The Peacock King
Typically chaotic, genre defying mix of kung fu, dinosaurs, sci-fi, horror and claymation sequences from The Story of Ricky’s notorious director Ngai Kam Lam – so should it any surprise to find it’s one of Takashi Miike’s first outings as an assistant director…?
A timely release that returns us to the halcyon days of Hong Kong cinema – back when airplanes flying in had to take a hard right at the skyscrapers, when it looked like sci-fi fantasies would become a genre of their own, and almost as if Yuen Biao would have a film career to rival his Peking Opera buddies Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.
Of course, nowadays airplanes land on the far less perilous island of Lantu, sci-fi still occasionally pops up, but never enough to constitute an actual ‘genre’, and Yuen is still the also-ran who never quite made it. But as contemporary Hong Kong cinema has becomes slicker and, if anything, more professional than even Hollywood, The Peacock King is a wonderful reminder of just how fun, irreverent and plain ‘out there’ it could be.
Hell Witch Raga (Pauline Wong, Rich And Famous, Tragic Hero) is trying to use Ashura, the Hell Virgin, (Gloria Yip, Saviour Of The Soul, The Story Of Ricky) to open the four gates of hell and raise the King of Hell himself. Obviously, when that happens we’re all in a whole heap of trouble, so Chinese monk Peacock (Yuen Biao, Knockabout, Zu Warriors) and his Japanese counterpart Lucky Fruit (Hiroshi Mikami, Mishima, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) team up to try and stop the end of the world, Armageddon, that sort of thing, as the gates open up in Japan, Hong Kong and Tibet. Only a cult of devil worshippers, led by the ruthless Kubira, played by Gordon Liu looking no different than he did in 36th Chamber Of Shaolin a decade before.
Director Ngai Kam Lam became known in the 80s for his ‘kitchen sink’ attitude to filmmaking, literally throwing in a little bit of everything but – from kung fu to horror, sci-fi to soft core. Even in the world of Hong Kong cinema, few other directors manage to cover so many genres in one film. His brief career produced some of the wackiest, silliest cult films around, like The Seventh Curse, Erotic Ghost Story, Ghost Snatchers and his most notorious movie The Story Of Ricky (aka Riki-Oh) – a ridiculously gory prison shocker which climaxes with the governor mutating into a kung fu fighting monster.
A Hong Kong/Japanese co-production, Peacock runs like a bigger budget version – though that may be hard to believe – of his earlier, arguably more successful, Seventh Curse. moving from Ni Kuang’s Wisley novels to manga as his source material. (He stuck with manga for Ricky It’s that same mix of schlock horror, witchcraft and Indiana Jones, with lashings of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing inspiring the set and creature design.
For instance, the gate of hell looks like H.R. Giger had designed Lord Of The Rings Sauron’s stronghold whilst pre-occupied with female anatomy and The Wizard of Oz. And it’s in Tibet? The Dali Lama’s holy land? Just what could Ngai be trying to say? Hong Kong’s shanty town, as seen in Police Story (does this even exist any more?), becomes a gothic horror scene.
Then there is, of course, the stop motion/clay animation sequences, which seem to arrive from nowhere – like when Peacock encounters tiny demonic creatures in a fast food box. Add in several references to Sammo and Jackie at Yuen’s expense, and a bizarre soundtrack of English language songs, all big hair rock and power ballads, and you have a recipe for a fantastically enjoyable romp that even spawned a sequel, Saga of the Phoenix.
Trouble is, Ngai wasn’t a particularly good director. Others made a better job by not trying to fit quite so much in, like Ricky Lau’s Mr Vampire or Ching Siu-tung on Witch From Nepal and the Chinese Ghost Stories series. But does that matter? What he lacked in narrative or artistic terms he more than made up for with exasperating enthusiasm and boundless inspiration. It’s hard to take any of it seriously – especially as you get the distinct impression that Ngai didn’t give a damn what anyone thought!
(It would be fitting to think that Ngai’s attitude to film rubbed off on his Japanese assistant director, then only just starting out, Takashi Miike. He would later make quite a reputation of his own as a director as a maverick director with no boundaries at all on films like Audition and Ichi: The Killer. Even if that’s not the case, those claymation scenes were definitely an influence on Miike’s even more left field sequences in Happiness of the Katakuris.)
Yuen Biao fans beware – this is hardly a great vehicle for his kung fu abilities. In fact, you have to wait till the penultimate battle between the monks and Gordon Liu’s forces for a decent workout. Funny, considering that the film benefits from both Tung Wei and Philip Kwok as action directors – though there is plenty of wirework!
The Peacock King is a welcome reminder of a time when you really didn’t know what might come next in Hong Kong cinema – often chaotic, but occasionally genius. Oh, how we loved those days. (Now will someone please release a remastered version of The Seventh Curse?)
NB: imbd.com list the Japanese version as running at 96 minutes, not the 83 (NTSC timing) of the Hong Kong/international release – which suggests that a longer version may exist somewhere out there.
Distributor: Hong Kong Legends (UK)
Thanks to a superb quality picture transfer and a new 5.1 Cantonese soundtrack by Hong Kong Legends, Peacock King looks better than it probably did on its original theatrical release. Hell, even the special effects don't seem so bargain bin. It's a definite improvement on the Hong Kong Universe DVD release from several years back, which looked little better than an NTSC video copy and lost much of the detail.
Sadly, as far as extras go HKL really seem to have been scraping the bottom of the barrel. Two interviews with Yuen Biao, only one actually about Peacock King, and lots of clips from their other Manga live action releases. Really, if you not going to bother then don't at all!