By Aaron AuBuchon
I spent a bunch of years of my early adulthood toiling away in various restaurant kitchens, so maybe that’s why I often think of a film as having flavors. The experience of the film is really an experience of how well those flavors work together in combination. And while judging its efficacy based on those criteria is an exercise in rank subjectivity, identifying the individual flavors is not. You may not like onions, and so their inclusion in a dish may make you want to feed it to the dog under the table, while my enjoyment of onions may compel me to try to fish your portion off your fork before Fido gets his doggy jaws clamped around it.
Oily Maniac (1976) had me thinking about flavors quite a bit as I watched it. First, I should say that I’m not especially well-versed in East Asian cinema broadly or in films by Shaw Brothers Studios specifically, so I’ll ask those of you who are to forgive me when I stumble across a taste that is new to me but familiar to you.
I think that the reason I was thinking of flavors so much was that I have a particular propensity towards a particular kind of alchemy in food and film equally: give me a well-known staple and add a heretofore unimagined twist, and I am in. For example, I like cheeseburgers of all stripes, and am fine with a well-made plain one. But toss some chipotles, pineapple and fried green beans on there, and you have raised my curiosity level quite a bit. By the same token, produce a fairly standard revenge film that features a kung-fu fighting petroleum-based turd man-monster, and I’m probably going to write an article about that bad boy.
Note: I do not like the taste of petroleum-based turds on my hamburgers. To my knowledge.
One of the things that often jumps out at me in East Asian genre cinema is how much chunkier the emotional displays tend to be than in the films of their Western cousins. These films often take a Ben and Jerry’s sort of approach to their characters’ emotions: great big honkin’ chunks generously mixed into the base. And to my palette, this film is 90% chunks, led by Hong Kong action hero Danny Lee as Shen Yuan, a man who was left disabled by a bout of polio as a child, and is now at least ten ham’s worth of upset about it. In fact, to call his acting hammy in this film would be a vast understatement. And that’s part of the fun.
In fact, almost every aspect of Shen Yuan’s life is impacted by his disability, from his relationships to his job, and those difficulties are further impacted by nearly everyone in his life besides his love interest Little Yue being a complete piece of symbolic human manure. So, when he learns of a spell that will allow him to exact some sort of justice for all the large and small aggravations in his life, he literally jumps in transforms into the titular Oily Maniac. And since all of his initial enemies are metaphorically slimy and oily, it’s a nice touch that his character is actually made of oil.
One of my favorite things about this film, is that over the course of the picture his enemy list expands to include just about anyone that rubs him the wrong way, for even the smallest slight. This means that a protagonist who initially evokes pity from the audience who are excited to see him extract oily retribution begin to feel a bit queasy about it when he starts kicking ass for all the wrong reasons. This drifting sense of morality makes cheering for a giant piece of excrement with eyes and teeth an even more fraught exercise for the audience. I love a film that turns the audience on its own sense of justice.
The Shaw Brothers studios weren’t afraid to mix and mash genres liberally and this film could be Exhibit A if anyone ever doubted that statement. While ostensibly a monster film, it is equally a revenge film and an action film. And I guess a hopping turdman film, which also makes it the only example of that I can think of. If you’ve ever found yourself going “I like people who can flatten themselves into an oil slick and slip under doors” or “the only heroes for me are the ones that can dribble out of a faucet and ruin a bath” then welcome home, seekers. Oily Maniac was made just for you.