The 1980s saw a new wave of fantasy pictures in Hong Kong, ones that combined pre-existing elements of Chinese wuxia with a Hollywood-inspired use of visual effects. The poster child for this wave is almost certainly Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, produced by Tsui Hark and released to international notice in 1983. Five years later Lam Ngai Kai’s The Peacock King became a significant local hit but, sadly, lacked the international exposure afforded to Zu. Thanks to a timely DVD re-release, this combination of fantasy, horror, and martial arts is now available for international audiences.
When the hell virgin Ashura (Gloria Yip) is coerced by the witch Raga (Wong Siu-fung) to open four portals to hell and release the all-powerful Hell King, the magically-powered monks Peacock (Yuen Biao) and Small Fruit (Hiroshi Mikami) unite to prevent the world from being destroyed.
The screenplay for The Peacock King is, it is fair to say, not the film’s strongest asset. Based on the 1985 manga Spirit Warrior by Makoto Ogino, it follows its co-protagonists from one Asian location to another for a series of pitched martial arts battles against an array of monsters and rivals. This repetitive structure does not do the film any favours, leaving the battles themselves and the cast to prop up the film on their own. The characters are very thinly drawn, relying heavily on the actors to deliver their own enthusiasm and charisma to make them work. Broadly speaking, this works remarkably well – albeit in broad strokes. Former Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung co-star Yuen Biao (who also co-directs) plays ‘the cool one’, while Hiroshi Mikami plays ‘the serious one’. Gloria Yip provides a bright naïveté to her role as Ashura, ‘the hell virgin’; not innately evil, but capable of both, and driven by a childlike need to be constantly entertained. It is ultimately very simplistic stuff, seemingly aimed at children.
This creates a fairly sharp tonal problem when the film hits its second act and the horror imagery begins to kick in. Moments of outstanding visual effects puncture the ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ vibe of the film as a whole, rendering some scenes much too horrifying for a younger audience. The witch Raga is a case in point, bloodily splitting in half on-screen and transforming into a vagina dentata creature that seems half H.R. Giger and half Junji Ito. For fans of 1980s visual effects pictures, she is worth to time spent watching entirely on her own. The film’s climax is genuinely marvellous to watch, reminiscent of Harryhausen’s best ancient Greek fantasy – again with a Gigeresque edge.
Fans of Hong Kong martial arts cinema will be pleased to see a guest appearance by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin‘s Gordon Liu for one major fight sequence. He is not in the film for long, but makes a wonderful impression while he is there.
The Peacock King is silly, over-the-top, and often crudely made, and yet it preserves a sense of fun that is weirdly infectious. Throw in some excellent and well-designed horror sequences, and it provides an uneven by oddly rewarding diversion. It is clear why it never broke out to international audiences at the time, but for a bespoke target audience it presents a marvellous opportunity to see 1980s Hong Kong fantasy from another angle. A sequel, Saga of the Phoenix, was released in 1990.