Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Back to 1976: THE OILY MANIAC (aka YOU GUI ZI)

by Heath Holland
Further proving that the mid-seventies were a magical time where creativity, social commentary, and pure entertainment all met at the funkiest of crossroads, this Hong Kong monster movie from The Shaw Brothers features a vigilante made of oil and rage!

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.
Though it doesn’t seem possible, things continue to get worse for Sheng Yung, so much so that he eventually finds himself sprawled across the floor of his home with a bottle in one hand and the piece of paper with the tattoo drawings in the other. Feeling desperate and alone, he follows the directions of the tattoo, digging a hole in his house and uttering the words of a spell…and suddenly Sheng Yung is transformed into The Oily Maniac, a greasy cross between Swamp Thing and the Incredible Hulk! With untold power and near-invulnerability, The Oily Maniac seeks to even the score by bringing down everyone who has stood against him or made his life difficult.

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 are some caveats to the good times to be had with this movie, though. There’s a repressed sexual aggression that seems embedded in the culture of this movie, and sex almost always is accompanied or followed by violence. There are multiple rape scenes, and there’s a sexual power dynamic that clearly gives all control to the men. Of course, these scenes are often the fuel that The Oily Maniac uses to pursue his own brand of justice, but that doesn’t make those parts any less harsh or feel less transgressive. I don’t really feel qualified to cast aspersions since some of these issues seem to be rooted in the Chinese culture , and since that culture is not my own, I’ll just say that sometimes this movie made me uncomfortable. It never lasts very long, though, and everyone who does something horrible in this movie is quickly punished. To be fair, we have far worse and more brutal stuff in our modern fare, just not usually in movies about an oil man who punishes bad guys.

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.
As you can now see, this a weird flick, but wonderfully so. I think that’s partly because it possesses that distinct mid-seventies feeling where anything can happen, and partly because this is a Hong Kong production and things that probably wouldn’t fly in Hollywood aren’t given a second thought. For instance, when The Oily Maniac starts terrorizing the local community, leaving dead bodies and black goo all over the place, the townspeople and authorities are less concerned that there’s a man made out of oil killing people than they are in trying to figure out who the identity of the oil man could actually be. Is this magic realism? I’m not sure. Another thing that makes this movie stick out is the score (by Yung-Yu Chen) that sounds ALMOST EXACTLY like John Williams’ work on Jaws. No joke, when The Oil Maniac is creeping up on someone, the music goes dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, just like in Jaws.

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.
The Oily Maniac is a crazy little movie. It has some outstanding cinematography and shot composition, well-staged fight choreography (though remember that this is not a martial arts movie), and a sympathetic anti-hero that fits alongside comic book characters like The Punisher and Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke. The lack of polish in the special effects department somehow add to the charm, especially since the movie fully commits and shows the monster way more than they probably should. If you’re of the age to appreciate the old Incredible Hulk TV show and if you like Hong Kong cinema, you’ll probably find this 1976 grindhouse flick to be a real gem, oily warts and all.

Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!

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