Kujakuoh (1988) [Tai Seng]

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (0.5/5)
August 17th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

There was a time once that I would have said, without any hesitation in my voice, that Masato Harada's Gunhed (1989) was simply the worst movie Toho ever had its name attached to. Today, though, I would like to revise such a statement by saying there is a new “champion” for such a title, as Kujakuoh, a joint venture between Japan and Hong Kong, is quite honestly a rather wretched production across the board. In fact, nothing really goes right here. From a heavily convoluted storyline, to tepid characters and acting performances, the movie just can't seem to catch a break; consequently, the most honest praise one can give to it is that at least the special effects and music weren't horrendous.

In terms of the plot, the movie starts with the emergence of Ashura at an excavation site, a young girl said to be the key to awaken the monster Hell King. Her advent sends out a grave warning to both Kujaku and Kong Chue, who travel to modern Japan in anticipation of her reappearance. With the same mission, the two end up meeting at a dinosaur exhibit where they believe Japan's Hell Gate is located and, sure enough, the dinosaurs inside seem to have come to life of their own accord (complete with Gamera's roar no less). The pair manage to save the life of a female employee named Saeko as they destroy the dinosaurs, although the two have trouble working out their own differences. The three end up going to a dance disco club afterwards, where Ashura and her escort Raga attack them amongst the crowds. Following the assault, the three venture to Hong Kong where they believe Ashura is headed. The hunch ends up being correct as they have another confrontation with Raga, who reveals her true form: a monstrous creature with extendable limbs. After a tough battle, the two manage to best the monster and rescue Ashura. Divided on what should become of the young girl, whose very survival threatens the Earth, the group travels to Kong Chue's temple hoping to find a solution that could spare the young girl yet keep the monster Hell King from ever emerging to destroy the world.

As is apparent, the overall plot is fairly straightforward, yet it draws the storyline out to painful levels due to all of the detours taken along the way. To make matters worse, most of these “detours” are needless and frequently random in nature. One of the best examples of this is when the poltergeist start emerging from the Big Mac container, in what must be one of the most undesirable product placements ever. The creatures venture onto the sidewalk where only Kong Chue and a dog, apparently, can see them. Suffice to say, the dog makes a quick snack out of one of them and... that's it. They only show up for one more scene, which happens briefly at the dinosaur exhibit, and then are never brought up again. Apparently these creatures just kind of follow “evilness” around, possibly trying to give the movie a Ghostbusters type of vibe of a city under siege by the supernatural; however, it falls flat with how little they are used. Another one of these types of random sequences is when Kujaku and Saeko first land in Hong Kong and try to take a taxi to the hotel, only to have the driver fare them around town as he openly mutters about blackmailing them (uh huh…) and then demands his fee according to the car's counter. The scene ends with Kujaku using his magic to turn the counter back to zero, as they run away without paying. Something that, I can only assume, was supposed to be humorous, yet falters with the only funny moment being when Saeko opens the door suddenly and smacks one of the taxi driver's friends who is hanging around.

Not to get bogged down too much in the little details, the main story is fairly confusing at points as to where its going, made only worse by the “spiritual babble” uttered by Kong Chue and Kujaku to try and make them seem more supernatural. This also hurts the overall pacing as the movie tends to leave the viewer behind once or twice as they are expected to play “catch up.” The overall flow makes it difficult to tell when a particular scene might hold any relevance either, or be another random red herring. To be fair, there is one enjoyable part of the movie, which is a fairly long and well-choreographed fight that occurs just before the climax; however, it does little to save what is otherwise a production begging to have been featured on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 show.

Still, no matter how weak and convoluted a story is, a production might still save face if at least the characters are interesting. Not surprisingly, though, Kujokoh catches no such break, as its cast is incredibly flat and uninspired. The two monk characters, Kong Chue and Kujaku, are the leads here. Their personalities clash at first, with Kong Chue appearing to be cocky and Kujaku being the stereotypical “straight arrow” who is intended to play off his more rash partner. Their relationship takes a very rosy turn though via a very convenient plot revelation near the end of the film that they are, in fact, twin brothers who were separated shortly after birth (one's going to have to ignore that Yuen Biao and Hiroshi Mikami look nothing alike). This gives the two an excuse to work together during the climax, although makes this union ring hollow with the audience as it wasn't properly developed to make anyone really care that they have now settled their differences. As for the rest of the lead cast, well it gets even worse. There is a rule of thumb for the main characters of any movie, especially if one is not going to spend time developing them: make their purpose obvious by the film's end and, for the love of god, don't make them aggravating for the audience to watch. In this respect I'm speaking of Saeko, who inexplicably tags along for the entire adventure, even across several countries, yet does nothing but make the audience wonder why she is still hanging around. She is especially aggravating at the start of the movie, and during the whole disco sequence, which in itself is just such a horrible and out of place scene that it's hard not to burst out laughing.

In regards to the acting, unfortunately the performances are pretty awful across the board. To be fair, since this is the US version, all of the Japanese parts have been dubbed into Chinese to match their Hong Kong counterparts; however, that still gives no excuses to the Hong Kong born Yuen Biao or Gloria Yip. Both of them, and a lot of the other cast, seem to switch through differing emotions sporadically, almost as if the characters themselves were bipolar. Since this is such a widespread occurrence, it seems to point at weak direction, as director Nam Nai Choi seems over his head on this production. It was interesting, though, to see Hiroshi Mikami more in his youth, an actor who is most familiar overseas for his lead role in Parasite Eve (1997). Would have been even better, though, had his performance been at least more energetic and genuine.

As for the production values, well they are the movie's strongest point, but that's not saying much. The special effects, for example are nothing to praise here. What's so unfortunate, though, is that the budget was obviously at least fairly modest for a special effects film outside of the US, displaying elaborate pyrotechnics and a lot of claymation. The production in general is also fairly loaded with special effects sequences, although it appears to have been going more for quantity over quality. The incredibly stiff and unimpressive dinosaur props tend to lead the way in that regard. Granted, they are supposed to be reanimated from props, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have moved more convincingly. It does lead to a rather humorous moment, although unintentional, where Kong Chue fights the very stiff Tyrannosaurus Rex by somersaulting onto the head and punching it repeatedly in the face.

The sets in this production are fairly gigantic, although aren't that impressive in terms of detail, with Raga's lair looking at times more like something one would expect to see as a stage on a live performance. The music, by Micky Yoshino, doesn't fare much better than the technical effects sadly. The primary theme, which plays during the Poltergeist sequence and the visit to the Ocean Park amusement grounds, is probably the best of the lot as at least it's kind of catchy, even if it does sound like a stereotyped “oriental theme” that one would expect to find as a default on a Casio. The rest of the score, though, is completely unmemorable, sifting into the background where it's hard to even notice. The movie's song, played during the journey to Kong Chue's temple, is fairly painful as it's conducted in English with pretty poor results and, to add insult to injury, given center stage treatment in a lengthy sequence without dialogue or sound effects.

In closing, Kujokoh is one of those rare movies that one just has to wonder “where was the quality control?” How did something this uninteresting and convoluted actually manage to get released in theaters? To be fair, I have only seen the US version of the film though, which is shorter than the Japanese edit by thirteen minutes. Could those thirteen minutes of footage have led to a better film? Most likely, although Kujokoh ranks so lowly that the movie is pretty much stuck in that situation where there is only one place left to go: up.