THE EMPEROR OF PERU [1982] Available on DVD from Cult Epics [HCF REWIND]

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After briefly digressing into the strange world of Tinto Brass, Rewind returns to Spanish surreallist Fernando Arrabal to explore the second of Cult Epic’s Arrabal box sets, beginning with……a children’s movie!

 

HCF REWIND NO.65. THE EMPEROR OF PERU AKA ODYSSEY OF THE PACIFIC, TREASURE TRAIN [France/Canada, 1982]

AVAILABLE ON DVD: from Cult Epics

RUNNING TIME: 81 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

 

Toby is a young boy who is constantly day dreaming what daring obstacles he will overcome, while his slightly older sister Liz constantly reminds of reality.  One day they discover they have a new adopted brother, a refugee from Cambodia called Hoang.  Even though Toby is initially unsure about this new addition to their family, the three set out on their own to discover the land on their bikes for a picnic. They come across a crippled man who declares himself The Emperor Of Peru but is actually an old railroad engineer and is resisting attempts by the local Mayor to be moved to a rest home.  Nearby, the kids discover an old steam engine hidden away……..

When I got to this film in the course of making my way through Cult Epics’ s Fernando Arrabal releases, I found it virtually impossible to grasp the idea of Arrabal, the great Surrealist with his penchant for shocking and blasphemous imagery, making a film aimed at children.  Amazingly, Arrabal, who also co-wrote the script, manages to pull it off.  It’s a slight affair, low-key and calm, yet still retains odd aspects.  It’s kid’s entertainment of a kind which might seem very quaint in these days of CGI and gag filled pictures, and I wonder if it’s now the kind of film which would now be more appreciated by adults with its relaxed pace and magic realism [where magical or fantastical elements meld with the real world and are presented in a matter of fact way].  Though this French/Canadian production received brief theatrical releases in Canada, France and the US under the title Odyssey Of The Pacific, it came and went and remained little seen, though being a children’s film it was kept more in circulation than Arrabal’s other films and was often shown on US TV retitled Treasure Train.

Straight away, Arrabal beautifully evokes a feeling of rose-tinted childhood remembered, cameraman Kooden Legargeant lushly photographing the forest in which most of the film takes place.  I say most of the film, because actually a fair bit of it consists of Toby’s day dreams, where he a racing driver, or an astronaut, or a fireman .  These sequences are sweet and very believable in terms of what a young boy would dream of [I’m not sure a young child would dream of being an orchestra conductor though, though my father used to play classical music all the time so I suppose it’s possible].   The film obviously had a tiny budget and these sequences are rife with stock footage and makeshift scenery – a Moon sequence looks like it’s part of a children’s play – but considering all this is in Toby’s head and is representing what he thinks places and experiences might be like, it doesn’t really matter.  Very charmingly, all of these segments are announced as if they are  ‘news’, and Toby is always accompanied by his pet goose, which he treats almost like a dog in the ‘real’ world.

Toby is almost consumed by a fantasy life; Houng, the Cambodia refugee, is haunted by all-too-real memories of home, where his mother is still waiting to get on a boat and his father is in a concentration.  These bits are rather haunting though skilfully remain with the  boundaries of a ‘U’ certificate.  Arrabal’s films always have fantasy and reality merging into one another and he still seems to be playing with the concept here, while never letting go of the reality.   Another, more problematic aspect that Arrabal had in two out of his three previous films is incest, and when, in this film, Houng says he wants to marry his mother, even though it’s handled innocently and is something many young boys feel, I wondered if Arrabal was craftily sneaking a touch of incest into his harmless family film. Interestingly, it’s the older sibling, Liz, who forms a bond with the ‘foreign’ child, not the younger one, which is different to the norm in stories like this.

The film leisurely ambles along, talking its time to find its stride.  The children spend a lot of time talking with the ‘Emperor’, wonderfully played by Mickey Rooney in a role he looks like he loved, especially when he stands up and does an Irish gig!  His character is boisterous and a little mad but, importantly, very childish so he and the children can relate to each other.  When the Mayor and some cops want to take him to a rest home, we know they are probably right, but still want them to go away.  He has his own flashbacks and we know straight away they probably aren’t real, but we grow to love this guy.  The story eventually gets going somewhat in the second half when the children decide upon a mission, a mission which requires they do up the old train and are taught by the Emperor how to drive it.  A mission which, actually, is impossible, but then again all this may be inside somebody’s head.

Throughout, Arrabal adds sophisticated little touches which children would probably miss but might assimilate subconsciously.  I especially liked the way the father likes to demonstrate supposed ‘magic’ to the kids, but they are far more interested in the ‘reality ‘of the Emperor and has train. There are faint echoes of classic children’s tales like The Secret Garden, tales where the young protagonists find a haven which temporarily exists as a haven from the adult world and also prepares them for it.  Being French/Canadian, The Emperor Of Peru is devoid of the sentimentality you would probably find in a comparable American production, but it’s also a little cold.  This isn’t helped by the stiff performance of Ky Huot Uk in the role of Houng, who remains a cipher, a symbol of an outside world more dangerous than the world of the Emperor, rather than a rounded character.

Anick and Jonathan Starr though are very good as Liz and Toby; Starr has a winning smile and is the cutest kid I’ve seen in a film for ages.   I watched the English language version on the Cult Epics DVD and it seemed that Anick, Starr and Rooney were speaking with their real voices though some of the other characters are dubbed, with one voice obviously of a French person doing a very bad English accent!  Edith Butler’s score has some interesting passages but sometimes seems out of place, such as a Greek-sounding folk song, though with the same words used throughout, used for some scenes involving the train.  It’s undoubtably the quirkiness of The Emperor Of Peru that helps make it a bit unique though.  This beguiling though relaxed film ends rather suddenly, with obvious stock footage, and I was initially frustrated by this, but then, as I said before, it was an impossible mission anyway, and perhaps it’s all in the children’s heads!  Don’t expect your usual Arrabal craziness from this modest effort, but it’s an extremely charming work and you may find yourself thinking about it more than you thought you would.  I certainly am.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

The DVD release of The Emperor Of Peru from Cult Epics includes:

*New High Definition Transfer

*Both English and French [with English subtitles] language versions

 

 

It is available as part of

 


 

Check out Cult Epics’s site at

www.cultepics.com

 

 

Review of Car Cemetery coming soon…….

About Dr Lenera 3109 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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