The Mighty Peking Man / Goliathon / Colossus of the Congo / King Hsing Hsing / Hsing Hsing Wang (1977) -****
It’s difficult to believe now that we’ve had a chance to see the film, but the Dino DeLaurentiis King Kong was apparently reckoned a safe enough bet for success while it was under production that several filmmakers even further down the food chain from Dino thought it was a good idea to rip it off. What is perhaps a bit less difficult to believe is that the producers of the two most notable Copykongs hailed from East Asia— South Korea and Hong Kong, to be exact. The Mighty Peking Man is the Cantonese version, released by the Shaw Brothers at a time when they were making a concerted effort to branch out beyond the martial arts movies for which they were best known. It’s almost as awe-inspiringly absurd as the Shaws’ slightly earlier attempt to ride Ultraman’s coattails.
Nor does The Mighty Peking Man waste a moment in letting you know the kind of movie it is. A bunch of rich creeps led by Lu Tiem (Feng Ku, from Return of the One-Armed Swordsman and Five Deadly Venoms— or maybe he’s some other guy named Feng Wa; I’ve seen both attributions, and since Hong Kong is one of my blind spots, I don’t feel qualified to say one way or the other) is looking over an article in the Hong Kong Standard reporting the discovery of gigantic humanoid footprints in the foothills of the Himalayas. Lu Tiem tells his buddies that this is not the first time such a thing has happened in that part of the world. In fact, during the 1960’s, there was a devastating earthquake there, and the splitting of the ground released a huge ape-like monster— which Lu identifies as “the prehistoric Peking Man,” apparently oblivious to the fact that Peking Man was nothing but a perfectly ordinary Homo erectus— that utterly destroyed a small village. We are then treated to a flashback of the incident Lu describes. It’s amazing. For one thing, the inhabitants of the doomed village are all Chinese people wearing blackface (or maybe very-dark-reddish-brownface would be a more apt description) in an attempt to make them pass for Indians. This Indianizing makeup is applied with only slightly more care than the greenface worn by the undead Nazis in Zombie Lake. For another, one look at the long-distance shots of the village in its entirety will surely cause you to hear Terry Gilliam sneering from the back of your brain, “It’s only a model…” Finally, there’s the Peking Man himself. Now I’ve seen a whole lot of shitty gorilla suits in my time, but this one might just beat them all. It’s almost indescribable. And the creature’s apparent size changes more often and more radically than I can recall ever having seen in any other monster movie. Anyway, the Peking Man climbs out of a newly opened crevice in the earth, and proceeds to smash the village, the inhabitants of which are unable to defend themselves even when they bring their catapults (Catapults? What?!) into action against him. This goes on for a while, and then the flashback abruptly stops and returns us to Lu Tiem, who is now trying to sell his cronies on the idea of sending an expedition to India for the purpose of capturing the giant Peking Man and bringing him back to Hong Kong for exhibition. That whooshing sound you hear from the heavens is the spirits of Carl Denham, Clark Nelson, T.J. Breckinridge, and Professor Challenger sighing in dismay at the way humanity has failed once again to learn from their examples.
Lu has no intention of running the expedition all by himself, however. An acquaintance of his named Johnnie Fang (Danny Lee, from Infra-Man and Human Meat Pies: The Untold Story) is apparently an expert on wilderness survival, and he’s apt to be in the market for some distracting action. You see, he just recently caught his girlfriend, Lucy (Ping Chen, of Black Magic and Lady Exterminator), cheating on him with his own brother, Charlie (probably Lin Wei-Tu, from Revenge of the Zombies and The Master of Kung Fu), and now he spends most of his time hanging out in his favorite bar, getting majestically shitfaced. Johnnie does indeed agree to lead the trek to the Himalayas when Lu offers him the job, and before we know it, the two men are hiking across the suspiciously non-mountainous countryside at the head of a wagon train and an army of conspicuously Chinese “Indian” porters.
We have now reached the point at which the filmmakers embark on an ambitious attempt to give us the edited highlights of every safari adventure movie ever made in ten minutes or less. First comes the footage of exotic animals behaving exotically. Then one of the wagons gets mired in the mud while fording a river. Then Johnnie and Tiem glimpse something distinctly humanoid in appearance swinging from a vine through the trees. Then there’s an elephant stampede which claims the lives of a number of Al Jol Son’s Discount Blackface Porters in ways that present excuses for laughably pathetic gore effects. Then a tiger attacks out of nowhere, and bites the leg off one of the porters in a shot you won’t believe even after you see it. Incredibly, several more members of the expedition become collateral casualties of the tiger attack when they leap out of the big cat’s path and have the impossibly foul luck to land up to their necks in a convenient quicksand pit! Still more porters die in a fall from a cliff once the expedition finally reaches the mountains. (Incidentally, since both Lu and Fang knew they were going to the Himalayas, it seems to me that some of this peril might possibly have been averted by starting the trek a little bit closer to the fucking mountains!) Eventually, Lu Tiem understandably decides that he’s had enough. Johnnie won’t hear of aborting the mission, though, so Lu wakes up in the middle of the night, rounds up the porters, and steals away for home under the cover of darkness. Dick.
Naturally, it is immediately after his abandonment by the rest of the party that Johnnie encounters the Peking Man. Fang somehow fails to notice that he is being followed by a man in a gorilla suit somewhere between twenty and 100 feet high (I told you the monster’s size fluctuated wildly) until the creature is scooping him up in its hand and lifting him up off the ground. The monster sets Johnnie down for no particularly good reason a moment later, and the man very reasonably flees like the devil himself was on his heels. The Peking Man is faster than he is, however (it’s those long legs, don’t you know), and it looks as though the game is up for our hero. That’s when the jungle goddess shows up. You remember that humanoid vine-swinging thing Fang and Lu saw earlier? Well it turns out to be a statuesque blonde white girl (Evelyne Kraft, from Lady Dracula and The Paris Sex Murders) in an animal-skin bikini, the upper half of which exhibits truly remarkable adhesive qualities. Inevitably, Ootam the Peking Man is the girl’s pet, and she is able to convince him not to harm Johnnie— although why she would have any interest in doing so is far from obvious. Making the plausible inference that white chicks are not likely to be native to the Himalayas, Johnnie attempts to ask the girl who she is and where she came from, but he doesn’t make much headway until he asks specifically about her mama and papa. At that, our jungle goddess leads Johnnie to the wreck of a small plane, where the combination of a diary found in the cockpit and a real head-scratcher of a flashback sequence reveals that the girl’s name is Samantha (in the English-language version, anyway; the Cantonese prints apparently call her “Ah Wei”), and that she has been in the jungle since she was roughly ten years old. Ootam (just recently awakened by that earthquake) found her after she alone survived the crash of her family’s private plane, and the two of them have taken care of each other ever since.
No sooner has Johnnie digested all this information than Samantha is bitten by a cobra. Her pet leopard kills the snake, but it’s just a bit late for that now. The jungle goddess gets progressively sicker despite Johnnie’s efforts to treat her, until eventually Ootam shows up with a huge pile of unusual leaves. Getting the hint swiftly, Fang grinds the leaves up into a medicinal poultice which counteracts the venom and gets Samantha back on her feet in no time. Then begins the obligatory romantic montage, with all the usual slow-motion frolicking and 70’s softcore porn music. We will quickly stop paying attention to that montage’s central figures, however, to marvel instead over the patience and permissiveness of Samantha’s leopard, which puts up with a degree of manhandling that not even the average housecat would stand for. Finally, Johnnie and the jungle goddess wind up in bed together, where they are unfortunately observed by the jealous Ootam. The Mighty Peeping Man flies into a rage, and only grudgingly allows himself to be calmed down by Samantha. Inexplicably, Johnnie picks that moment to talk Samantha into coming back to civilization with him, and to bring Ootam along while she’s at it. Even more inexplicably, Samantha decides that this is a pretty good idea.
Lu Tiem, meanwhile, has spent the weeks since he skipped out on his partner relaxing by the poolside with a harem of bikini chicks, and telling anyone who’ll listen that there’s no Peking Man after all. Naturally, it comes as something of a shock to him when Johnnie, Samantha, and Ootam show up in whatever northern Indian city it is where he’s been staying. Lu is fast on the draw, though, and he soon has all concerned agreeing to put Ootam on a freighter and sail him across the ocean to Hong Kong. We might pause at this point to wonder why Johnnie is so quick to forgive Tiem for abandoning him; all I can think of by way of explanation is that everything he does from the moment he suggests moving to the city to Samantha until shortly before the closing credits shows him to be at least as big a dick as his partner. You see, Johnnie isn’t bothered in the slightest by the way Lu has Ootam chained up on the deck of the ship he hires. Nor does he think to speak up when Lu insists that the ship make straight for Hong Kong even though that means sailing directly into a typhoon. It doesn’t trouble Fang at all when, upon reaching their destination, Lu uses Ootam in an incredibly crass spectacle that might best be described as the Giant Monkey Tractor Pull. Finally, he even goes so far as to get back together with Lucy, sparing not a moment’s thought for how Samantha is going to take that piece of news after she left behind everything she’s known since she was just a child in order to be with him. But perhaps there’s something of a rivalry going on here, too, for Lu, not to be out-dicked, attempts to rape Samantha the first chance he gets. He’s dumb enough, however, to do this where Ootam can see him, and now, at long last, The Mighty Peking Man gets back down to its monster-rampage business. Hong Kong movies are justly renowned for their downbeat endings, though, and it is in adhering to that tradition that The Mighty Peking Man takes what might be its most peculiar turn of all.
If you enjoyed Infra-Man, there’s a better than even chance you’ll like The Mighty Peking Man, too. While it is nowhere near as busy or energetic as that movie, it is just as strange and incompetent, and just as charmingly sincere. It’s hard to believe that the filmmakers could have failed to realize how the movie was turning out, but if they did, they never let that sway them from their original plan. There is not a trace here of the ironic humor which the creators of the DeLaurentiis King Kong attempted to employ as suck insurance. No, the makers of The Mighty Peking Man went for broke, and while their movie is a ludicrous, almost unmitigated failure, it is at least an honest failure. It may be little more than a frantically inept assembly of incompatible, and indeed contradictory cliches, but damn it, it has heart, and that’s more than you can say for the movie it was designed to cash in on.