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  • Ravi Swami

"Peking Man", Dir: Meng Hua Ho, 1977

As oddities go, you can't get odder than "Peking Man" ("The Mighty Peking Man" / "Goliathon" in the U.S) from the renowned Shaw Bros studio of Hong Kong, more well-known for their martial arts fantasies and for unleashing the furious fists and feet of Jackie Chan and Jet Lee upon an unsuspecting world of the 1970's, in the wake of Bruce Lee.

The early brand-building efforts of the studio occasioned a deviation such as this film before they became synonymous worldwide with martial arts films and it seems to have been timed to coincide with and cash in on the Dino Di Laurentis' 1976 re-make of "King Kong", though as far as I know it was Shaw Bros' only venture into the "Kaiju" giant monster genre.

The success of Toho Studios and others such as Daiei ("Gamera") in giant monster films had an interesting consequence in that other studios in different Pan-Asian regions tapped their visual effects expertise, a phenomenon that reached as far as India, though with very limited results. Here the ambitious visual effects - intended to rival Di Laurentis' - were handled by Sadamasa Arikawa and Kōichi Kawakita, visual effects directors with backgrounds at Toho and Daiei.

Discovering actors and actresses I'd never heard of before seems to have been a feature of my lockdown viewing and this film features the frankly gorgeous Evelyne Kraft, an actress of Swiss origin who I imagine could have been an easy contender for the role of a Bond Girl to rival fellow Swiss actress Ursula Andress if she hadn't decided to quit films - of which she appeared in a string of European films incl' the titular role in "Lady Dracula" - to concentrate on her businesses and family life, before passing away prematurely at the relative young age of 58.

The visual effects are somewhat uneven, ranging from not particularly convincing miniature and optical process work (Front Axial Projection ?) at the start and throughout, though there are some highlights that are actually quite impressive by the films' conclusion and while the "Suitmation" "Peking Man" of the title seems laughable at points, the articulation of the head is actually pretty good, with close-ups and interaction requiring human-scaled mechanical props like hands and feet that betray budgetary and technical constraints that were not so much of an issue for Di Laurentis' visual effects team.

The other interesting aspect for me personally is that the early part of the film is set in India, with scenes shot in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore, which we visited as a family often during school holidays since many of our relatives live there, using landmarks familiar to anyone resident in the area such as the "Vidhana Soudha" .

The plot basically follows that of "King Kong" but with a geographical location shift, moving this "King Kong from Hong Kong" (why isn't that title featured in any of the posters...? :)) to the foothills of the Himalayas where he terrorises tribal villagers before trashing their wooden hut homes.

A group of Chinese adventurers in Hong Kong hear of the giant ape (the title refers to the discovery of an early ancestor of modern humans in China) and decide to bring it to Hong Kong in the hope of making a fortune and they are led by Johnny (Danny Lee), a young man who is down in the dumps and nursing a broken heart after losing his girlfriend and intended wife to his kid-brother, a TV director.

You may be wondering why the films' title refers to an anthropoid discovered in China and yet moves the plot to India. The reasons for this are made clearer if you have some knowledge of Buddhism and the Hinduism it sprang from and there are some obvious references that hint at well-known Chinese and Indian deities such as "Sun WuKong", or the Monkey King and more pointedly, the Indian monkey god, "Hanuman".

Before Communism under Chairman Mao aimed to suppress Buddhist teachings, many of the common cultural characteristics of China and India were well-embedded enough to resist indoctrination and have only relatively recently found expression in popular culture following the passing of Mao. This explains the recent perpetual recycling of films based on the Monkey King myth emerging from mainland China.

Being separated from the Chinese mainland and Communism meant that the Shaw's could make a film that tapped into the mythology without interference and it seems as if moving the origin of the giant ape was a smart move to avoid criticism from the Chinese authorities.

There's a scene where "Samantha" (Kraft)- a "Jungle Girl" of European origin whose parent's light aircraft crashed in the jungle leaving her to be raised by animals and the giant ape, who is both her friend and protector, is bitten by a cobra. When all hope seems lost and she is dying, the ape comes to her aid by dropping quantities of medicinal leaves in front of the cave where she and Danny are hiding out awaiting rescue.

This is a clear reference to the "Sanjeevani" familiar to many Indians from the "Ramayana" myth, a detail that may be lost on Western audiences.

I found scenes where a scantily-clad Samantha is seen running through teeming crowds of Indian extras (Indians can always be counted on to turn out for a film for free :)) amusing since seeing a near-naked Western woman must have been quite something, especially in the conservative South, an aspect that feels oddly out of step with the films' sensitivity towards Indian culture, but then this is just another aspect of the films' quirkiness.

There's a lot about this film that feels odd and daft besides the choppy editing and narrative jumps and you just have to go along with its' unrelenting nuttiness, from uncomfortable intimate scenes between Danny and Samantha with the odd boob-flash, a clunky attempted rape scene by Danny's lecherous boss that provokes the rage of the chained up giant ape and trashing of downtown Hong Kong that ensues before the climax, where not just the ape but also Samantha end up being killed (!).

The closing shot avoids the "It was Beauty killed the Beast" ending of the original King Kong, instead opting for a curiously open-ended scene where Danny holds the limp body of Samantha as he stands before a gaping hole in the top storey of the Connaught House building looking out over a devastated Hong Kong at night, thus avoiding aping (sorry) all other versions of "King Kong".

I'd recommend it for oddity value and since it is included in Arrow Films' current line-up of Shaw Bros' films via the Arrow Player streaming service, worth checking out.

"Peking Man", Dir: Meng Hua Ho, 1977

Arrow Player


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