Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (三鳳震武林, Chen Hung-Min, 1968)

“We’re big, strong men. Why should we worry about three little girls?” a trio of bandits reflects on having allowed the children of their enemy to escape their massacre thereby leaving themselves open to future reprisals. As the title of Chen Hung-Min ’s Taiwanese-language wuxia Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (三鳳震武林) implies, however, they are quite wrong to be so dismissive of “three little girls” who will later grow up to fulfil their filial duty by avenging the deaths of their parents even though they are daughters rather than sons. 

During the exciting nighttime prologue, three bandits attack the house of Yang formerly a sheriff. The three men are taking “revenge” for his attempt to arrest them 15 years previously which they seemingly managed to evade and have been on the run ever since. Taken by surprise, Yang sends his three daughters away to safety with his servants, but is ultimately unable to do more than hold the bandits off before both he and his wife are killed. In the final moments before dying however, he is able to impart a few last words to second daughter Xiufeng instructing her to avenge their deaths while advising the nanny to take her to one of his sworn brothers way up in the mountains. 

This is where we meet Xiufeng (Yang Li-Hua) again 15 years later now dressing as a man and having apparently spent the remainder of her childhood perfecting her martial arts but now determined to set out alone to pursue vengeance as is her filial duty. The sisters have become scattered with the youngest, Zhifeng (Chin Mei), apparently unaware of her parentage having been brought up by the servant who helped her escape in a nearby town which is itself a victim of warlord Cao one of the bandits who killed her father who has now it seems become wealthy and powerful on the back of his life of crime. Cao is in fact so wealthy and powerful that he’s been exacting his droit du seigneur over the local population, Xiufeng rescuing a young woman in the middle of being carted off by Cao’s goons seconds after arriving in town only for Cao to ironically settle on Zhifeng as his next target despite being warned that she’s reputed to be highly skilled in martial arts. 

The the fact that each of the three bandits has become successful in the intervening 15 years is another wrong that sisters must right in their quest not only for vengeance but for justice and as the bandits seemingly have no children or family members the cycle of revenge will end only with them. Their actions will restore a kind of order not only in drawing a line under the deaths of their parents so that they can move on, but removing the bandits’ corruption so that the local population is no longer forced to live in fear of their cruel tyranny. This sense of anxious devastation is rammed home as, in a scene inspired either by contemporary samurai dramas or the western, Xiufeng slowly makes her way towards a low set camera to enter the town while in the foreground a lone figure collects debris from the otherwise empty streets. 

Xiufeng is, in genre tradition, dressing as man in order to pursue her revenge going under the name Lin Keding and exerting absolute authority unafraid of anything or anyone. Chen had worked as an editor on King Hu’s Dragon Inn and in true wuxia fashion includes a classic fight in a teahouse that also finds Xiufeng following her adoptive father’s advice to use her wits to win as she quickly realises that Lord Cao has set her up in revenge for robbing him of the girl by getting the innkeeper to poison her dinner. Meanwhile, in a repeated motif, the innkeeper’s wife keeps flirting with her adding to gender ambiguity. Older sister Qingfeng (Liu Ching) meanwhile whose protector apparently fell off a cliff and died some time ago sees no need for a similar pretence though she and Zhifeng later almost have a falling out after being distracted from their mission on encountering the “handsome hero” Lin Keding which is about as awkward a situation as one could imagine until they figure out that they’re after the same guy and Xiufeng’s true identity is confirmed simply by letting down her hair. 

In any case, the Pheonix Sisters are perhaps unusual even within the context of contemporary wuxia in that they pursue their revenge entirely independently with no male assistance or romantic involvement save the awkward flirtatious banter between the other two sisters prior to realising that Lin Keding is really Xiufeng. Nevertheless, on having completed their quest they throw away their swords, implying at least that they now intend to return to a more conventional femininity remaining strictly within the confines of patriarchal filiality rather than choosing to free themselves from it. Even so, the treatment they receive is perhaps harsher than that a male avenger may have faced, Cao sneering that he loves tough women who can fight while the other two bandits Ke and Lu eventually decide to burn Qingfeng and Zhifeng alive only for Xiufeng to arrive and dramatically save them just in the nick of time. 

Chen’s take on wuxia is indeed surprisingly violent, the cruelty in the bandits’ swords fully evidenced as they cut down not only Yang the former sheriff but his wife too. Meanwhile he makes good use of thematic symmetries typical of the genre, the trio of amoral bandits opposed by the trio of chivalrous sisters, pursuing them for a crime they committed 15 years previously to take revenge for a slight 15 years before that while the sense of circularity is further emphasised through repeated imagery in Chen’s elegantly framed widescreen composition. Despite the comparatively low budget typical of Taiwanese-language cinema which apparently saw Chen having to resort to car headlights in order to light the film during night shoots, he manages to craft fantastically entertaining period adventure filled with well choreographed action sequences and a playful sense of unease as the sisters strive to reunite their family through their quest for justice and vengeance. 


Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wang Tung, 1992)

Two orphaned brothers set out to find a literal goldmine, but discover only relentless exploitation and defeat in Wang Tung’s meditation on oppression and colonialism, Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wúyán de Shānqiū). The third in a trilogy of films exploring Taiwanese history, Wang’s tragic melodrama finds commonality if not solidarity among a collection of villagers living in a small town sustained entirely by the mine which produces riches only for the Japanese while those who risk their lives underground deprived of the light of the sun delude themselves that if they work hard they too can become rich only to discover each of their attempts to escape the constraints placed against them leading to nothing other than despair. 

As the film opens, brothers Chu (Peng Chia-Chia) and Wei (Huang Pin-Yuan) who have signed long-term five year contracts as farm labourers, are listening to an old man’s story about the grandfather of a local man who followed a frog to a mountain noticing its skin glowing gold and thereafter filling his pockets with gold dust he later used to buy up land and become rich. Chu thinks the man was foolish for not going back and becoming even richer, but the old man explains that he was reminded in a dream that excessive greed would only anger the gods and lead to his downfall. Fed up with their lives as labourers, the brothers take the story to heart and decide to look for their own mountain of gold, their backs too bathed in the light of the sun as they rest while looking for the goldmine town of Jiou-fen, later coming across a grisly and ominous scene shortly before they arrive. 

Both illiterate and speaking only Taiwanese, the brothers are each intent on becoming landowners partly in order to give their late parents, apparently killed by TB, a fitting resting place, but soon find themselves once again exploited, Wei becoming increasingly disillusioned with being trapped underground whereas in the fields at least he’d had the sun. The mine is of course a Japanese concern and its operators care little for the local Taiwanese workforce even if their treatment may not be as deliberately brutal as it might have been elsewhere. The new director is convinced that the miners are pocketing gold before it reaches the surface, instituting several new controls which threaten the local economy and especially that of the Japanese-style brothel which depends entirely on the mine for its survival. 

Like many, Hong-mu (Jen Chang-bin), a young man raised in the brothel by its madam following the death of his mother, looks up to the Japanese colonisers seeing them as innately “better” than the Taiwanese all around him. “People will respect me if I wear Japanese clothes” he tells the madam disappointed on receiving a new outfit in the local fashion. Having been told that his father, whom he has never met and was presumably a client of the brothel, was Japanese he speaks the language fluently and believes himself to be slightly superior by virtue of his birth but only too late learns his mistake in collaborating with the mine owners believing they would help him marry a young Japanese woman working at the brothel as a maid, Fumiko (Mayko Chen Hsien-Mei), and finding himself betrayed. As Fumiko is from the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa), the mine owner doesn’t quite see her as fully “Japanese” either and thinks nothing of using and abusing her in the course of his activities. 

The wily madam quips that you can’t call yourself Taiwanese if you haven’t figured out how to do illegal things legally finding ways of getting around the prohibition on accepting gold from the miners as payment, but that doesn’t stop the military police later raiding the brothel and brutally taking back “their” gold even though it has already changed hands albeit not entirely in good faith. The sex workers too are victims of this same vicious cycle, dependent on the custom of the miners for their livelihood while deprived any real possibility of escaping their desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, the brothers’ grumpy landlady, Ro (Yang Kuei-mei), is a twice-widowed single mother of numerous children left with no choice other than to engage in independent sex work, advertising herself as the more economical, local alternative to the Japanese-style “opulence” of the traditional teahouse. While Wei falls for the melancholy innocence of Fumiko singing Okinawan folksongs in a field of golden flowers, Chu takes a liking to Ro and her many children but though they both dream of the same thing, saving enough money to buy a farm, their tempestuous romance is later frustrated by Chu’s reckless decision to take advantage of chaos at the mine in an attempt to get rich quick by harvesting a mega load of gold while no one’s looking. 

He has perhaps been too greedy, ignoring the lessons from the old man’s story. The brothers are continually forced to pay for their transgressions, Chu cutting off his own fingers when cornered by thugs sent out by his previous employer to satisfy their literal demand for an arm and a leg in satisfaction of the broken contract, while Wei’s foot is later injured in a partial cave in when caught underground during an earthquake. Ro calls Chu foolish in his delusion that hard work will bring him a comfortable life, watching him slaving away to make the Japanese rich but what other choice do either of them really have? Only later does Wei begin to reflect on the possibility that the treasure of the mountain was the bright yellow flowers which covered it, a natural beauty soon destroyed by industrial exploitation. A melancholy chronicle of life in a small mountain town in the colonial era, Hill of No Return finds only despair and impossibility for its orphaned brothers whose eternal quest for ownership of their own land leads to nothing but continual disappointment. 


Hill of No Return streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English Subtitles)