Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers look to Japan, see Kamen Rider and Ultraman, and think to themselves, “We can do that. And we can do it better.” The result is a work of pure glory.
The greatest compliment you could pay an exploitation film is to say it looks like they designed the poster first and then recreated it on screen. This formulation describes Inframan perfectly. Every one of its scenes could be bullet-pointed with the word “SEE!” in front of it (“SEE! Hong Kong engulfed in flames! SEE! The evil sorceress with an army of kung fu monsters!”) It is, in many ways, a perfect film, in that it is resoundingly successful in achieving what it sets out to do — which is transport its audience into a hyperbolic comic book world and entertain them beyond their wildest dreams. Its production values are high enough that it never seems to be striving beyond its means, its art direction, set and costume design all combining to create a seamless alternate reality. As such, it never once betrays its commitment to being a nonstop celebration of color, speed, style, violence, and the joyous suspension of disbelief. In short, it is cinematic escapism in its absolute purest form.
My first exposure to Inframan came via the now notorious “Guilty Pleasures” episode of Siskel and Ebert, in which Roger Ebert gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to Inframan despite Gene Siskel’s looks of amused disbelief (in his review for the Chicago Sun Times, Ebert concluded that “When they stop making movies like Infra-Man, a little light will go out of the world.”) It was this show, I imagine, that introduced Inframan to a middlebrow audience unlikely to seek out cult films for themselves. It was probably also the reason that, a few months later, Inframan was screened at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. As I recall it, that screening was the thing to do that wintry evening in 1979, as there were many punks and scenesters in attendance. The version of the film shown was the American release, with its title shortened to Infra-man for US audiences and an English dub that increased the movie’s camp appeal immensely. Most of you would probably prefer to see the film in its original Mandarin, but I have to admit that, when watching that version, I sometimes find myself missing the English dub’s odd quirks — such as one characters’ earnest proclamation that “This situation is so bad that it is the worst that has ever been!”
What I mainly remember about that night, though, is that I was utterly transfixed by Inframan. When I got my first VCR, Inframan was one of the first tapes I rented. I loved Inframan so much that it made my heart hurt to think that there was anyone on Earth who hadn’t seen it, and so I took to preaching the virtues of Inframan to anyone who would listen, subjecting friend and acquaintance alike to home screenings whenever possible. Today, after dozens of viewings and numerous instances of me, without irony, referring to Inframan as “one of the greatest films ever made,” my ardor for it has only increased.
It’s impossible to describe Inframan without noting that it was very clearly Shaw Brothers’ answer to the wave of Japanese tokusatsu TV series that was sweeping Asia at the time. Tokusatsu, a Japanese word meaning “special effects,” became the genre description for a very specific type of live action science fiction/superhero series that started with the phenomenally successful Ultraman and it’s various sequel shows in the 1960s. By the dawn of the ’70s, Ultra-mania was starting to ebb, but the debut of the show Spectreman in 1971 triggered a renewed tokusatsu boom. While, during the ’60s, one could only choose between Ultraman and a handful of imitators, viewers were now faced with a virtual army of pleather-clad cyborgs and benevolent aliens who were, for various reasons, charged with protecting Earth. Each of these, of course, was supported by some kind of futuristic paramilitary group with all kinds of super science-y weapons, and often faced off against a recurring villain who would dispatch various suitmation kaiju to defeat them over the course of the show’s run.
Given Run Run Shaw’s admiration for the discipline and craftsmanship of Japanese film technicians, the studio was not shy about bringing Japanese talent to the task of aping the tokusatsu formula. Among these were special effects director Michio Makami, who had previously worked on Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell for Shochiku; and Ekisu Productions, the outfit responsible for the costumes and monster suits of many of Toei TV’s popular superhero series, including Kamen Rider V3 and Kikaider. This is all not to mention the film’s soundtrack, which, in addition to some brassy themes from composer Yung Yu-Chen, contains a number of needle-dropped cues from Ultra Seven and Mirror Man.
While all of this gives Inframan a bit of a Japanese feel, the influence of the Shaw house style upon the film is unmistakable. It’s all there, from the slick, colorful photography and wide Shaw-scope compositions to the phantasmagorical indoor sets. But what distinguishes Inframan most is its hard-hitting and acrobatic martial arts choreography, which, while typical of a Shaw film of its day, provides a welcome contrast to the lumbering wrestling moves seen in most Japanese superhero shows. For this we can thank Tong Kai, a legendary action director who got his start in Cantonese cinema, where among other things, he worked on various “Jane Bond” films, including the Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa series, before moving on to Shaw where he became Chor Yuen’s action director of choice. Shaw also brought to Inframan its roster of contract stars, including Bruce Le, who took time out from playing countless ersatz iterations of Bruce Lee to play ancillary good guy Lui Siu Kuang. As our hero, we have Danny Lee, Shaw’s go-to guy for crazy, seeing as he had also starred in The Oily Maniac, Battle Wizard, and The Mighty Peking Man. Here he plays Reima, an officer of the film’s super science-y organization.
But before we can meet Reima, Inframan greets us with a vision of the apocalypse in progress. First, a dragon-like creature causes a narrow mountain road to collapse, imperiling a school bus full of children. Then we are treated to a nightmarish image of Hong Kong consumed by fire, complete with flaming bodies plunging from windows and desperate citizens trying to escape through towering sheets of flame. Before you can say, “Well, that happened”, we see Professor Liu (Wang Hsieh) arriving by escorted limo at his research lab, where he dons a chrome colored lab coat with epaulets to greet his staff. That staff is a coterie of strapping young men in chrome uniforms who man a series of consoles that, while very futuristic looking, nonetheless spit out computer cards.
Professor Liu and his research staff, obviously modeled on Ultraman’s Science Patrol, provide a good marker for the level of suspension of disbelief that Inframan asks of its audience. The image of the scientific community presented here is very much one drawn from American science fiction movies of the ’50s, wherein scientists are people who can boss government officials around and spin-kick aliens in the gut. At one point, early in the film, Professor Liu informs one of his staff that he is putting the research lab “in emergency combat mode” and the ease with which they transition from academic pursuits to being a kind of alien defense force suggests that this is not an infrequent event. Indeed, if we lived in the world of Inframan, Earth scientists would have long ago conquered global warming, our elected officials cowering behind them as they fired all kinds of space missiles at it. No doubt an atomic bomb would eventually be used.
Anyway, when we meet them, the Professor’s boys are monitoring a series of anomalous vibrations coming from the bowels of the Earth. These culminate in nearby Mount Devil splitting open to reveal a hellish landscape marked by giant stone skulls and a dinosaur idol with flashing red eyes. From this emerges a fetching, whip-wielding young woman in a horned helmet and leather bustier who’s right hand appears to be a small dragon. This is our villain, Princess Dragon Ma, who informs us all that the Earth belongs to her and that all who inhabit it are her slaves. Princess Dragon Ma, one of the most impeccably named villains in all of cult cinema, is played by Shaw regular Terry Lau Wai-Yue, whom you might also have enjoyed in The Bamboo House of Dolls and The Killer Snakes. She has among her accoutrements a right-hand woman/demon in the film named Witch Eye, another stunner in chrome halter and booty shorts who has eyeballs protruding from the palms of her clawed hands. She is played by Dana (aka Tsen Shu-Yi), another contract player who grace a number of Shaw’s sexploitation films. Suffice it to say that the libidinal one-two punch of these two women appearing on screen together in those outfits is enough to make them perennial fixtures in the fantasies of any males who first viewed Inframan at an impressionable age. Or so I hear.
The Princess’ proclamation has the expected result of Professor Liu addressing a bunch of grim-faced suits in an anonymous conference room. He tells them that the Princess is part of an advanced race of prehistoric humans who have been in suspended animation beneath the Earth’s surface ever since the Ice Age. Now that they have revived, they are calling dibs, and they have enough thawed dinosaurs under their control to back up the claim. Taking this all in stride, one of the suits informs Professor Liu that he is putting him “in command.” If this means that Professor Liu is being put in command of the country, the citizens of Hong Kong can at least be grateful that the issue wasn’t a plumbing problem.
Back at the research lab, the Professor, after calling battle stations, summons young Reima into his laboratory (you might be thinking “finally, but we’re actually not too far into Inframan’s running time; it’s very fast paced). The project of building Inframan, an invincible half-man/half-cyborg, is obviously an ongoing topic, and Professor Liu asks Reima if he is still willing to be the guinea pig. Warned that he might die in the attempt, Reima says yes, because otherwise there would be no movie. The process that follows, which will provide Reima with super-human DNA and invincible armor, involves Reima lying in a crucifixion pose while the Professor injects him with a red liquid that makes animated circuitry layovers appear intermittently on his body parts.
Meanwhile, back at Princess Dragon Ma’s cavernous lair, we are introduced to her band of cackling, hyperactive mutants. These include the tentacled Monster Plant, something that looks like a Jack Kirby monster with a drill for a hand, a pair of twin robots with spring launching heads (it kills me that no toys were ever made for this movie), Cousin It, and a big orange bug with four arms, to name just a few. Each of these, to a one, is constantly bouncing up and down on its heels and wiggling to and fro as if in fear that, if they were to stand still, they might be mistaken for a wax figure. Either that or they all have weak bladders. Dragon Ma also has a small army of super expendable skeleton men in black motorcycle helmets, but it is her crew of mutants to whom she entrust the task of attacking the research lab. Monster Plant is among the first wave, and he mounts his assault by “planting” himself outside the lab and growing a gigantic set of tentacles that he uses to crash through the walls of the building and hurl the helpless men inside against every available hard surface. This leads to a masterfully orchestrated cliffhanger sequence in which Professor Liu desperately races to complete Inframan as his outmatched crew faces imminent annihilation in the grasp of the Monster Plant. The moment when Inframan finally somersaults off the operating table (“I feel so full of power!”) and karate chops a bunch of random girders in half before rocketing off to confront the monster is one guaranteed to elicit cheers from any 10-year-old watching, whether existing independently or trapped inside the body of a middle-aged person.
The American ad campaign for Inframan capitalized on its resemblance to the successful TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. Much like that show, Inframan, while dealing with the then-popular topic of bionics, engages in none of the soul searching or ethical fretting that we see in movies like Ex Machina, Moon, and even Robocop. Never once does Reima pause to have an existential crisis about the monster he has become or to mourn the loss of his humanity. To put it bluntly, he simply does not have time for that shit, and neither does Inframan. There are monsters to fight…and a lot of things to blow up.
And fight Inframan does, taking on each mutant as it comes in a series of manic yet cleverly staged fight scenes (the fight with the twin robots and their many spring-launched appendages almost amounts to some kind of Dada-esque ballet.) Some might feel, however, that he brings an excess of good sportsmanship to the task, in that he always takes pains to engages his foe in hand-to-hand combat before ultimately dispatching them with one of the many super-weapons that Professor Liu has equipped him with. Among these are hand-launched fire missiles, eye lasers and, later, the much ballyhooed “Thunderball Fist.” You see, Inframan is akin to a Fletcher Hanks hero in that his apparently limitless powers only reveal themselves on an “as needed” basis. It is not until late in the film that we learn he can grow to gargantuan size at will, an attribute he uses to squash the bug man underfoot like…well, a bug.
Of course, such arbitrary constraints are typical of the tokusatsu genre. Each episode of Ultraman, for instance, depended on its hero having two confrontations with the kaiju of the week: one in which he was defeated in physical combat, and a final one in which he closed the deal with a devastating blast from his hand ray. This way the monster could die with a little less damage to its self-esteem. While the monsters in Ultraman are occasionally portrayed with a modicum of sympathy, the monsters in Inframan are just a bunch of loudmouthed jerks, which makes it all the more pleasurable to see them flayed, flattened and fried as the movie reaches its climax. Mind you, they are not Princess Dragon Ma’s only villainous resource, as she also kidnaps Zhu Min (Lin Wei Wei), one of the research lab crew, and brainwashes him into becoming her spy. This is accomplished by Witch Eye using a giant raygun-like contraption. It, like all of the sci-fi gadgetry in Inframan, looks amazing, as if it was lifted from the cover of an old issue of Planet comics.
Like many of Shaw’s better action films, Inframan ends with a drawn-out battle royale in which the hero takes on the villain and all of her minions single handedly. This takes place in Princess Dragon Ma’s throne room which, in a nice touch worthy of an old Republic serial, comes with a centrally-located lava pit into which hapless skeleton men stumble like coins into a wishing well. Fittingly, it is here that Inframan not only presents some of its finest martial arts action, but also that it dives into a bottomless pit of crazy. The crowning moment is when Inframan confronts the Princess in her dragon form and repeatedly decapitates her, only to have a new head grow in place of the old one. This is repeated ad absurdum until a neat pile of discarded heads lies at the Princess’ feet.
Oh, and there are also motorcycle stunts.