people and décor on a sound stage matte cleanly with exterior shots or fantastic elements — as when Ah-wang looms behind greenery, or when Chen shoots an elephant.

Note the difference in contrast and color between Chen and the front-projected image behind him. The scale of the projection is too big to be filmed on a standard Rear Projection (Process) setup. This can’t be a traveling matte optical, either: the smoke from Chen’s gun would almost always have matte line issues.

 

In the 1970s the 3-M Front Projection (FP) screen material available was inconsistent between rolls, and close to the edges. For large screens they recommended cutting up the rolls into many patches, to be glued over a large screen like random puzzle pieces. On Peking Man the FP material seems to be applied like wallpaper. In more than one shot the flaws in the vertical panels of FP material are clearly visible in the ‘sky.’ Here is an example, with Ah-wang being transported on a freighter. Those vertical streaks aren’t film scratches.

The backgrounds in Peking Man’s FP shots look milky, with low contrast and slightly flat color. Stanley Kubrick obtained perfect FP illusions in his ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence for 2001, but he was projecting oversized still images. The flying sequences in Superman: The Movie are on the dull side. Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running also has a few FP shots in which the blackness of space is slightly washed out.

 

The disc also carries three good interviews, with actor Ku Feng, the director Ho Meng-hua, and a third, lengthy talk with Japanese monster designer and effects expert Keizo Murase. The veteran artist sculpted Varan the Unbelievable  and did a range of monster effects on The H-Man,  Mothra,  Gorath and three of the best Godzilla pictures. Murase says that the Japanese effects experts had difficulty obtaining Hong Kong work visas, and notes that their miniature unit worked independently of the live-action director. He tells us that the gigantic ‘miniature’ grandstand for Ah-wang’s arena debut was filled with little figurines that wave their arms — tiny ‘arms’ made of paper and agitated by fans.

A ‘Goliathon’ title sequence is present as well as a gallery with beautiful original color still images. It’s clear that Shaw Bros./Celestial threw open their vaults to collaborate on this disc set.

 

Just to give Arrow their full due, here are the full contents of the monster Shawscope 1 Box:–
High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentations of King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death), The Boxer from Shantung, Five Shaolin Masters, Shaolin Temple, Mighty Peking Man, Challenge of the Masters, Executioners from Shaolin, Chinatown Kid, The Five Venoms, Crippled Avengers, Heroes of the East and Dirty Ho.
Brand new 2K restorations by Arrow Films from the original camera negatives of King Boxer, The Boxer from Shantung, Challenge of the Masters, The Five Venoms, Crippled Avengers and Dirty Ho.
Brand new 2K master of the longer international cut of Chinatown Kid from original film elements.
Original lossless mono audio in Mandarin, Cantonese (where applicable) and English.
Newly translated English subtitles for each film.
Hours of bonus features including brand new commentaries and critic appreciations on selected films, new and archive interviews with cast and crew, alternate credit sequences, trailer and image galleries for each film.
60-page book featuring new writing by David Desser, Simon Abrams and Terrence J. Brady, with cast and crew info for each film plus trivia and soundtrack info; New artwork by Matthew Griffin, Chris Malbon, Jacob Phillips, Ilan Sheady, Tony Stella, Darren Wheeling and Jolyon Yates.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Mighty Peking Man
Included on the Arrow Video Shawscope: Volume One 8-Disc Limited Edition
Blu-ray :
Movie:
Fair but Outstanding for “high camp Chinese style”
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (Mandarin and English)
Supplements: Commentary by Travis Crawford, three interviews with: actor Ku Feng, director Ho Meng-hua, effects expert and monster designer Keizo Murase; second unrestored SD feature; ‘Goliathon’ titles sequences; image gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray; in an eight Blu-ray book holder with booklet in large hard card sleeve
Reviewed:
January 7, 2022
(6646goli)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.