Infra-Man (Shan Hua / Hong Kong, 1975):
(Chung kuo chao ren; Super Inframan; Chinese Superman)

A welter of sights sets the stage for the titular insectoid superhero: A gaggle of schoolchildren appropriate a Cantonese version of "London Bridge is Falling Down," then a rubber pterodactyl crash-lands and cracks the pavement, Hong Kong is promptly in flames. Earthquakes reveal monsters dormant inside a volcano, a screeching gargoyle dissolves, very evocatively, into the Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu), the dominatrix-Valkyrie who lays down the law to awestruck scientists: "Hear me humans... I have conquered the Earth." Wang Hsieh, the sage Professor, warns a committee about this "human being of the Ice Age" as the deadpan camera pans across nodding officials, a droll setup for the next scene's punchline in the villainess' lair, somersaulting minions summoned, with the simple conjuring of a Méliès wave of the hand, via her cracking whip. Danny Lee is part of the Professor's jumpsuit-clad research team, granted superpowers after being zapped with "energy" during a "bionics" experiment -- fitted into red leather, given antennas and dubbed Infra-Man, he backflips through an affable batch of chortling creatures, ranging from a tentacled plant wrestler to a quarterback bruiser with power drills for arms to a Thai brass demon with a blowtorch in its maw. Maquette-thrashing, solarized flares, wire-fu and chunks of animation also figure in Shan Hua's florid Shaw Bros. mélange, which proceeds as a slinky series of melees through the wittiest sets since Antonio Margheriti's '60s sci-fi bonanzas, then vanishes in a puff of colored smoke. Critics sputter about "guilty pleasures," but kids seem to immediately grasp the genius of populist chintz, not because they see its precedents (Commando Cody, Gamera, Chuck Jones's What's Opera, Doc?) but because they better respond to its cheeky Confucian tomfoolery ("Show respect for spirits and deities, then keep away from them," goes a proverb). With Yuan Man-Tzu, Lin Wen-wei, and Shu-Yi Tsen.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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