Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ape Girl (Taiwan, 1979)

Directed by Jackie Chan cohort Chi-Hwa Chen (Half a Loaf of Kung Fu), Ape Girl bears a title that, for an old school kung fu film, is refreshingly blunt and descriptive--something that the movie's US home video distributors remedied by rechristening it with the much more misleading appellation Lady Iron Monkey. Fung Ling Kam--who also appeared in Super Dragon and the Taiwanese Chor Yuen knock-off 36 Shaolin Beads--does indeed play a girl who is half human and half simian. Discovered cavorting in the forest by an old kung fu master and a pair of his bumbling disciples, she is taken back to the master's school, where her natural monkey-style fighting skills are honed to deadly perfection.

Now exactly why Kam's character, Ming Ling Shur, is half monkey is--at least in the cut of Ape Girl that I saw--never explained. It's not that she's just a feral child raised by monkeys in the Tarzan tradition. She actually looks like a monkey, right down to the tail. In fact, as portrayed by Fung Ling Kam, what she really is is a distaff version of the Monkey King from the classic Ming era novel Journey to the West, especially as he's portrayed in the popular Shaw Brothers adaptations of those novels made during the 1960s. Like that character, Ming Ling Shur is a formidable warrior who hides behind the demeanor of a sprightly prankster, her constant comic capering and scratching further belying her stealth and skill.

For its first half hour, Ape Girl plays out like a typical late 70s kung fu comedy, complete with goofy music and numbingly obvious physical humor, and it was only the novelty of its concept and the amusement provided by Fung Ling Kam's silly monkey make-up that kept me from giving up on it entirely. But then I found myself becoming at once drawn into the story and charmed by Kam's portrayal. Hopelessly at sea in the human environment she now finds herself in, and ostracized for her freakish appearance, Ming Ling Shur is so child-like and eager for acceptance that she is practically destined to become a pawn of any powerful interest unprincipled enough to exploit her. When she falls for a scheming prince (Sing Chen) who is determined to wrest the throne from his competing heirs, the wheels are set in motion. The Prince recruits Ming Ling Shur as his bodyguard, and cynically encourages her affections in order to insure that she unquestioningly employs her abilities toward the furtherance of his aims.

It is only after she has gone to great lengths to shed her simian appearance that Ming Ling Shur discovers that the Prince has been playing her for a fool. Needless to say, big time payback follows (after all, a monkey woman scorned...). Fortunately, her transformation from beast to beauty stopped short of ridding her of her tail, and that appendage ends up playing an interesting part in the action to follow.

I wasn't really able to find any information at all about Fung Ling Kam. If the internets are to be believed, she only appeared in a small handful of films. That's a shame, if true, because I really enjoyed her performance in Ape Girl. Being mostly physical in nature, it transcends the film's typically dire English dub job, and hits enough of the right notes of comedy and pathos to keep you invested in her character, as outlandish as she may be. That and an engaging story combine to make Ape Girl something of a minor gem, one that I imagine will provide a pleasant surprise to anyone who comes upon it hiding in the dollar bin.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

That does sound like a hidden gem. I'd give a lot for a DVD label that's digging out films like this and tries to provide them with the original sound with subtitles. Or at least redubs them in a less painful fashion.

I have found that I have nearly always problems with the first half hour of Kung Fu comedies - obviously thanks to my dislike for most physical comedy, but have learned that it always pays to watch a little further.

Todd said...

Hear hear. And if that were to happen, I think we'd be in for some pleasant surprises. After all, who knew how great all of those old Shaw Brothers films looked until Celestial started releasing restored versions?
To that point, the currently available version of Ape Girl (which, FYI, I bought in its Lady Iron Monkey incarnation on a $1 "double feature" disc with something called Return of the Scorpion) looks, as my screen caps well demonstrate, like ass.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I didn't expect much else regarding the quality. The screenshots don't look overtly green, at least.