The Oily Maniac (You gui zi)
Hong Kong (1976) Dir. Ho Meng Hua
Known predominantly for their seminal martial arts output, the legendary Shaw Brothers would dip their toes into the murky world of exploitation cinema in the late 1970s. This gave them the opportunity to apply their trademark extravagance to beyond Ancient China.
Sheng Yung (Danny Lee) is a young idealistic lawyer crippled with polio since a child. He is present when oil factory owner Lin Yang Ba (Ku Feng) is bullied by a criminal gang into taking his business. To apply pressure, they attack Yang Ba’s daughter Yue (Chen Ping) and one of them men is accidentally stabbed by Yang Ba, who is sentenced to death for his murder.
Before his execution, Yang Ba tells Sheng Yung about an old Malaysian spell said to give any man strength and has him copy it down from the tattoo on his back. When feeling useless over being unable to save Yang Ba, and in his unrequited crush on Yue, Sheng Yung tries the spell, which involves submerging himself in oil whilst reciting the spell. The result turns him into a powerful but unhinged oily vigilante, beginning a rampage in the name of justice.
It’s hard to know how to take a film like The Oily Maniac, as it is so silly and tacky that it should be celebrated as cult curio to have fun with. But, the key word from the opening paragraph is “exploitation” where the tackiness is not from the silly premise of an avenger made of oil – allegedly based on a true Malaysian legend – but the gratuitous adult material.
The frequent female nudity is born from situations usually reserved for bawdy comedies or more uncomfortably rape attempts, which is the fundamental problem with this film. There will be obvious comparisons made with 1980s cult schlock outing Toxic Avenger but the crucial difference between the two is the later film knows it is bad and embraces it – martial arts veteran Ho Meng Hua has everyone play it dead seriously like his other films, which can work but only the audience knows they are in on the joke.
Perhaps it is for this very reason many find this film so endearing and enjoyable as a cult classic, because it is so po faced and lacking the self-awareness to let the audience laugh with it and not at it. But it is not all bad, as the story has flashes of moral ambiguity with the Oily Maniac’s lust for vengeance through Sheng Yung being a decent guy and the influence of work colleague and unrequited admirer Siu Lai (Lily Li), the only woman who doesn’t get her kit off.
Creating this conflict for Sheng Yung is the fact his boss Hu Li Fa (Hsieh Wang) is corrupt and openly lascivious, predominantly taking cases involving young women that he can profit from, such as a singer seeking compensation for a botched boob job, or as we witness in a horribly sordid court case scene, a false rape claim (yes, another one). That Hu is positively drooling over the plaintiff and asking the most personal questions is bad enough, but the sleaziness tops itself later on when the Oily Maniac gatecrashes an operation to repair a broken hymen!
Amidst the rape and exploitation, it is no wonder Sheng Yung finds his conscience tested but he is not immune to being similarly tactless, rhapsodising about Yue’s curry chicken as the only one he’ll eat when Siu Lai has made that same dish for him. Why she still pines for him is a mystery, especially when Sheng Yung still yearns for Yue despite her being betrothed to factory manager Fu Sin Chen (Lun Hua), who – surprise surprise – turns out to be a bit dodgy himself.
Even with elements of the story having great potential for forming the foundation for a reasonable revenge thriller, it is all undone by the ridiculousness of Shen Yung’s Hulk rip off alter ego. For instance, to transform Shen Yung has to be doused in oil whether from a petrol station pump or a drum of boiling tarmac, which is not just messy but also time consuming. But is allows Sheng Yung to somehow liquefy himself to travel thus he can enter a building via a tap or sewage pipe.
Had there been a reasonable budget, this could have been quite good – instead, we get a sloppily animated black splodge dragged across the screen then a cross fade to bring the Maniac back to his physical form. Unfortunately, this also means that instead of him dissolving into liquid form, the Maniac has to lie of the ground for the cross fade effect again. It’s a shame really but like it’s poor attitude towards women, this is a reflection of a time when such things weren’t thought through.
Yet there is one more casualty of the modest budget and that is the suit itself. Clearly a latex construct in black with moulded bits to create an oily texture, one can see superior credibility in the more outrageous Kaiju designs! With its glowing eyes and cumbersome movements, the fear elicited by the victims – not limited to men by the way – isn’t shared by the audience. The worst of it is that the design changes from scene to scene!
Danny Lee (as Hsui-Hsien Li) has form playing superheroes, adopted the red sentai suit of Infra-Man a year earlier, though I can’t imagine it completely prepared him for taking on the role of a petroleum powerhouse, if indeed he was under the suit. As Sheng Yung, Lee hams it up to embarrassing levels, making the vacuous turns by the women seem like Shakespeare.
Where the appeal in The Oily Maniac will lie is in the complete absurdity of it all and the train wreck quality of watching what could have been a fun film struggle to meets it lofty ambitions and give us a few cringe worthy giggles for 84 minutes.