Thursday, September 01, 2011

Infra-Man 35th Anniversary Screening!

Infra-Man (aka Chinese Superman, The Super Inframan, The Infra Superman)
(Hong Kong, 1975, 80 minutes)
Director: Shan Hua
Starring: Danny Lee (Rayma/Inframan), Terry Lui (Princess Dragon Mom), Hsieh Wang (Professor Chan), Bruce Le/Huang Jien Lung (Xialong), Dana Tsen (She Demon), Man-Tzu Yuan (Professor Chan's daughter)
"The situation is so bad that it is the worst that ever has been!" - Professor Chan
It is with great delight that, after years of gentle persuasion from my otaku pal "Big" Dave Cawley (King of Mensch), I will be screening the Shaw Brothers' 1975 foray into Japanese-style "superhero vs. monsters" sci-fi film antics, Infra-Man, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 17, 2011 at the Enoch Pratt Central Library. (For details, click here.) It's the 35th anniversary of the film's 1976 release in the U.S, so mark your calendars!

As I wrote on the Enoch Pratt film calendar page, Infra-Man (or The Super Inframan, if you insist!) was the first-ever Chinese superhero movie from Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers studio. Released stateside to capitalize on the success of recent Japanese superhero import Ultraman (1966) on American TV, Infra-Man successfully merged Shaw Brothers-style Chinese kung-fu with Japanese-influenced kaiju eiga (giant monster) and costumed tokusatsu (superhero) elements. It tells the action-packed story of evil Princess Dragon Mom's attempted conquest of the world with a mutant army that includes She Demon, Emperor of Doom, Giant Beetle Monster, Octopus Mutant, Driller Beast, Laser Horn Monster, and Iron Fist Robots. Only Infra-man (Danny Lee) can save the world from Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu), whose influence on the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers' dragon lady, Rita Repulsa, cannot be denied.

Princess Dragon Mom and her bare-boned brood

Calling the film "totally, almost joyfully absurd," Roger Ebert wrote "Within the first four minutes of "Infra-Man," (a) a giant flying lizard attacks a school bus; (b) the Earth cracks open; (c) Hong Kong is destroyed by flames; (d) mountains disintegrate to reveal the forms of reptilian monsters with blinking yellow eyes; (e) the Professor announces that a twenty-million-year-old woman is unleashing the hibernating monsters upon civilization; (f) the Science Headquarters is shaken by a second quake; (g) the Mutants awake; and (h) the Professor [Hsieh Wang], obviously shaken, informs a secret meeting of world leaders, "This situation is so bad that it is the worst that ever has been!'"

Ebert adds: "...Infra-Man has it all: Horrendous octopus men, a gigantic beetle man with three eyes who sprays his victims with sticky cocoons, savage robots with coiled spring necks that can extend ten feet, a venomous little critter that looks like a hairy mutant footstool, elaborately staged karate fights, underground throne rooms, damsels in distress, exploding volcanoes, and a whip-cracking villainess named Princess Dragon Mom..." (Ebert famously revised his initial review of the film, admitting he was wrong not to give it three stars the first time 'round for its high-voltage energy and thrill-a-minute action. I think you'll agree with his re-a-praise-all!)

Kamen Rider: the 300-pound elephant in Inframan's room

Though produced by the famous Hong Kong martial arts action studio, Infra-Man clearly owes its inspiration to such Japanese TV series as Ultraman and (especially) Kamen Rider - and with those atomic age classics as a touchstone, how could Infra-Man be anything less than the masterpiece-of-good-times that it is? In fact, Good Times Video - a name synonymous, in terms of quality, with "Velveeta" and "Iceberg lettuce" - was for years one of the few (readily available) pre-recorded video distributors of this cult classic (in an English dub version) until 2006 when - Eureka! - Image Video came out with its superlative Cantonese-and-English dubbed DVD edition of the The Super Inframan.

Celestial Pictures/Image "Super Inframan" DVD (2006)

The Good Times VHS tape, released in 1994, was my first exposure to Infra-Man. Oriental Cinema editor Damon Foster calls it a "screwed up" pan & scan version that "wreaks havoc with the move's widescreen scope" and alters the opening credits with cheap video special effects, among many other transgressions; it also renames many of the villains, from "The Octopus Mutant (Monster Plant)" to "The Driller Beast (Mutant Drill)." Foster naturally hails the 2003 Celestial Pictures/Image Video DVD release as a godsend, and applauds its subtitle options, which offer yet another take on Chinese translations and alternate character names.

Speaking of Damon Foster (who wrote the excellent liner notes for the Super Inframan DVD), the single best source for information about Infra-man remains DF's "Inframan 30th Anniversary Tribute Issue" of Oriental Cinema (#23, 2005), a publication I wish I had bought more copies of while it was still available. Oriental Cinema was the best 'zine of its kind, not as glossy as Asian Trash Cinema - but certainly light years ahead of Tom Weisser's ATC in terms of facts and scholarship (more importantly, it was written by authentic fans of the films reviewed, not trendy latter-day titillation-teasing cine-touristas).

Oriental Cinema's "Infra-man" issue

No one else was so fervid in tracking down the bios and career trajectories of the film's cast and crew. Star Danny Lee (Rayma/Inframan), of course, went on the become a famous Hong Kong leading man, especially after working opposite Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo's The Killer. And Bruce Lee-clone Bruce Le (aka Huang Jien Lung, as Infra-Man's "Xialong") became sort of famous for being, well, a Bruce Lee clone in the Bruceploitation '70s and '80s - he actually succeeded "Bruce Li" as the next top Bruce Lee imitator (and Damon Foster lauds him as a gifted martial artists in his own right). But the rest of the cast are far from household names, at least here stateside.

For example, I learned that Infra-Man's Japanese cameraman/cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto (aka Lan-Shan Ho), who worked both for the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong and Toho Studios in Japan, not only lensed such classics as Jigoku (1960) and King Hu's Come Drink with Me (1962), but later worked with the real Bruce Lee on Return of the Dragon and Game of Death.

And I learned that veteran Hong Kong actor Wang Hsieh (Professor Chan) made a '60s spy thriller called Summons To Death that looks worth checking out.

Naturally, Foster provided a detailed filmography for artist/designer/sculptor Makami Misao (aka Mikami Michiyo), who did modeling and set design for Infra-Man - toy/model fanboy DF is a sucker for these kind of details, and he points out that Misao had a background working on Godzilla and Gamera films before founding his own Cosmo Productions (which did work on various Kamen Rider productions like Kamen Rider Super and Sky Rider).

Following are some pix from that special ish of Oriental Cinema:

German poster art (erroneously attributing "Infra-Man" to Jules Verne!)

Spotlight on "She Demon" Dana Tsen

Damon Foster also provides probably as much information as is humanly possible about Infra-Man's photogenic "She Demon"-ess, Dana Tsen (aka Dana, Danna, Dan Na, Tsen Shu-Yi, Shum Shuk-Yee, Sam Suk-Yee), whose relatively obscure (but smokin') body of work includes such non-Criterion-worthy Bruce Li releases as Image of Bruce Lee and Bruce Lee in New Guinea, The Girl with Long Hair, Cobra Girl and the Sonny Chiba actioner Golgo 13 - not to mention her turn as the slingshot-slinging Japanese cop Lei Ping in the Shaw Brothers' 1977 South Korean-Hong Kong co-production (and Charlie's Angels rip-off) Deadly Angels (aka The Bod Squad).

Look out Charlie, it's the "Deadly Angels"!

By the way, City on Fire film reviewer "Mighty Peking Man" correctly points out Dana Tsen's resemblance to Asian porn star Nautica Thorn, whose body of work (My Bare Lady, Knocked Up, Slant Eye for the Straight Guy 3) is far from obscure - something I didn't realize until just now. But if you look closely, there's a clear resemblance - in the eyes, of course!

The eyes have it: Dana Tsen lookalike Nautica Thorn

Watch Dana's "She Demon" battle Inframan.

Dana Tsen appeared in a number of films with her Infra-Man co-star Terry Liu (aka Terry Kau Wai Yue, "Princess Dragon Mom"), including the sexploitationers The Bamboo House of Dolls (1973) and The Girl with Long Hair (1975) - the latter's poster art pictured below.

Dana is the girl dressed in "Long Hair" - and little else!

But Liu also apparently specialized in over-the-top Shaw Brothers horror films, such as Black Magic 2 and (as the appropriately named "Fang Fang"!) in The Killer Snakes (She Sha Shou, 1975), which are worth checking out. (Click here to watch an online clip of Killer Snakes; click here to see the Killer Snakes trailer.)

Don't hiss at "Fang Fang" in "Killer Snakes"!

As you can see, far from things being so bad that "it is the worst that has ever been," the 35th anniversary of Infra-Man's American debut is such a good thing that I would venture that it is the best that has ever been! And I hope you can make this historic special film screening on September 17.

Inframan Videos:

Watch US Theatrical Trailer.

The Super Inframan (2003 HK Trailer)

Inframan's Epic Transformation

Watch Inframan TV Spots.

Inframan Goes for a Swim (YouTube clip)

The Super Inframan Battles Evil Things.

Related Links:
The Super Inframan (Wikipedia)
Dana Tsen Filmography (HKMDB)
Girl with the Long Hair (So Good Reviews)

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Blogger Niko said...

Loved this as a young child! First saw it in the 70,'s then in the early eighties. I just thought it was a b movie that no one remembered. I had no idea it had made any significant contribution to film history. Can't wait to see this as an adult.

10:23 PM  

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