This one comes from the “I can’t believe they made that” file. The Shaw Brothers, yes, the same Shaw Brothers responsible for some of the greatest kung fu cinema ever, are behind The Oily Maniac (the original title is You gui zi), and it’s a crazy spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.
This movie retells a Chinese folk tale, but does so for a then-modern audience and steers away from a period setting, instead opting for contemporary cool. Danny Lee (John Woo’s The Killer) is Sheng Yung (some sources name him Shen Yuan), a guy who seems to have the whole world against him. He has polio and can’t walk without crutches, he works in a law office for a crooked lawyer who blackmails his clients, and the girl he loves only sees him as a friend. Somehow, things are about to get even worse for Sheng Yung. During an uprising at the family’s coconut oil farm, his uncle accidentally kills a man and is sentenced to be executed. Sheng Yung goes to his uncle in prison before the execution and complains about how awful everything is. His uncle removes is shirt and shows Sheng Yung a mystical tattoo on his back, ordering him to copy the drawings and the text.
It’s hard not to like The Oily Maniac. Everything that you hope for from a Shaw Brothers movie is delivered, though it’s best to watch this one with your tongue firmly in cheek. The Oily Man himself is a rubber suit, and all the special effects are…let’s say they’re limited. Still, this is one ambitious little movie. The filmmakers aren’t content to simply present a guy in a suit, either, so frequently the monster will turn into a puddle of oil and ooze along the ground. This is done through a mix of animation and practical photography. So ambitious, especially for 1976 when low budget movies left most of the special effects off-screen. The hallmarks of Shaw Brothers movies are all over this thing: you’ve got extreme snap zooms, slow motion, and even some wah-wah guitar in the opening theme of the film. Even though this is not a kung fu flick, there’s a ton of action, over-the-top violence (a man is beaten to death with a bicycle), nudity, and excitement. The horror movie slant is just enough to keep it feeling unique.
There’s a subtext going on in this movie that isn’t too hard to read. Sheng Yung feels out of control, powerless against the curve balls that life keeps throwing his way. The Oily Maniac is his alter ego, a way for him to deal with the raw deal that his life is becoming. In this sense, the parallels to the Marvel comic book The Incredible Hulk are unavoidable. The Hulk is a manifestation of Bruce Banner’s id, and so is the monster inside Sheng Yung. The beast is able to right the wrongs that the man cannot, but it also crosses lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Whereas The Hulk has an innate goodness and just wants to be left alone, The Oily Maniac wants to take the lives of those who have done wrong, and that’s what he does. There’s a definite vigilante vibe going on, but it should also be said that the monster is not without mercy. I was sure that this movie was influenced by the American TV version of The Incredible Hulk because the tone is often so similar, but I was wrong. That TV show wouldn’t come along until two years after this movie was made.
I like Shaw Brothers movies and old kung fu flicks quite a bit, so I recognize that there’s a lot of talent in this movie that can also be seen in other genre classics. However, I’m just not well-versed in this subject matter to speak in depth about it. I can tell you that the director of this movie was Meng Hua Ho and that he also directed movies like The Long Chase and over fifty other movies that sound awesome but that I’ve never seen. Similarly, I know that this movie stars a cast of actors that fans of kung fu cinema will recognize, like Ping Chen and Lily Li. I’ll leave it to others to connect the dots. I will say that watching this movie made me want to do nothing but watch Shaw Brothers films for the rest of the day.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!