The Fantasy of Deer Warrior (大俠梅花鹿, Chang Ying, 1961)

A fearless warrior’s solipsistic priorities and obsession with male pride begin to endanger his community in Chang Ying’s incredibly bizarre Taiwanese-language forest fable, The Fantasy of Deer Warrior (大俠梅花鹿). Seemingly aimed at children with its series of moral messages and anthropomorphised animal characters, Chang’s drama is surprisingly violent not to mention a little on the raunchy side for a family film while ending on a note entirely at odds with the prevailing wisdom of children’s cinema as the righteous hero takes bloody revenge on his bound and defenceless enemies but is nevertheless embraced by his innocent love interest for having brought “justice” back to the forest. 

Opening with a surreal scene of children in animal outfits dancing to jingle bells in the middle of the forest, the cheerful atmosphere is soon disrupted by an incursion of “wolves” carrying nailed bats. An emissary is dispatched to fetch “Sika Deer” (Ling Yun), the forest’s most fearsome warrior, but he is busy having fight with love rival Elk (Li Min-Lang) over the beautiful “Miss Deer” (Pai Hung) who according to the mischievous Foxy (Lin Lin) has been kind of dating both of them. Foxy is incredibly jealous of Miss Deer and stirs the pot by suggesting that Elk and Sika Deer continue in a formal duel with the winner taking Miss Deer’s heart. Shockingly this is what they do and Sika Deer wins only to be immediately called away to the wolf attack, discover his father is already dead, and decide the best thing to do is not see Miss Deer again until he’s finished avenging his father’s death by killing Bloody Wolf. 

As you can see, Sika Deer has his priorities all wrong. First of all, he was off pointlessly fighting Elk while his family were eaten by wolves, then he decides to take the manly path by leaving Miss Deer alone and vulnerable not to mention his community largely defenceless. Later he does something similar when Miss Deer is kidnapped, stopping to lock horns with his love rival rather than devoting all their resources to tracking Bloody Wolf and saving Miss Deer. He does belatedly think to send her a letter explaining he’s busy with important revenge business and will call her later which foils Foxy’s plan to convince her he’s dead so she’ll date Elk instead (unclear why she wants this) but the fact remains that he basically just abandons everyone to selfishly pursue his own revenge ironically leaving the village vulnerable to attack.

Despite this and being absent for most of the picture, Sika Deer is still held up as the hero even when he marches Bloody Woolf and minion to his father’s grave and executes them with surprising violence while they are bound and gagged. Where most children’s films would end with some kind of forgiveness, a restoration of the forest’s harmony brokered by the hero’s magnanimity which in itself causes the villains to reform, Deer Warrior ends with quite the reverse which would seem to run contrary to most of the other moral messages presented throughout the film. 

Then again, “There is no justice in this world” Miss Deer is told on appealing first to a tree and then an elderly buffalo for a moral judgement on whether or not the wolf should be allowed to eat her even though she saved his life. As the tree points out, people took shelter under him but then they cut him down for firewood, while the buffalo complains that he’s been exploited all his life but as soon as he’s too old to work he’ll be killed and eaten. Miss Deer’s moral conundrum is as to whether a kindness ought to be repaid, convinced that Bloody Wolf is in the wrong for wanting to eat her and should let her go to repay the kindness of her saving his life. But Bloody Woolf is a wolf which is to say a creature without morals the only surprising thing being that he patiently waits while she makes all her petitions rather than just eating her as he pleases. Even so, the film seems to say not so much that Miss Deer is at fault for her innocent naivety in having trusted a wolf, but the world itself is wrong because one should never suffer for having been kind to another for kindness should always be repaid. 

Mildly critical as it is of an increasingly selfish society in which justice has become a casualty of increasing economic prosperity, Fantasy of Deer Warrior nevertheless ends on an uncomfortable note with the hero essentially delivering justice as vengeance. Meanwhile it’s also clear that prior to the arrival of the wolves which could perhaps be read either as a metaphor for Mainland China or indeed the KMT government threatening the natural harmony of the native Taiwanese society as represented by Sika Deer, the forest was not altogether harmonious before as evidenced by the rivalries between Miss Deer and Foxy and Elk and Sika Deer. These divides perhaps hint at a wounded unity, suggesting that the Taiwanese people are ill-equipped to defend themselves against external threat while preoccupied with petty disputes and personal concerns. 

Such messages are most likely above the heads of the target audience but then again, the film is curiously transgressive including several scenes of Foxy living up to her name, performing sexy dances and off “having fun” with Bloody Woolf in the forest while at one point talking Elk into attempting to rape Miss Deer to force her to marry him which whichever way you look at it is fantastically dark for a children’s film even if the metaphorical quality of the wolf as representing animalistic lust is still very much present in his determination to “eat” Miss Deer. To that extent it is also transgressive sexual energy which destabilises forest society in Foxy’s resentment of Miss Deer even if her implication that she’s been two-timing Elk and Sika Deer undercuts her otherwise innocent and pure nature which is in such contrast with Foxy’s chaotic and classically tricksy personality. 

Perhaps more of an ironic take on a kids film aimed at jaded adults, Fantasy of Deer Warrior is undeniably bizarre starring actors dressed in onesies mimicking their animal characters, deer with antlers on their heads fighting with antler staffs, and bird messengers hanging from obvious wires flapping their arms to mimic flight. Adopting the style of a classic fairytale, Chang incorporates several of Aesop’s fables such as a musical number themed around a strangely militarised tortoise and a cocky rabbit, or a literal instance of a boy crying wolf and never having the opportunity to learn his lesson. Yet the kind of justice with which the film concludes is disquieting suggesting perhaps that all is not so well in the forest after all. 


Remaster trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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.