1976 | Taiwan, Thailand
AKA: Huo xing ren
Director: Chen Hung-Min
The thing I like about capitalism is how its emphasis on thrift and expediency leads to creations like Mars Men (Huo xing ren), a daft, crazy quilt of a movie that bears the combined fingerprints of Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and maybe Italy. I’m sorry, film snobs: If you’re looking for “global cinema”, this is it. So let’s take a moment to trace the genealogy of Mars Men, shall we? Mars Men began life in 1974, as the Japanese tokusatsu TV series Jumborg Ace, which was one of a number of Tsuburaya Productions’ shows that failed to emerge from the shadow of Ultraman, the studio’s proven cash cow. Very similar to Ultraman, the series told the story of a pilot who dies when his plane crashes into an alien spaceship. The aliens resurrect him and, as a little bonus, grant him the ability to merge with his plane and become a giant, monster-fighting cyborg. Aided by a space-age paramilitary group called PAT (“Protection Association Troop”), Jumborg Ace fights off a race of invading aliens called the Gurosu Seizen and the many monsters-of-the-week who act as their surrogates.
While boasting the nifty model effects typical of Tsuburaya, as well as some truly odd-looking monsters, Jumborg Ace failed to find its niche within the hearts of Japan’s tokusatsu fans and was canceled after a brief run. It was soon thereafter granted new life when notorious Thai producer Sompote Saengduenchai (also known as Sompote Sands, because Thai names are hard) struck a deal with Tsuburaya to produce a series of features that teamed the studio’s tokusatsu heroes with heroes from Thai folklore. This project would end in tears with 1974’s Hanuman and the Seven Ultramen, a film that spurred a decades-long legal battle over the global rights to Ultraman. Before that, however, was Giant and Jumbo A.
Giant and Jumbo A basically takes the story of Jumborg Ace and sets it in Thailand, then inserts into it Yuk Wud Jaeng, a warrior spirit whose giant statue guards the gate of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. There is a lot of repurposed footage from Jumborg Ace, along with some new effects sequences that appear to have been done by the Tsuburaya team. Alongside this, Sangduenchai, as director, casts a number of Thai actors as a Thai version of PAT. The story here sees the troop racing against time to animate—and presumably enlarge–a small statue of Yuk Wud Jaeng so that it may join Jumborg Ace in his fight against the Gurosu Seizen. In this aspect, the story is similar to that of the (better) Taiwanese kaiju film, War God, which would not be made for another three years.
One thing noteworthy about Giant and Jumbo A, as it relates to Sompote Sands’ larger body of work, is that, because it relies so much on recycled footage, it provides little room for Sands to express the perversity that would later become a marker of his work. As such, it may be one of the very few films Sands made that is actually family-friendly, free as it is of gratuitous nudity, violence against children, and graphic scenes of animals shitting on people. It is also worth noting, however, that scenes from Giant and Jumbo A later made their way into Sands’ film Magic Lizard, which contains all of those things.
And now we come to Mars Men, the specific origins of which — because it didn’t, to my knowledge, spark any lawsuits — I know very little. I do know this, though: It is of Taiwanese provenance and, like Giant and Jumbo A, credits only the director of its new footage despite the prevalence of borrowed Japanese material within it. That director, in this case, is Hung Min Chen, who, in addition to editing King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, also directed the Polly Shang Kwan weird fu classic Little Hero. As a bit of playful self-reference, Chen even has a TV showing Little Hero playing in the background of one of Mars Men‘s scenes.
I have read elsewhere that Mars Men preceded Giant and Jumbo A, and I would be wasting my hard-won expertise on Sompote Sands if I did not call bullshit on that. It would be impossible for Mars Men to have come first because (and I’m going to enumerate this, just to make this paragraph that much more nerdy): 1) the Yuk Wud Jaeng costume used in it is the same one seen in Sands’ Tah Tien, which was made in 1971. 2) Why would Taiwanese filmmakers take the trouble to insert a character from Thai folklore into a story that already has a perfectly serviceable hero? Thus having restored order—if not dignity—to the internet, I rest my case.
Carrying on the game of Telephone started with Giant and Jumbo A, Mars Men sticks very close to the template set by that earlier film, with Chen even taking pains to recreate entire scenes from Giant with Taiwanese actors. In doing so, he provides some helpful color coding for those of us who need to be reminded of which film we’re watching from time to time. You see, while the uniforms of the Thai version of the Protection Association Troop are silver with gold trimming, the Taiwanese version’s are gold with silver trimming, making them the more glam of the two.
The fact that Mars Men‘s makers held Giant and Jumbo A‘s text sacrosanct makes their one major departure from it especially interesting. Where Giant took time to recount Jumborg Ace’s origin—using, of course, the origin sequence from the television series—Mars Men glosses over it, choosing instead to present him as a cyborg on loan from “Japan’s most brilliant scientist”.
It’s not surprising that Sands took the approach he did, given he was working in partnership with Jumborg Ace‘s creators, but the license taken by the Taiwanese production raises questions about just how involved Tsuburaya was with it, if at all. The footage from Jumborg Ace was now two times separated from its source, and by the time it showed up in Magic Lizard, Jumborg Ace himself had been excised from it completely. Given the license that Sands would take with Ultraman, it’s not hard to imagine him feeling justified in using, and selling, Jumborg Ace as he saw fit once the deal with Tsuburaya was done. That might explain why the film was so attractive to foreign buyers.
Mars Men kicks off with a little kid named Ling stumbling upon a hidden cave in which he finds a small statue of Yud Wud Jaeng. Fortunately, there is someone on hand to inform him that the figure is called Yuk Wud Jaeng. Still, the kid insists on calling him “Hanamajin”, and the rest of the cast—following that kaiju movie rule stating that everybody has to follow the 10-year-old boy’s lead—follows suit. Even Yuk Wud Jaeng himself, when he shows up, does this. Ling takes the statue to his sister May May (Bao Yu Wang), who, along with her boyfriend Captain Nuwa (Chiang-Lung Wen), happens to be a member of PAT. The idol is taken back to PAT’s super science-y headquarters, where it is determined that it is absolutely saturated with radiation. Naturally, the brave men and women of PAT simply put it on a table in the middle of the room and watch to see what it will do—which is, eventually, grow and start to move around.
This is oddly fortuitous, because, meanwhile, the Gurosu Seizen—represented by two aliens who, in the English dub, are referred to as “King Martian” and “Queen Martian” (though sometimes as “Queen Marsia” in the latter case)—have touched down in Taiwan. And there is a reason for this—beyond Taiwan being the obvious first stop for any alien visitor with the stamina and inclination to make the trip. You see, as in Giant and Jumbo A, these Martians are seeking a powerful gem with which they hope to build a superweapon that will fuck everything up.
Finally, Yuk Wud Jaeng joins the fight and we are treated to a series of kaiju battles which, perversely, are all viewed on fuzzy black and white TV screens. This seems like a waste of Mars Men‘s greatest production value, but it was perhaps done to hide the fact that all of those fights were taking place in Japan and not in Taiwan, where the movie is set. This aside, it appeared to me that Mars Men used a lot more of Jumborg Ace‘s fight/fx footage than did Giant and Jumbo A. It does, however, omit one scene that is conspicuous by its absence: a scene, unique to Giant and Jumbo A, in which another giant guardian statue, Yuk Wud Pho, faces off against the Martian’s monsters and loses. It is in this way that Yuk Wud Pho becomes the fallen comrade whose loss motivates the remaining heroes to persevere.
One thing both films have in common is that they dedicate the entirety of their final half hours to the climactic battle between Jumborg Ace, Yuk Wud Jaeng, the Martians, and their “undead demons of ancient Martian dinosaurs”, which takes place on the moon. In Giant and Jumbo A, Jumborg Ace’s sidekick, Jumborg 9, is also included in this melee, although the scene is no less chaotic and rife with animated laser beams without him.
Both at its core and on its surface, Mars Men is a pretty stripped-down tale of alien invasion and superhero retribution. This is perhaps why it has translated so well across borders. I have no idea how many languages it has been rendered in, but I do know that there is a Turkish language version (Mars Adam), a French one (Les Hommes D’une Autre Planet), and an Italian one (Gli Uomini Di Marte.) On top of that, there are rumors that the Italian version contains footage unique to it, shot with Italian actors. I will say nothing to perpetuate this rumor, other than that I also heard that most people who watch the Italian version of Mars Men die within 24 hours. Again, just hearsay.
As for what my own United States contributed to Mars Men, I’m afraid that is limited to the execrable English dub that graces the version of the film I watched. To its credit, it fails on competing levels: On one hand, there are voice-overs that sound like narcotized dyslexics reading their lines off of a dusty blackboard. On the other, there’s a boisterous crew of bros who try to “edge up” the film with colloquialisms and bad self-referential jokes. It’s because of them we have a Jumborg Ace and Yuk Wud Jaeng, who are mute in other contexts, talking about “kicking ass” and acting like they’re constantly on the verge of high-fiving one another.
Oh, dubbers of Mars Men, I know not who you are, but I do know this: 1) you were paid with pizza and 2) you were motivated by hatred for the entire human race.
In closing, let me say this: If you take only one thing away from this article, it should be that there is plenty of Mars Men to go around. For such an obscure film, it has an astonishing global reach. That’s ironic, because, being an unnecessary remake of an absolutely uncalled-for rehash, it is the apex of inessential viewing. While I enjoyed watching it, the most I got out of it is that Jumborg Ace looks like a pretty fun show. Both Sompote Sangduenchai and Hung Min Chen could have left it alone without the world being any worse for it.