Infra-Man / The Super Inframan / Inframan Battles the Sci-Fi Monsters / Zhong Guo Chao Ren (1975/1976) -*****
I don’t understand how this is possible myself, but somehow or other, I have never once seen a single episode of “Ultraman,” in any of its myriad incarnations. But Infra-Man, the Shaw Brothers’ impossibly naïve and silly rip-off of the Ultraman franchise? That I’ve seen more times than I can count. In fact, stumbling upon Infra-Man without warning one summer afternoon was one of the key bad movie experiences of my early adolescence. Those who know both me and Infra-Man well might surmise as much from the fact that my first band entitled its second album I Can Have Such a Thing?. (If you don’t get the reference, don’t worry. You will by the end of the review.) I expected to write about this movie years upon years ago, and the fact that I’m only just now getting to it is as mysterious to me as my continued Ultraman virginity. Better late than never, though, right?
If any other film gets started faster than Infra-Man, I sure haven’t seen it. We spend perhaps three seconds in the company of a busload of singing schoolchildren before a huge, foam-rubber dragon does a belly flop from the sky into the roadway in front of them, initiating a cascade of earthquakes and volcanic explosions. The climax of these disasters is the eruption of the long-dormant Mount Devil, from which subsequently emerge a variety of monstrous accoutrements: giant horned skulls, an assortment of dinosaurian bones, and an immense stone dragon head with jeweled eyes and a gaping mouth that looks suspiciously like a gangway to the center of the Earth. Baffled and concerned, Professor Chan of the Institute for Unspecified Scientific Research (Wang Hsieh, from The Oily Maniac and The Devil’s Mirror) orders his lab’s long-range radar trained on the wayward volcano. He does so just in time to tune in a transmission from Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu, from Killer Snakes and Bamboo House of Dolls) announcing her intention to conquer the Earth. The authorities naturally find that news terribly alarming, but fortunately Professor Chan is on the case. With the aid of his magical omniscient computer, Chan determines that Princess Dragon Mom is most likely representative of a lost race of superhumans who colonized the Earth’s interior from outer space in distant prehistory. Furthermore, he interprets reports of monsters like the dragon we saw earlier to mean that her people have spent the time since their arrival breeding mutant strains of creatures that time forgot. These presumably will serve as the invaders’ ultimate weapon against the surface world. Since Chan seems to be the only one with the first clue what’s going on, the government puts him in untrammeled command of the resistance effort.
Now you might expect that to mean the government is placing military forces at Chan’s disposal, but in fact that isn’t necessary. The Institute for Unspecified Scientific Research already has an army of silver-jumpsuited martial artists, led by the courageous Lieutenant Reima (Danny Lee, of The Mighty Peking Man and Thunder of Gigantic Serpent). The trouble is, Princess Dragon Mom’s forces look even more formidable. Her Skeleton Goon troopers make up for their lack of kung fu with explosive-tipped spears. Her right-hand woman, She-Demon (Dana Tsen Shu-Yi, from Black Magic and Fearful Interlude), shoots death rays from the eyes in the palms of her hands. The princess’s twin Slinkee-Bots can launch their heads and weaponized extremities great distances at the ends of long, coily springs. And then there are the mutants, five Monster of the Week-like freakoids, each with its own pain-in-the-ass superpower. Recognizing that Reima and his jumpsuit battalion are outmatched, Chan has concocted a plan to turn one volunteer from among their ranks into an invincible atomic cyborg— and because they apparently don’t teach Latin at whichever university awarded him his Ph.D. in Science!tm, the professor has dubbed his creation “Infra-Man.” Naturally it’s Reima himself who steps forward to undergo the arduous transformation.
Princess Dragon Mom has no intention of waiting around for Chan to tilt the balance against her, however. At the very moment the professor sets to work customizing Reima, she dispatches her cleverest mutant and her most enthusiastic to make trouble. The latter, a creature of vines and tendrils which I shall dub Skull Kudzu, lays siege to the Institute, coming close to killing Reima on the very operating table. Close isn’t good enough, of course, and Skull Kudzu doesn’t last long once Chan puts the finishing touches on Reima and turns him loose as Infra-Man. (Note that it takes Reima mere seconds to recover from having complex surgery performed on every cubic inch of his body.) But while Skull Kudzu is getting John Deered at the Institute, the second mutant— a vaguely humanoid assemblage of asymmetrical lumps with a drill for one hand and a shovel for the other, henceforth to be known as H.R. Ruffntuff— waylays a jumpsuiter named Chu Ming (Lin Wen-Wei, from The Flying Guillotine and The Kiss of Death), and carries him off to Mount Devil for brainwashing.
Next, Princess Dragon Mom tries a tandem attack by two mutants. Or at any rate, that was supposed to be the plan. Boris the Spider and Laser Yak aren’t the brightest of monsters, however, and in practice their assault is more a tag-team effort than a concerted one. Even Boris the Spider’s ability to grow huge at will avails the invaders little, because Chan conferred that power upon Reima as well. Again H.R. Ruffntuff demonstrates why he’s the favorite around Mount Devil by collaborating with Chu Ming to steal the plans to Infra-Man. Inevitably, examination of those plans reveals a serious weakness— or at any rate, a weakness that would have been serious had Chan not already decided to correct it while outfitting Reima with new weapons. (“For success, it is necessary that you have thunderball fists.” “I can have such a thing?!” “Yes— thunderball fists.” I told you you’d get the reference if you kept reading.)
On the other hand, Chu Ming hasn’t quite exhausted his usefulness to the invaders, even though Reima spotted and recognized him while he was stealing the Infra-Man blueprints. On his next visit to the Institute in company with H.R. Ruffntuff, Chu Ming and the mutant score no less a coup than the abduction of Professor Chan and his eldest daughter, Mei Mei (Yuan Man-Tzu, of Shaolin Martial Arts and The Killer from Shantung). At that point, there’s nothing else for it but a frontal assault on Mount Devil, for which Reima wisely realizes that even Infra-Man will require backup. He therefore assembles the whole silver jumpsuit battalion to come along with him. While Sergeant Xiao Long (Bruce Le, from The King of Kung Fu and Pieces) leads them against the Skeleton Goons, Infra-Man will handle H.R. Ruffntuff and the fire-breathing, impressively mustachioed Kaiser Friedrich the Gross. And even then, the task will be only half-completed, for a victory on the slopes of Mount Devil will still leave She-Demon, the Slinkee-Bots, and Princess Dragon Mom herself to contend with. Good thing Reima has thunderball fists…
It’s no exaggeration to say that I had never seen a movie quite like Infra-Man on that afternoon in the late 1980’s when it first came my way. It was like a cross between a kaiju flick and the Japanese super-robot cartoons I had grown addicted to in the guises of “Voltron” and “Tranzor Z.” But more than that, it was frenetic almost beyond the telling of it, like some of the more bonkers kung fu films I’d seen. That should have clued me in to this loony picture’s origin, but I was too rigidly set into the assumption that monster movies with all-Asian casts came from Japan to see it. I also hadn’t yet learned to pay attention to the credits at that age, so I wouldn’t have grasped the significance of the name Runme Shaw even if I had noticed it. Regardless, that breathless 70’s Hong Kong pacing is still Infra-Man’s greatest asset. It enhances the natural loopiness of the proceedings by preventing you from ever pausing to examine them logically. You can tell at any given moment that what you’re seeing doesn’t make any sense, but the story and the action race along so quickly that they’re on to the next thing that doesn’t make any sense before you can consciously process whatever was amiss with the last one. Infra-Man carries you away like a tidal wave of candy-colored irrationality, leaving you dazed and disoriented as you attempt to fit the pieces together 80-odd minutes later.
And what pieces! Infra-Man has monsters as zany and inventive (and as crappily realized) as any of the contemporary Japanese tokusatsu shows it copies. The cracked dialogue in the English-language dub is compulsively quotable, almost like inadvertent absurdist poetry at times. Characters appear before they’ve been formally introduced, not to create mystery or to add texture to the world of the film, but apparently out of sheer slovenliness. The key examples are Chan Mei Mei and her two younger siblings. When they get their reaction shot at Infra-Man’s debut (“There’s Infra-Man!” squeals the littlest of the bunch), we recognize them only as three of the youngsters from the bus in the opening scene; we have no way of knowing that they, alone in all the world, have a plausible reason to be aware of the professor’s cyborg-making plans. The production design is at once goofy and strangely coherent. The invaders’ lair and equipment, for instance, have an undeniably consistent esthetic to them, right down to the skull figurehead on their inexplicable motorboat. Meanwhile, there’s a clear if cockeyed logic to dressing Professor Chan in a silver lamé lab coat with captain’s stripes on the shoulders. Most of all, Infra-Man has an infectious, giddy earnestness about it that I’ve come to recognize as a common trait of escapist cinema from the Third World. That sort of thing appeals to me more and more as Western pop culture grows increasingly too sophisticated for its own good. Infra-Man is totally without sophistication of any kind, and my gods, is it glorious!