INFRA-MAN aka THE SUPER-INFRAMAN (1975)
directed by Shan Hua
Starring: Danny Lee, Terry Liu, Hsieh Wang, Man-Tzu Yuan et al.
Written by: Ni Kuang.
Producer: Run Me Shaw
This article is a revised and extended version of an older article that has been published before and was unavailable for a while.
Infra-Man is somewhat of an oddity.
Infra-Man was Hong Kong’s most notable attempt to ride on the wave of success of Japanese so-called “tokusatsu”- movies. “Tokusatsu” (simply “special effects” in Japanese ) is an umbrella term for any kind of effects-heavy film, for example the subgenre of “Kaiju”-movies as well as most movies from the Sci-Fi genre.
In the Western hemisphere we -or at least all the hopeless full-on and wannabe Otakus- mainly associate “tokusatsu” with the Japanese variety of the superhero, most notably represented by the TV- adventures of Ultra-Man or Kamen Rider. Not unlike the American superhero myths, their stories usually revolve around some noble-spirited guys who undergo physical and technological enhancement to serve as weapon against an alien or other kind of threat. Sometimes they are already working for a powerful organization which fights said threat and deems a “human weapon” as a reasonable solution to that problem, in other cases they are innocent chaps who come to their superpowers by accident, just like many of their US- counterparts. Thus they fight, their bodies clothed in fancy futuristic suits and their faces humbly hidden behind equally fantastic masks, an endless array of imaginatively designed monsters, some of them with a “topical” design, fitting the episode’s overall theme. Those series often also featured “Kaiju”-themed set pieces, that had the hero growing to skyscraper-size to fight giant monsters. Some of the “tokusatsu”-series were based on Mangas, others spawned Mangas themselves, while many TV-episodes were spliced together into full-length feature films. In short, it was a phenomenon that spanned over all kinds of media.
Over time, the “tokusatsu”- phenomenon also started gaining popularity outside Japan, benefitting from the international success of the Godzilla-movies which paved the way for the influx of Japanese pop culture into the West. The ultimate breakthrough into public awareness happened much later though, namely in the early 90s with the infamous Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers series, an American production which extensively used footage from the original Super Sentai series and added extra “westernized” scenes with US-actors. Oddly enough, the Hong Kong film producers had already applied the same technique in the 70s and interspersed cheaply bought “tokusatsu”- episodes footage with newly filmed material, starring Hong Kong actors. The end result was more than often a quite incoherent, confusing movie.
This leads us back to Infra-Man, the first authentic “tokusatsu”-movie completely produced in Hong Kong and also the Eastern film mecca’s first superhero-movie to boot. Content-wise and stylistically, it sticks pretty close to the traditional “tokusatsu”-superhero template – apart from the HK- setting and the HK- cast of course- but the endlessly evolving, meandering plot templates of the TV-series have been condensed into crisp 87 minutes. Another advantage over the Japanese versions is the fact that the HK- filmmakers could resort to their long experiences with martial arts choreography, as the legendary Shaw Bros Studio was producing after all. That means that the fights are much more energetic and engaging, although some of the actors seem a bit hampered in their movements by the bulky monster suits they have to wear. There is also some fine Wire-Fu on display.
The story starts with a bang. After a winged dragon-like creature flies over a driving school bus, the earth cracks open and swallows the bus, fortunately after the kids could have been rescued. Yet, this was just the prelude of a series of mysterious earthquakes all over the earth.
A case for Professor Yiu Ling De (Hsieh Wang), who is the head of an organization called “Science Headquarters” (SH). A name that could need some specification, if you ask me. His highly scientific research leads him to the conclusion that the center of the earth quakes can be traced back to the “Devil Mountain” nearby. Well, that name should have been telling. And indeed, another earthquake makes said mountain crumble and reveals a nifty fortress composed of giant rock- hewn skulls and dragon heads, not unlike “Castle Grayskull” from Masters of the Universe. Lady of the castle and empress over its court, a legion of monsters and “Skeleton ghosts” (warriors clad in suits with a skeleton motif and wearing horned helmets), is Princess Dragon Mom (!), ruler from prehistoric times. Yes, you read that correctly, in the English dubbed version she is called Princess Dragon Mom and no, that’s not even the best part of the movie.
Subsequently, Dragon Mom (Terry Liu) demands complete submission from the puny humans and naturally world domination, otherwise she threatens to destroy the surface of earth.
Enter the hero, Lei Ma (portrayed by Danny Lee- yes, the Danny Lee who played the tough-as-nails cop in John Woo’s “The Killer”!), the most courageous and heroic employee of SH, who is introduced with a scene that shows him saving a kid (looking conspicuously like a puppet) from death by fire.
He is approached by the Professor, who has a bold plan how to fight the monster army and that plan, you guessed it, involves a man turning into an invincible human weapon through power-enhancing injections and an almost indestructible armored suit. The suit is still untested though, but Lei Ma agrees, he even cannot await being transformed, because who does not want to be a human guinea pig? In a very dramatic moment, it seems as if the highly dangerous process that is ought to turn Lei Ma into a super-weapon would fail, because the monsters are attacking the SH in exactly that moment, but fortunately the Professor can complete it in time and Infra-Man is born!
He is introduced with an obligatory “tokusatsu”-style transformation sequence, a sequence that shows you the hero changing into his superhero- Alter Ego, usually a short montage with flashy effects and a funky theme that is set against a neutral background so it can be inserted at any point in the movie/TV-series. Kids must have a high tolerance towards repetitions, because those sequences got reiterated over and over and over.
Fortunately, we are only treated to three of those spread over the whole movie.
To demonstrate his new powers, Inframan shows off an impressive flip/jump combo, followed by a considerately less impressive Kung Fu- smashing of a metal handrail that is instantly recognizable as a contraption of some very loosely connected aluminum pipes for the mature audience. Infra-Man‘s futuristic costume looks a little like that of a motorbike- stuntman (he is actually riding a dirtbike later in the movie) with enormous Samurai-shoulder pads in red with some silvery highlights. The mask has the features of a silvery Pagan mask with insectoid eyes (with X-ray vision) while the red helmet has two antennas, one on each side, which give him super-auditory capabilities. The fact that the antennas are extending according to the direction the sound source Inframan is listening to is located, is a nice, if goofy touch.
Other abilities are super-strength, -speed and -agility. Beyond that his suit is equipped with a plethora of secret weapons, like mini-rockets shooting from his sleeves and power gloves that he can fire at his enemies and which automatically return to their owner. It’s quite astonishing how fast he gets accustomed to his new abilities and how proficiently he uses them. And he has many opportunities to use them before him, because his enemies are legion and candy-colored and whimsically designed. Apart from the Skeleton Ghosts, who are basically cannon-fodder, every monstrous foe has a different design and different abilities.
There is a demonic creature in a red costume with long white hair and a big white beard that shoots laser from its horns, kind like a satanic “Cousin Itt” (“Addams Family”). Then there is a spider/crab-like creature that can spit cobwebs at its adversaries and grows into “Kaiju”-size at one point in the movie. Inframan fights it by turning into a giant himself- that power is never explained- and hilariously enough, kills the monster after it reverted to its original size, by stepping on it.
Another monster is called “Fire Dragon” and is a humanoid lizard man with a demonic face and a golden crown, his ability is naturally fire breathing. My personal favorite though is “Plant Monster”, a green tree-like creature that can spray acid on its victims. Furthermore it is able to disappear into the ground and reemerge as a giant tree which can grow through concrete walls and uses his branches like tentacles to grab attackers. What I love about “Plant Monster” is the almost Tim Burton-like appearance. With the floppy tentacles growing out of the top of the head and the Halloween-mask-like face it’s quite an inspired design.
Main henchman of Princess Dragon Mom is “Mutant Drill” though, a bulky monster which has a drill for one hand and a shovel-claw for the other which allows him to move stealthily under the earth’s surface. Last but not least there is Witch-Eye, the right hand of Princess Dragon Mom, who is like her mistress a beautiful woman, but with lizard claws as hands. Reminiscent of the creature from “Pan’s Labyrinth”, she has additional eyes in the palms of her hands that can shoot lasers- the 70s and 80s were in love with lasers.
The whole interior of the castle is designed in an “advanced primitive” style, combining prehistoric vaults with atavistic ornaments with SciFi- technology, like a mind-reading machine or a teleporter device. The “dragon” or “reptilian”-theme pervades all designs and is visible in many groovy details, like the barrel of the mind-reading laser gun that is shaped like a dragon head.
As I mentioned before, the entertainment factor of Infra-Man benefits a lot from the “one-shot” structure being applied. On first sight, the plot seems surprisingly tight for this genre, which is kind of amazing as it is actually highly inconsequential on closer inspection.
Due to the targeted infant audience, a short subplot about kids playing detective to help their hero is included, but it only leads to them having to be saved by Infra-Man in the end.
Another scene has Dragon Mom’s detecting a flaw in technical drawings of Inframan’s suit which had been stolen by her spies, yet it is never brought up again. Then, at one point, Inframan is shock-frosted by his enemies, unable to move. Fortunately he remembers the Professor telling him which technical features to activate in such a situation in a flashback. Which is suspicious, as we have already seen the sequence of the Professor explaining the suit to Lei Ma and that bit was not included.
Of course those goofs don’t detract from the enjoyment of the movie, yet only lend an accidental anarchic quality to the already quite wacky proceedings on the screen. Which leads me to the film’s big strength, the unrelenting campiness.
It’s a well-known fact that camp works best when it is unintended and Infra-Man has plenty of that certain kind of innocence on display that should enrapture all true camp aficionados. It offers that special blend of relative technical proficiency suddenly contrasted by grave directorial plunders, exuberant imagination slightly hampered in its depiction by the charmingly cost-efficient means of execution and the laudable desire to tell a most trivial story with the utmost seriousness and urgency movie geeks with a good bad taste learned to appreciate.
Therefore, the movie is riddled with charming imperfections and unintended absurdity. If you look closely, you can see the zipper at the backside of the monster costumes. At one point in the movie, the Prof. has to hand himself over in exchange for a hostage (long story) and is escorted in Princess Dragon Mom’s boat by “Mutant Drill” and a “Skeleton Ghost”. The boat stands out like a sore thumb among the otherwise meticulously in a Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Low-Fi-style designed mix of Dragon Mom’s tech accessories, as it’s obviously just a customary white mini-yacht with some “reptilian” ornaments half-heartedly attached on a few spots. It does not matter, because this scene gives us one of the best frames in cinematic history:
Due to the more accessible compact one-shot structure of the movie and the Kung Fu craze of the time, Infra-Man had it easier to leave an impression among the Western audiences than the many original “tokusatsu” series, whose consumption was for a long time (till MMPR) limited to a small group of dedicated fans.
The movie also became a minor hit in German speaking countries, partly owed to a hilarious dubbing job. Both the English and the German dubbing took some liberties with the material though, like renaming the “Plant Monster”into “Octopus Mutant” and other irritating decisions. The original tagline for the US-market, “The Man Beyond Bionics!” is another confusion-inducing detail of the marketing campaign. A funny detail about “Inframan” is the fact though that Roger Ebert himself upgraded the film from 2 ½ stars to 3 stars upon revisiting it on its re-release in 1999, an honor it shares with only a handful of other movies.
Inframan was not thought up by an unknown, but the popular Chinese SciFi/adventure book- author Ni Kuang himself was responsible for the script. Kuang’s works are not of the serious hard SciFi kind, but SciFi-Fantasy pulp in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs. His most famous creation is “Mr. Wisely”, a sort of Chinese predecessor to Indiana Jones, whose adventures – roughly 150 novel published between 1963-2004- often crossed the border to the horror and the SciFi genres. I will probably write about one of the eight (so far) movie adaptations soon.
The Super-Inframan, as it is also called, is one of a kind. No movie has ever concocted such a unique blend of Kung Fu, superheroism and monster-drama in such a virtuoso manner before or after it. It’s a true cult-movie and deservedly so.
You won’t regret searching out this feel-good movie.