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. 


Dangerous Youth (危險的青春, Hsin Chi, 1969)

Increasing consumerism has begun to corrupt the minds of the young in Hsin Chi’s ultra contemporary Taiwanese-language drama Dangerous Youth (危險的青春). Unlike similarly themed youth movies from elsewhere such as Kim Ki-duk’s Barefooted Youth (1964, inspired by Ko Nakahira’s Doro Darake no Junjo) or Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Hsin’s film is nowhere near as nihilistic as its title might suggest nor are its heroes as delinquent merely morally compromised as they attempt to navigate the changing society around them while feeling as if the things they want have been deliberately placed out of reach. 

As the film opens, Khue-guan (Shih Ying) is cheerfully riding on his motorcycle with his current girlfriend on the back behind him, only the trip comes to an abrupt halt when the bike, a symbol of his freedom and independence, gets a flat tire. The pair pull over to a roadside garage to get it fixed and wait in a nearby cafe where they’re served by waitress Tsing-bi (Cheng Hsiao-Fen) who happens to be the owner’s daughter. While they’re waiting, Khue-guan’s girlfriend contemptuously dumps him, complaining that his bike is always breaking down and she’s decided to marry a financially secure engineer while attempting to palm Khue-guan off on Tsing-bi who ironically has a haircut quite like hers and is dressed almost identically. Khue-guan tries to change her mind, but she reminds him that marriage is “a woman’s meal ticket” so why would she or anyone else for that matter marry a poor delivery boy if a better offer came along? 

Khue-guan innocently insists that if they stay together and work hard they’ll be rich someday too, but his girlfriend has no desire to wait and no inclination to strive. It’s this ideology of working class aspiration that if you just buckle down and play by the rules you can one day have a comfortable life that is at the centre of the film’s ideological conflict, Khue-guan himself later hearing the same words from Tsing-bi when she refuses to become the mistress of the wealthy widower Mr. Tshi (Chen Tsai-Hsing) but having become so jaded that he no longer believes them only to be apparently converted when a work colleague gives him the same advice that he should give up on the boss’ sexually liberated daughter and find someone who loves him with whom he can work together to build a happy family home. 

The happy family home, a conventional middle-class success story, was Khue-guan’s small dream at the beginning of the film before his girlfriend’s slight caused him to lose his way. His crisis is also one of threatened masculinity, feeling himself inferior by virtue of a poverty he does not know how to escape lamenting to an old friend that only college men like him can find good jobs in the changing, increasingly white collar society. In a minor role reversal, it’s clear that women have gained increasing freedom and agency and in fact here hold the power as reflected in the masculinised figure of boss’ daughter Giok-Sian (Kao Hsing-Chih) who runs a hostess bar and refuses to get married instead living a sexually liberated life without romantic attachment. Part of Tsing-bi’s resentment towards her mother (Su Chu) stems from her sexually active love life in which it seems she too has the upper hand. In a repeated motif, we see Tsing-bi’s mother hand money to her lover so he can take time off work, something Tsing-bi later does to Khue-guan who without quite thinking about it has begun to live through her exploitation only objecting when offered money by Giok-Sian who rejects his romantic overtures interested only in bodily satisfaction. 

This gender imbalance is later “corrected” towards patriarchal norms as Giok-Sion is finally forced to accept that she is in love with Khue-guan just at the moment he receives his epiphany that the way he’s been living is wrong, love is more important than money, and he needs to get back on the straight and narrow to earn success by working hard rather than exploiting others. Nevertheless, there is plenty of toxic masculinity in the air, the friends of the ageing Mr. Tshi apparently mocking him for his literal impotence, his masculinity questioned in the absence of a female sexual partner. Though as we discover Mr. Tshi is simply lonely having lost his wife and seemingly having no children, asking Tsing-bi only for cuddles and companionship. There is something distinctly uncomfortable in the way that Tsing-bi is thrown at Mr. Tshi like a like live chicken into a pit of crocodiles by Giok-Sian, her father, and his friends each of whom are trying to curry favour for business advantage by exploiting her. With her short hair and tendency to wear pinafore dresses, not to mention often carrying around teddy bears and oversize dolls, the 20-year-old and extremely naive Tsing-bi seems even younger than she is, an innocent little girl misused by an increasingly corrupt society. 

Even so Tsing-bi remains the least corrupted of the youngsters, clinging to her love for Khue-guen never realising he too is just using her for easy money even as she ironically throws his own words back at him in suggesting they marry, work hard, and raise a happy family together. Though it was her consumerist desires that originally set her against her mother in her yearning for current fashions and sophisticated city life, she never really wanted the money only Khue-guan while ironically mimicking her mother’s behaviour in accidentally making him a kept man. The reset which occurs at the film’s conclusion at once restores traditional gender roles but also perhaps shifts them in stressing the need of the couple to work “together” even if that sentiment might imply a greater equality than is in reality in play. Nevertheless, perhaps for reasons of censorship (which might also explain why despite the film’s obvious Taiwan setting frequent references are made to Hong Kong landmarks) the conclusion is not as bleak as one might assume from the rather nihilistic, moral panic implications of the title as the young couple are finally placed back onto the “correct” path of honest hard work which is also in its own way a capitulation to their own exploitation at the centre of an expanding, increasingly capitalistic society. 


Dangerous Youth streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)