This Thai cinemutation may have been intended as a (more-or-less) serious horror/fantasy extravaganza, but to us Westerners it’s something else entirely: an outrageously psychedelic blast of action, color and really bad special effects.
I’ve been unable to uncover much info about the production or reception of GINSENG KING (1989) outside a few surface details: it was made in Thailand by somebody named Ru-Tar Rotar, who according to the imdb hasn’t directed anything else before or since. As to further cast and crew members, or even alternate titles, I’m at a loss (the credits, after all, are all in Thai). Some believe the film was an unauthorized remake of THE NEVERENDING STORY, which may be partially true. It does contain similarities to that film, and I noticed additional elements filched from EXCALIBUR and TIME BANDITS.
As for obtaining a copy of GINSENG KING, good luck! It’s only commercial release appears to have been via a Japanese subtitled VHS, which is now long out of print.
In an enchanted forest the Ginseng King, a peace-loving wood demon, is kidnapped by emissaries of an evil three-headed monstrosity, and a young boy living in the forest witnesses the act.
The kid’s life is further complicated when his mother is bitten by a Nazi zombie who’s always bumping into things and giving a “Sieg Heil!” salute. The zombie is stopped by being shown a swastika, but that’s no help in saving the boy’s mother. It seems the only way she can be restored to health is through the ministrations of the kidnapped Ginseng King.
The boy consults an ancient sorcerer, who leads him into an underground cavern. There a pair of clairvoyant creatures reside, one of whom has a pop-out eye with a limitless range of vision. The eye settles on a far-off fortress where the Ginseng King is imprisoned.
The boy and wizard make their way to the fortress by hitching a ride in a giant’s knapsack. Upon reaching their destination they become ensnared in a labyrinthine series of tunnels packed with inhuman servants of the fortress’ three-headed ruler(s). In the resulting melee the wizard is killed but the boy forges on, assisted by a scantily clad warrior woman unafraid of using her fighting skills to kick lotsa mutant ass!
The Ginseng King is found bound in the cavern and the boy endeavors to find a way to rescue it. In the meantime the warrior woman takes on the fortress’ three-headed ruler, who fights back by firing lasers (or something) at our intrepid heroine.
In this film ambition was clearly high but the budget wasn’t. Thus the quality of the special effects—encompassing a half dozen or so creatures, a zombie and a myriad of animated lightning bolts and laser beams—is pretty much as you’d expect.
The film is competently made, with crisp photography and a good kicky pace, but sorely lacking in dramatic intensity. The overall tone is unwaveringly staid and laid back, presenting its many bizarre sights in an unimpressed, matter-of-fact fashion…which only heightens the weirdness. And it IS weird, in a manner only an apparently mainstream production from a distant culture can achieve. It’s possible that Thai audiences back in 1989 may have found this film ho-hum, but to Americans twenty years later GINSENG KING is a cinematic acid trip well worth taking.
Director: Ru-Tar Rotar