5/23/09

Movie Review -- Child of Peach

I mentioned in my review of Thrilling Sword that it’s unusual for Chinese film makers to adapt stories from places outside of China. Outside of the occasional manga adaptation, this includes surrounding Asian countries. Bear in mind that the reverse is not always true. Japanese studios produced films like Shin Shikote (Shigeo Tanaka, 1962) and The Notorious Concubines (Koji Wakamatsu, 1969) which were based on Qin Shi Huang and the Jin Ping Mei respectively. That’s not to mention the number of television serials and animated films that have adapted Chinese literature, although The Journey to the West seems to be one of the more popular sources for adaptation.

That makes Child of Peach a peculiar case within the revival of fantasy themed martial arts films in the 1980’s, although it’s very similar in style to other films of its type made in Taiwan, thanks to director Chan Jun Leung and action choreographer Chui Chung-Hing, both of whom were involved in some capacity in nearly every fantasy kung fu film made in Taiwan during the eighties. It is a film based on the Japanese legend of MomotarĊ, the boy that came from a celestial peach. It’s a movie that one assumes is made for children but (much like Thrilling Sword) one I’d urge most parents not to park their offspring in front of.
The movie starts off with a cheerful theme song about the wondrous Peach Garden, which the helpful narrator locates at the top of “Mt. Himalayas” (this is in the subtitles). The camera moves over the garden, in which a monkey, bird and dog are playing, eventually turning into human versions of their animal selves, with young, acrobatic actors portraying their human selves. Peach Garden’s comfortable weather is generated by the Sword of the Sun that sits in the mountain (again, we’re told this by the trusty narrator), and a couple of humans that don’t turn into animals live inside the mountain, where they raise their baby and play with swords. It isn’t long before idyllic scene is broken up by the arrival of King Devil, who steals the magic sword. After a quick battle between the master and residents of Peach Garden and King Devil and his minions, the sword is removed from its spot, and the sunny day turns into a snowy night. King Devil then fights with the master of the garden with laser beams and flying swords, while his wife puts their baby in the giant magic peach, sending him away and asking a little fairy to look after him.
The movie then shows us how Peach Boy is adopted by an old, childless couple, how he is recruited to go and invade the island of demons (lead by King Devil) and meets Melon, Doggy, Birdie, and Monkey. All of that’s pretty much right in line with the Japanese story, although it’s the real weirdness is in the details -- as if a story about a boy that comes out of Peach wasn’t weird enough by itself.
The Taiwanese actors and country that stands in for an old Japan are jarring, especially given Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kong cinema’s propensity for demonizing the Japanese. The production designers seemingly tried for authenticity, which is nice. The design of the costumes, sets, and props are far closer to accurate than, say, Ninja: The Final Duel (Robert Tai, 1986), although I can’t say why they bothered. Particularly with the villains, the costumes and acting go so far into the realm of fantasy that the jab at authenticity in the rest of the film seems a bit half-hearted. Similarly, the fight scenes are choreographed (quite well) in styles that don’t look the least bit Japanese, even to my admittedly untrained eye. The pacing and acting also show that unique sensibility of Chan Jun-Leung’s films. That is, the pace is breakneck and the acting absolutely over the top.

Some of the art direction is all the more peculiar when the film in no way resembles similar Japanese films in either style or in content outside of the barest nods towards the MomotarĊ story. It's not reasonable to expect too much out of Child of Peach as cross-cultural myth-making. In spite of the setting and the basic story, this film is right in line with every other Taiwanese fantasy film of the eighties -- movies so alike yet so unlike anything else that they accidently transcend their parent genre/s of wuxia shenguai. The fact that the Peach Boy films radically change the setting and source of cultural information and still fit so well with movies like Hello Dracula (Chiu Ching-Hung, 1985) and The Twelve Fairies (Chiu Ching-Hung, 1990) is proof enough that the Taiwanese fantasy films of the eighties and early nineties constitute a movement that is both self-contained yet derivative and informed by previous precedents in the genres that birthed it. And it's weird.
That said, there’s some truly bizarre stuff that’s more than worth seeing. The special effects are optical printing done with more skill than what one normally associates with such fare. The fight scenes are truly well choreographed, often utilizing wire work to pull stuntmen off their feet and across the ground after they’ve been kicked or shot with a magic missile, both of which happen frequently. The stunt work is also brutal, with some particularly rough looking falls from high distances showing up fairly often. Also notable is some dangerous looking pyrotechnics, which are used to burn a large set. There are several scenes of dismemberment towards demons, usually involving animal appendages, such as the scene in which a shark demon’s fins are chopped off and Melon proposes to make soup of them (he can’t because they’re poisonous). The weirdest sights come during the finale, in which Doggy, Monkey, and Birdie use their animal powers to fight. Their arms literally turn into dog paws, gibbon arms and a bird’s wing respectively, the young actors actually using them to fight, with hilarious results. But what truly takes the cake is the Peach creature, composed of floating peaches obviously suspended by wires, and piloted by the mystical team of Peach Boy and his animal friends. It’s horrendously weird looking and makes noises like Donald Duck for no discernible reason. In fact, everything involving the magic peach is pretty wild. In one early scene, it actually pees on somebody.
The cast seems to be having a great time. Jin Tu and You Mei-fang are a great comic duo as Peach Boy’s adopted parents, their fighting and pratfalls generally being amusing if not actually funny. Jin Tu -- a veteran actor who worked often with director Chan -- even drums up some actual emotion during the many scenes where he deliberates over letting Peach Boy go demon hunting. Boon Saam once again impresses with his very physical acting, and the child acrobats who play the animal friends are wonderful in their very obvious innocence. They have fun, and so the audience does too. None of what they are called to do is all that demanding, but they accomplish it well enough.
The star of the film is Lam Siu-Lau (in Mandarin, Lin Xioalou) a diminutive actress with an impressive array of martial skills who often played roles in drag. She plays Peach Boy as a young boy and is totally unconvincing, which doesn’t matter since nothing in the movie is. Like the other actors, Lam brings a sense of fun to the role that I can’t see another actor pulling off. She’s also adorable with the big goofy hair and bright make up. She looks like a doll, which is likely what they were going for. Her roles in Child of Peach and its sequels, as well as Kung Fu Wonder Child (Lee Tso-Nam, 1986), have made her a favorite of some kung fu collectors.
I like this movie. In the five years between New Pilgrims to the West (1982) and Child of Peach (1987), it’s amazing how far fantasy film making in Taiwan had gone. The camera work is notably better, as is cinematography. Granted, this isn’t technically good film making. There are all sorts of weird continuity issues and the editing is at times, absolutely awful. I still like this movie. It’s weird, goofy, good fun that nobody would ever think of making now. Based on its weirdness alone, it’d be a good candidate for a release from one of the many cult film labels that are still alive and kicking, but with the very cavalier attitude towards nudity (nonsexual, I assure you) and apparently being more than a bit obscure, it’s not likely.
Let’s end with a picture of Hello Dracula star Liu Chih-Yu as Little Fairy, because she’s adorable.

2 comments:

  1. Any idea where I can get this movie? I haven't watched it for ages!
    (kennethchanwm@gmail.com)

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  2. You can always check YesAsia.com or flkcinema.com. They'll likely have all of the movies I review on this blog.

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