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)

Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏, Liang Zhefu, 1965)

Nothing is guaranteed to turn people against each other faster than hidden loot. So it is for the children of two wartime conscripts inheriting a dubious legacy from their departed fathers in the enticingly named Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏). The world was beginning to open up in 1965, but in cinema at least there was still space for the “mysterious East” even when seen from the relative proximity of Taiwan. 

A Taiwanese businessman travels to Macao in search of the missing half of a map said to lead to treasure hidden in the Malayan mountains by the Japanese at the end of the war. The man’s brother, Zheng, and the father of the man he’s supposed to meet, Fan, served together as conscripts to the Japanese army and agreed to tear the map in two because they were afraid that their descendants may try to do each other out of their shared inheritance. That proves truer than they could ever know seeing as they both died young. The businessman is shot dead by crooks including Fan’s son (Chin Tu) who planned to steal Zheng’s half of the map and get the treasure for himself, but thankfully he didn’t have it on him, leaving it with his niece Shufen (Liu Qing) for safekeeping. Fan’s son is also killed by his gangster boss who takes his leads about Shufen and her young cousin Hong-luk (Ba Ke) heading to Malaya and runs with them. 

Shufen meanwhile has been warned by a policeman from Macao that her uncle is dead and gangsters may be on her tail. Inspector Khoo tells her to go and wander around in the jungle as bait while he is supposedly going to protect her and her cousin. Hong-luk privately dreams of finding the treasure, but Shufen reminds him they’re here for “revenge” and to smoke out the gangsters, not to get rich. While in the jungle, however, they encounter many more dangers than the alien element of invading criminality. Despite being firmly set in the modern era, Shufen and her cousin repeatedly run into members of a primitive tribe, some of whom turn out to be predatory. A hero is, however, forever on the horizon and whenever Shufen finds herself shouting for help “Tarzan” (Gao Ming) swings out of the jungle to rescue her. 

Somewhat surprisingly, “Tarzan” speaks perfect Taiwanese but wears only a leopard print loincloth and a few bangles. He is apparently, and for obvious reasons, a popular guy but only has eyes for So-bi, his increasingly jealous girlfriend with an equally jealous sister constantly outraged on So-bi’s behalf. Tarzan never falls for the the “Jane” figure of Shufen standing in for urban sophistication but remains her protector, not only from the predatory members of his own tribe but from the gangsters too even as they bring unwelcome modernity in the form of guns into this idyllic paradise. 

As they said, Shufen and her cousin haven’t come to find the treasure, only to get justice and in the hope of figuring out what happened to Shufen’s father and brother who came to Malaya some years ago after Fan’s death made getting the second half of the map impossible. The treasure itself, unearned wealth with a less than ideal genesis, is the corrupting influence which has caused so much pain and suffering. Zheng may have given his life for it, his brother and Fan’s son were shot for it, and now amoral gangsters from Macao may make sure that Shufen pays for it too even though she seems to have no interest in striking it rich. The lesson seems to be that going off to foreign countries to pull dollars out of the hillsides is a meaningless and risky business. Shufen has the right idea in that she’s gone to Malaya to restore her family and if possible bring it home while paying her respects to her late uncle. 

Greed, romantic jealousy, and the dangers of the jungle, however, threaten her mission. Wise for his years, little Hong-luk is increasingly convinced they’ve been double-crossed and that “Inspector Khoo”, if that’s his real name, must be in league with the gangsters, having tricked them into coming into the mountains all alone without the promised police “protection” even while they’re supposedly acting as bait for vicious Macao gangsters. Rest assured, however, that the authorities are eventually vindicated while Shufen remains just as innocent as the guileless Tarzan but standing up to the forces of corruption as long as she is able. The “treasure” that she discovers is family unity, preparing to leave the exoticised “Eastern paradise” for the urban sophistication of “civilisation” in Taiwan, but taking something of Malaya with her as she goes.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema