24 November 2017 | Davian_X
A nice rediscovery
Unseen on Western shores for the last half century, VENGEANCE OF THE PHOENIX SISTERS makes its Stateside debut in a recent restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute that's well worth checking out.
The plot is pretty standard martial arts / swordplay shenanigans, with three escaped bandits slaughtering a constable and his wife in the opening who they've determined were responsible for their arrest. The family's servants make off with the couple's three daughters, and the bandits neglect to hunt them down on the belief that they're harmless children. Of course, fifteen years later the sisters are kids no more, and, though they've been separated, each has sworn an oath of vengeance against her parents' killers. In short order, all three are drawn back together at an inn and set out to fulfill their mutual quest.
Though not terribly novel, the plot is uncomplicated and functional, with characterization similarly kept to a minimum. Where the film excels is in crafting an otherworldly mise-en-scene out of its sparse resources. The opening siege on the family's household, for example, is rendered in almost impressionistic abstraction, with abundant foley of running feet, whooshing robes, and slashing swords substituting for a more direct focus on movement. Most action takes place in near darkness, with the foreground characters starkly illuminated against barren courtyards or deserted forests that melt into inky blackness. It's martial arts spectacle by way of the '60s underground, and in contrast to the more polished work of studios like the Shaw Brothers, the verite brutalism on display here is arresting and impressive.
The film strikes an acceptable balance between these two modes, moving from meat-and-potatoes dialogue scenes to attack montages of striking abstract beauty. In particular, a focus on barely glimpsed movement – flying leaps depicted by jumps and landings, for example – seems to presage the visual experimentation of King Hu in films like A TOUCH OF ZEN. While the relative lack of character development and generic plot do work against the film to a degree (it still feels long, even at a brisk 88 minutes), the almost noirish poetry of its action scenes more than makes up for it. If the recent restoration makes it to your city, it's well worth making a trip out to see. And if not – pray that a DVD or Blu-ray hits US shores soon.