Thursday, 17 September 2009

Mighty Peking Man (1977)

Mighty Peking Man (Xing xing wang) was Shaw Brothers Studio’s homage to King Kong. Well perhaps blatant rip-off of King Kong would be more accurate, but it’s done in such a good-humoured way you can’t possibly object. And they improved the original by adding a jungle girl sub-plot. What’s better than a giant gorilla movie? A giant gorilla movie that is also a jungle girl movie.

Our hero (played by Danny Lee) is an explorer suffering from depression after finding his girlfriend in bed with his brother. The best cure for depression is of course to mount an expedition into the steamy tropical rainforests of the Himalayas. And since there have been reports of a monstrous 50-foot gorilla being sighted in that area, what better excuse for an expedition? He’s interested in advancing scientific knowledge, but the backer of the project, the nefarious Mr Lu, sees it as a way of becoming very rich by displaying the giant gorilla in the Hong Kong Stadium.

It turns out that the jungles of the Himalayas are populated by other fascinating creatures in addition to gorillas, elephants, tigers and orang-utans. They are also home to a beautiful blonde jungle girl named Ah Wei. No matter what part of the world you may find beautiful jungle girls in, they will always be blonde. It’s a rule. Her parents were killed in a plane crash and she was raised by the giant gorilla, whose name is Ah Wang. Our intrepid hero naturally falls in love with her, and his feelings are warmly reciprocated. He persuades her to accompany the gorilla back to Hong Kong. Of course things don’t turn out well for our giant ape friend, and the stage is set for a very King Kong-style ending.

This is a movie that has not the slightest intention of taking itself seriously. Making a movie that deliberately aims for camp, that is consciously played tongue-in-cheek and that celebrates its own cheesiness and does all this successfully isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s so easy to end up with something that is too contrived and too clever for its own good. And when there’s the potential for major cuteness (Ah wei has lots of loveable animal friends) and huge servings of sentimentality the dangers multiply. In this case director Meng Hua Ho and scriptwriter Kuang Ni effortlessly avoid all these pitfalls.

They’re helped considerably by the two leads. While I would hesitate to claim that either Danny Lee or Evelyne Kraft (who plays jungle girl Ah Wei) are great actors, they know what’s expected of them and they deliver the goods. Lee is handsome and brave without being annoying, while Evelyne Kraft manages to be everything a jungle girl should be - blonde, pretty, likable and very scantily clad - while also not being annoying. And they have good chemistry between them.

The movie is also careful not to strain too hard for laughs. The premise is silly enough to provide more than enough amusement. It’s also mildly sexy, but in a thoroughly cheerful and good-natured way. The pacing is spot-on, with not a single wasted scene.

The special effects work perfectly for the type of film this is. If you remade it with expensive CGI you’d simply spoil the fun. Traditional giant monster movies are supposed to de done with not overly convincing models, and this is a movie that is very much aware of being part of that tradition. And the effects are spectacular enough, even if you don’t for one minute believe they’re real. They’re fun, like everything else in this film. You expect to see Hong Kong get stomped in model form the way Tokyo gets stomped in model form in Godzilla movies, and that’s what you get.

The addition of a major romantic sub-plot adds an extra dimension to the ending, and at the risk of being accused of heresy I think it’s superior to the ending of the original King Kong, although it is at the same time very much a homage to the ending of that film.

The Region 4 DVD is totally lacking in extras but it looks marvellous. This is an insanely enjoyable romp, and I really can’t recommend this one too highly. It’s an absolute treat.

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