(A.k.a. ODYSSEY OF THE PACIFIC; THE EMPEROR OF PERU)
Toby (Jonathan Starr), his pet duck Fernando and his younger sister Liz (Anick) spend their summer with their aunty and uncle. They’re fortunate to have beautiful greenery around them, in which Toby can exercise his furtive imagination during play-time. Cue curiously endearing segments involving old-school optical trickery and miniatures.
Into this scenario comes the cute Hoang (Ky Huot Uk), a young Cambodian refugee who has been sent to stay temporarily with the uncle while permanent placement with a local family is arranged.
Kids being kids, there is little awkwardness between the siblings and their new friend. Soon they are taking him out into the local forage to join in with Toby’s fantasies, which range from being a racing driver to even assuming the role of spaceman.
One afternoon the trio stray a little further than usual into the woods and stumble upon an old cripple living rough. He’s known only as the Railway Engineer (Mickey Rooney), on account of his previous occupation.
The Engineer quickly gains the trust of the kids, especially when their imaginations are further stoked by the abandoned Pacific steam locomotive which he guards over. Although no longer functioning, the train sits idle on a disused rail line – as if ready for action, should someone be willing to give it a little TLC.
Harbouring ideas of returning Hoang to his native country for a reunion with his mother, Toby appeals to the friendly old Engineer to help them get the train working once again, and instruct them on how to operate it in due course.
As whimsical premises go, this one has got to be up there – but there is a darker edge. Meat is added to the bones of this initially light fantasy in the form of suggestions of the life Hoang has endured back in Cambodia, along with the Engineer’s claims that he is the Emperor of Peru - and the consequential threats from the local authorities who would rather see him put into an old folks’ home.
Surely, the kids can focus on the job at hand and preserve the Engineer’s liberty long enough to secure a happy ending for Hoang …?
Directed by Spanish surrealist Fernando Arrabal in 1982, TREASURE TRAIN is a world away from the vehement cries against the Church and bourgeoisie society that made his earlier works (VIVA LA MUERTE; I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE; THE GUERNICA TREE) so powerful and challenging. Considering that his best-known films are often compared to the 70s oeuvre of fellow Panic Movement auteur Alexandro Jodorowsky, it’s fair to say that TREASURE TRAIN is Arrabal’s own RAINBOW THIEF.
But, as with Jodorowsky’s often maligned ‘family film’, there is very little here that’s likely to entertain today’s kiddies. Being a French-Canadian co-production, there is a distinct European flavour to events. This lends proceedings an at times dreamlike quality and also a sense of melancholy that you’ll not find in, say, your average Disney or Dreamworks picture. Then there’s the script – co-written by Arrabal and Roger Lemelin – which centres on the fantastical but in a paradoxically, arguably child-unfriendly corporeal manner.
Case in point: the ambiguity of the film’s finale will prompt reconsideration on its perspective of reality among adult viewers; a couple of scenes concerning the Engineer’s altercations with authority are strangely unsettling, such is Rooney’s red-faced bluster in the face of adversity.
Performances are a mixed bag. The kids come across as wooden for the most part. Rooney appears to be making his lines up on the spot. This facet is particularly beguiling, making the film disturbingly compelling in its own right.
This is, however, a different kind of ‘disturbing’ to Arrabal’s earlier films. So don’t go into this expecting naked women crawling into bloody horse cadavers, men wanking at the dinner table, or cannibalistic midgets …
But, even so, it’s a long 83 minutes’ hike towards a simply adequate climax.
Odyssey Moving Images bring the film, remarkably, to blu-ray. The disc is locked to Region A.
Originally available as part of Cult Epics’ 2010 DVD boxset "The Fernando Arrabal Collection Volume 2", the presentation there was less than stellar. For a start the picture was rather dull-looking and a ghosting effect was visible during more animated sequences, while the audio was decidedly flat.
Here, the film is presented uncut in a highly respectable 1080 progressive HD transfer which retains the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and enhances it for 16x9 televisions. Although this is a single-layered 25GB disc, the picture quality is very good indeed. Images are clean but not looking to have been the victim of undue noise reduction, with most scenes looking natural, bright and sharp. Any ghosting/combing issues have gone. The onscreen title here is TREASURE TRAIN – Cult Epics utilised a different transfer, sporting the French title L’EMPEROR DE PERU.
DTS-HD mono audio tracks come in both English language (dubbed) and French variants. Both are clear, consistent tracks with nothing in the way of background hiss or drop-out. Optional English subtitles are well-written for the most part and easy to read.
The disc opens with an animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.
The only extra is an 8-minute video interview with a very vague Rooney. He speaks of his involvement with this film, working with Arrabal and working on films in general. But his mind seems to be elsewhere, as affable as he undeniably is.
Hardly a lost classic and, in truth, a film that is more interesting for its place in Arrabal’s formidable canon than it is to watch, TREASURE TRAIN is a peculiar choice for releasing on blu-ray. Still, it has its inspired moments – Toby’s dreams specifically – and it’s encouraging to see something from the great director make it to High Definition disc, even if it is one of his lesser films. And if it prompts blu-ray releases of the likes of MUERTE, HORSE and TREE, then that can only be a good thing.
Also available on DVD.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Odyssey Moving Images|
|see main review|