Friday, September 9, 2011

Live Action Manga Blues: Peacock King (aka Kujaku Ou 1988)

Leave it to my good ol' roomie and erstwhile partner to lead me into partaking of this HK live-action manga romp from the late 1980s that I had completely missed out on during that oh-so volatile era. Based on the supernatural horror-action manga, Kujako Ou by Makoto Ogino, Peacock King (aka Spirit Warrior) tells the tale of a young Buddhist priest/exorcist taking on runaway demons, and inevitably evil factions with an array of extraordinary methods. In Lam Ngai Kai's(infamous as the man behind the legendary Riki-Oh feature!) first of two films, the production decided to make this a dual-affair by offering us the all-too familiar compromise of two traveling monks, unknowingly separated at birth (one from Japan, the other from Taiwan) on a mission to stop the long-feared resurrection of the King Of Hell by way of a chosen mortal in the form of a seemingly innocent young girl (played by a very young Gloria Yip in her feature debut). Playing the now two Kujaku Ou, are 80s kung-fu regular, Yuen Biao, and Hiroshi Mikami (later of Swallowtail Butterfly) (Mikami being the disciplined, straight-arrow, while Biao lays on the 80s-era unconventional jerk quite thickly) who meet for the first time while their investigation of a number of disturbances in Tokyo lead them to a troubled museum exhibit. It is here that the duo, with the help of one of the haunted exhibit's head staffers, Pauline Wong, several soon-to-be-very unlucky reporters, and throngs of running & screaming cityfolk are forced to take the fight across the ocean, as another order, partially led by an almost machinelike Gordon Liu conspire to stop our heroes from preventing the aforementioned evil force from attaining full reign of the planet by way of manipulating Ashura, a girl cursed with the means to open a rift between two worlds.

Now I would be remiss if I didn't mention that it has been years since I had even heard of Ogino's manga, let alone the two made-for-video anime series(one of which was directed by that maestro of missles, Ichiro Itano). So in many ways, this film had been completely off my radar. Leave it to a recent revival of the gory schlock favorite Riki-Oh, and Kiyo's mention of Gloria Yip that made this possible. And for all the expecting this to be as equally ludicrous (Read: goofy-with excessive amounts of blood and viscera), I often found Peacock King to be an occasionally competent, and even passable genre adaptation exercise. In a time when the moniker often left viewers with either disappointment, or severe cases of head scratching, the film does what HK cinema at the time can do to bring the initially Japan-centric comic world to life. Written by Izo Hashimoto (co-writer of AKIRA), the story is unusually more comprehensible than usual, not to mention unexpectedly humorous in places that aren't off-putting, or ill-cut. While we never really get a clear vision of the villains and their end-game, it all very much plays right out of a standard Hollywood spectacle playbook circa 1995. Not incredibly substantial, but fluid enough to have a grasp of. This is only made all the more interesting when the wacky finale came rushing back to memories of seeing clips of it on a cable show focusing on HK cinema at least 20 years ago.

For an effects-laden HK film in this era, one can argue that a lot of what is displayed in this film is pretty shoddy, even for films made in this time. Strangely, for all the stop-motion animation, foam-latex, and colorful composite work, the final product feels no less DIY than many of the latter films of Shinji Higuchi, and Keita Amemiya who did their part here. On a functional level, there is a lot of pluck in the effects proceedings that even rocket past the live-action Wicked City made in HK only a few years later. Just a nice reminder of the level of craftsmanship that was brewing in the early days of the Heisei Godzilla era. Many sequences definitely harken to how 90s effects films were going to color asian cinema in those pre-rampant CG days.


And for those expecting a good amount of Yuen Biao martial arts alongside the colorful ghostbusting, the idea that there is only one sequence in this film to satiate this requirement may come off as a letdown to some. But as singular and brief as it is, it is a fun scene that pits Biao, Liu and his small army in a fun nod to the many films Biao often played second-fiddle, be it with Jackie Chan, or Sammo Hung. It is by no means iconic, but definitely exciting in the best HK heyday tradition of things looking near humanly-impossible and painful.

As for the performances, this is clearly a late-80s HK affair, so the acting can be a bit on the overt and ridiculous side. But there are a few disarming moments where the leads are meant to cover expository beats with a little more direction than is typical. Which is by no means an admission that the acting is in any way this work's selling point. Being a big Japan-HK co-production, there are a lot of attempts to make this a more international showpiece. Definitely something that Biao was looking at when considering this project. Having been co-star to some of martial arts cinema's biggest names, this likely felt like a dream come true. While history may have declared otherwise, Peacock King is affable Saturday-matinee material, with an unexpected amount of focus in a time when names like Tsui Hark were ready to make their mark by redefining spectacle by way of anything goes action, at the expense of logic, let alone fragments of common sense.

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