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Who you gonna call?
A region 2 DVD review of THE PEACOCK KING / KUJAKU Ô by Gort
 
"The film is more like an anime. It's more a film for kids. I don't think adults
would like this film. Anyone who can think won't like the film."
Yuen Biao, talking about The Peacock King

 

And he starred in it. You can see where the venerable Biao coming from, but he's being a bit harsh and is not taking into account the curious but very real appeal of the energetically cheesy. This aspect has certainly been recognised by the UK publicists, who are enthusiastically promoting The Peacock King [Kujaku ô] less on its action credentials than on its mish-mash of effects styles and sense of fun. Nonetheless, Biao does have a point...

Say what you like about Hong Kong actioners, but whatever the age of their target audience, they don't hang around. If there's a down side to this it's that precious little time is put aside to shape and build characters, which is part of the reason so many of them are sketched in such broad terms. Take the opening of The Peacock King as an example. We're just 32 seconds in when the film's primary villain Raga – who is formally known as Hell's Witch – appears and announces that the King of Hell is soon to rise and that darkness will reign, presumably as a direct result. Her impromptu audience react by opening fire on her with machine guns. I'm not sure why they respond so violently ("This is private property!" barks the boss fellah, but still...), or indeed who they are or what they are doing here. It looks like either an archaeological dig, or maybe a film set, or some sort of illegal something-or-other, but this is another casualty to the perceived need to get the plot moving as fast as possible. A minute later and the earth has given birth to Ashura, aka Hell's Virgin, who immediately launches a set of fireballs into a handily parked group of trucks. Three times. Suddenly the film slows down and repeats itself so that we can properly appreciate just how much money was spent on the pyrotechnics. And we haven't even reached the opening credits yet.

Introduced almost as briskly is cheery Tibetan monk Peacock, whose master receives a supernatural message telling him all about the Hell's Virgin. She's apparently due to open the second Gate to Hell over in Tokyo (how they work this stuff out remains a mystery), to where Peacock immediately heads. He's not the only one. Over in Japan, Buddhist monk Jiku Ajari and his disciple Lucky Fruit realise that if all four Gates of Hell are opened then the King of Hell will escape and go on an apocalyptic rampage. It's at the location of the second Gate that loveable rogue Peacock and the more serious minded Lucky Fruit meet and team up. Dragged along for the ride is Miss Okada, a junior manager at the department store in which Raga has chosen to wreak her particular and colourful brand of havoc.

By this point you'll be quite aware that this is not meant to be taken that seriously. If Peacock's joshing around hasn't clued you in then his bash-it-in-the-head fight with a satanically animated dinosaur exhibit certainly should. And then there's the dialogue, which occasionally breaks off from the functional to wink at the audience. "You may get a part in a Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan film with those lines" Miss Okada tells Lucky Fruit after he has earnestly tried to explain the danger the museum is in. Later a ghostly noise startles her. "What was that?" she asks. "Surround sound," Peacock replies.

This cheery approach does help the sympathetic to swallow a host of borrowings from other sources, with Peacock and Lucky Fruit coming off like spiritual Ghostbusters, ink-in-water cloud effects lifted from Close Encounters, a corridor of corpses nicked from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the fourth Gate of Hell designed by someone who has been overdosing on H.R. Giger's work on Alien. There's even an emerge-from-the-smoke shot I swear is lifted from the end of The Right Stuff, and a later plot twist that recalls the moment that I really gave up on the original Star Wars trilogy. But I won't spoil it for those who delight in that sort of thing.

The two monks are the familiar mismatched pair who learn to like each other and appreciate their differing skills. While Peacock likes to leap in with fists and feet flying, Lucky Fruit can do pretty much anything with nothing more than a quick prayer, from changing the meter of a crooked taxi driver to launching cheap optical effects at the enemy. He does this a LOT. If he needs a really big wallop then Peacock joins in too, something that really comes in useful in the cilmactic scene and makes you wonder why they were so worried about the prospect of the fourth Hell Gate opening.

Narrative development is a sometimes odd combination of the expected and the peculiar, as an army of devil-worshipping warriors are introduced thirty minutes in, then ignored until the climax, when they reappear to provide the monks with mortal foes to punch and kick. Probably oddest sequence is the pair's head-on battle with Raga, who responds to their attack by messily transforming into an almost comically executed claymation monster, which violently dispatches two background characters who seem to have been introduced solely to serve as victims. By then Peacock has worked out (again, we're not sure how) that Ashura is actually a sweet innocent under Raga's control and is worthy of salvation. It's kind of inevitable that this soft-heartedness eventually blows up in everyone's face.

Demonic characters follow the mythological movie standard of bestial-looking males and gothic sex-bomb females. Mind you, there is only one male demon and that's the King of Hell himself, a huge disappointment after ludicrously long build-up (just how many times do we need to see the same four shots of the Hell Gate walls rising from the ground?), a giant ugly bronze dude whose size, appearance and process work reminded me of the Genie from Korda's The Thief of Bagdad.

It's engagingly daffy but insubstantial stuff that is likely to have as much trouble finding an audience in the UK, much as it did on its original Hong Kong release and for similar reasons. Although stylistically pitched at younger viewers, its sometimes bloody violence has earned it a 15 certificate and would likely have uninformed parents scrabbling madly for the remote control. As Biao himself says in the accompanying interview when remarking on its Hong Kong classification, "It's a kids' film and yet 'not suitable for children.'"

A mention should go to the dialogue, which along with pretty much every Hong Kong action film of the period was all post-dubbed. Although this works fine for the most part, it's a little distracting in the Japanese sequences, especially given that Lucky Fruit's sifu is played by none other than the great Ken Ogata, whose distinctive delivery has been mismatched by an altogether squeakier Chinese voice artist.

sound and vision

Hong Kong Legends have once again done a sterling job in presenting the film for DVD, with colour, contrast and detail all generally impressive. A couple of the interiors are a little lacking in punch (notably a grey-looking press room), but this is likely to be down to the restrictions of location lighting. As ever, the print is virtually spotless and free of damage. The framing is 1.85:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

There are three mixes here, Cantonese mono 2.0, Cantonese 5.1 and English 5.1. Given my comments above about the Cantonese post-dubbing, it's hard to wade in too hard on the English dub, although it still suffers from an excess of over-dramatic spaghetti western delivery. The 5.1 Cantonese track is a nicer mix than the original mono and boasts solid use of the lower frequencies when required, plus the odd bit of nifty rear speaker work. The English 5.1 mix at first sounds fuller than the Cantonese one, but soon reveals itself to be one of those random remixes in which dialogue inexplicably emerges from rear speakers even though it is being delivered in front of you. In addition there seems to be a peculiar but very distinct bias towards the left of the sound stage.

extra features

Yuen Biao on 'Peacock King' (12:01) sees a somewhat cynical Yuen Biao spending a disproportionate amount of the interview having a go at the film's Japanese input and audience, and is somewhat dismissive of his co-star Hiroshi Mikami for taking the whole thing too seriously and not socialising on set. He remains indifferent to the film itself, and feels it was "too Japanese for Hong Kong Tastes."

I can't help feeling that Yuen Biao on 'Zu Warriors' (9:13) belongs on Contender's Zu Warriors disc rather than here, but its been four years since that was released and as they had Biao in the chair it was obviously an opportunity not to be passed up. It does give him the chance to have another brief dig at the Japanese, this time in the shape of their top effects man, from whom they learned nothing, apparently. This does lead to some revealing information about the film's low tech effects, with the filmmakers improvising after watching the effects on other movies, mainly Richard Donner's Superman. He's also surprisingly frank about his views on director Tsui Hark, whom he suggests is fond of blaming others when things go wrong, and whose change-your-mind working methods would ensure that he "wouldn't survive abroad."

Fantasy Comes to Life is a bit of a con, not an extra feature at all but a promo for four other Contender releases, consisting of a short extract from each: there's a very silly Street Fighter-inspired fight from Jackie Chan's City Hunter (2:14); a stylistic mess of a punch-up from Avenging Fist (2:23), which is supposedly the 'unofficial' Tekken movie; a choice clip from the aforementioned Zu Warriors (2:23); and a dull montage of clips and behind-the-scenes footage from the upcoming Initial D: Drift Racer (2:02).

Also on board are the Original Theatrical Trailer (3:17) and the UK Promotional Trailer (1:13), the latter of which is voiced by an English Trailer Voice Man with lots of bass.

summary

Silly and derivative but also energetic and rather likeable, The Peacock King is a curious beast that is at times almost odd enough to attain cult status. Raga's claymation transformation is almost dotty enough alone to make it worth hiring, at least for the more forgiving genre fans. It's certainly well presented by Hong Kong Legends, though is a little lacking on the extra features, only one of which provides any real information on the film itself.

The Peacock King
Kujaku ô

Hong Kong 1988
81 mins
director
Ngai Kam Lang
starring
Yuen Biao
Gloria Yip
Pauline Wong
Hiroshi Mikami
Ken Ogata

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles .
English
extras
Interviews with Yuen Biao
Trailers
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
19 June 2006
review posted
19 June 2006

See all of Gort's reviews