Film Reviews

Round midnight

Plenty of celebs lend their fame to charitable causes. Richard Gere has his Dalai Lama. Sharon Stone supports pediatric AIDS patients. Kim Basinger props up animal rights--and Alec Baldwin's career. Then you have Quentin Tarantino, a man whose cause celebre is orphans--albeit of a different sort than might first spring to mind. QT's orphans are films, although a term such as film may be a little too pompous.

Back in 1994, after the hubbub of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino persuaded Miramax to let him establish a subsidiary, Rolling Thunder Pictures, to give a theatrical home to, in his words, "the missing pieces that help create the tapestry of film history, past and present." That dream of PR-kit phrasing has translated into a gaggle of redheaded stepfilms that mainstream Hollywood neglected long ago. These are midnight movies, chock-full of exploitation like the bad-girls-with-good-guns Switchblade Sisters, the rotting-corpse Italian horror of The Beyond, and Scatman Crothers living "where honkies are the minority" in the blaxsploitation capital of the world, Detroit 9000.

The latest to get the Rolling Thunder midnight-circuit rollout is Mighty Peking Man, a 1977 release from the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong's answer to Cecil B. DeMille and Roger Corman. It's easy to see why Tarantino became so enraptured with this movie after stumbling upon it in a video store. First, it's part Mighty Joe Young, part Sheena, part Godzilla, and 100 percent cash-in on Dino De Laurentis' cheesy 1976 remake of King Kong. Second, it stars Danny Lee, who not only appeared opposite Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo's shoot-'em-up classic The Killer but also did time in City on Fire, the Hong Kong film Tarantino...well, let's say "borrowed" his Reservoir Dogs from.

In Mighty Peking Man, the monster isn't really a giant ape at all but a giant ape-like version of the missing link. But the mistake is easy to make as he explodes out of the Himalayas and proceeds to terrorize the natives by smashing their HO scale huts with Styrofoam boulders. Luckily, in steps a cigar-chomping promoter, quick to explain the scientific value of such a monster and how much money can be made exploiting it. The promoter enlists Johnny (Lee), an adventurer with family issues, to help his expedition track the beast and haul it back to Hong Kong.

On the way through the Indian jungle, the expedition endures elephant stampedes, quicksand, and man-eating tigers that bite off one guy's leg. All of this is just too much for the promoter, and the expedition abandons Johnny while he's asleep one night.

Johnny doesn't seem to mind that he's been left in the wilderness, though, because there's nothing left for him in Hong Kong anyway. He had just caught his girlfriend in bed with his brother. And apparently, the expedition was closer to finding Peking Man than they thought, as the mountain-sized Peking Man manages to sneak up on Johnny and pick him up like a flower.

Luckily for the hero, the blonde and beautiful Samantha swings down on a vine and rescues him. Samantha, played by B-actress bimbo Evelyne Kraft, can only babble unintelligibly, but thanks to a diary that Johnny's somehow able to decipher and a flashback, we learn that Samantha was stranded in the jungle after a plane crash that left her an orphan. Luckily, the plane crash also left some makeup and a loincloth that can't fully contain her left nipple. She and the Peking Man have this thing going on, but she quickly falls for Johnny.

Maybe it's Johnny's irresistible pickup lines: "Hey, want to see a broadcast station?" Or the way he treats her in public: "She was raised in a jungle, you know." Maybe it's his concern for animal rights: "You can't wear animal skins" (this before handing her a tight leather and snakeskin outfit). Then again, maybe it's the way he sucks cobra venom out of her upper thigh. Whatever it is, Samantha is willing to let Johnny have his way with her and take her and Peking Man back to Hong Kong.

How do they get in touch with the promoter so he can come get the monster? Why would Johnny even want to let him have the Peking Man after the promoter stranded him in the jungle? How do they convince the colossal Peking Man to be chained to an ocean liner like the world's biggest S&M gimp? How does the ocean liner make it through a typhoon with a giant on its hull without sinking? These are all mysteries, but one thing you know for sure: Peking Man eventually gets jealous of everyone getting a peek at his lady's assets, and he goes on a rampage, doing what all giant monsters should do more often. He steps on people.

You have to see this film on the big screen to truly appreciate just how hilariously horrible it is. The most expensive Hong Kong movie made up until that time, Mighty Peking Man cost 6 million Hong Kong dollars (roughly 775,000 U.S. dollars today).

But Perhaps Tarantino is on to something. The world might very well need to reclaim the spectacle of the midnight movie. Watching late-night cable TV and Mystery Science Theater 3000 just isn't the same as getting a bunch of friends together, drinking a lot of booze, and yelling "You must stop the Peking Man!" in public.

Mighty Peking Man.
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua. Written by I. Kuang. Starring Danny Lee, Evelyne Kraft, and Hsiao Yao. Opens Friday, with midnight shows only, at the Inwood Theatre.