Vengeance Of The Phoenix Sisters: A Dash of Wuxia Girl Power
Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters is a low-budget, breezy, pulpy minor classic of the wuxia genre that offers easy feminist escapist fun.
Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters is an archetype and an anomaly at the same time. It's an archetypal model for the wuxia swordswoman story in many ways, and an anomaly in how unusual it still is today. It's a breezy, gleefully pulpy potboiler so elegant in its simplicity, yet with so many layers to it.
The plot of Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters is simple. Bandits attack a lawyer and his wife for revenge, but his three young daughters are spirited away by loyal servants and raised in secret. Fifteen years later, the sisters return, separately, coincidentally at the same time, now accomplished swordswomen, seeking revenge on the bandits who have grown rich and fat and still terrorizing the town. United, they work their way through the bad guys, of course. Festival notes from the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest describe the movie as the A Bout de Souffle, or Breathless, of wuxia films. It was low budget, shot quickly in black and white, and almost has a tossed-off quality about it. The handheld camera, fast pace, rapid editing makes it all breezy fun, redolent of Spaghetti Westerns, which were also at their peak in 1968. It's also one of the few wuxia films made in the Hokkien dialect. Wuxia pioneer King Hu's presence is here – director Chen Hung Min started out editing King Hu's classic Dragon Gate Inn, which kicked off the Wuxia boom in Taiwan. Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters is like the punkish younger sister of King Hu's more austere films: fast, cheap, breezy but still gleefully entertaining.
If there's one thing wuxia movies have done first, it's having female warriors who are equals of men. More than any other genre, wuxia has been the first to unapologetically embrace swordwomen as a normal fact of life in the jianghu. These women passed the Bechdel Test decades before the Bechdel Test even came along. They also flirted with gender issues before it even the norm in Western fandom. In Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters, the oldest sister dresses as a man, and a femme fatale at a tavern and even her younger sister flirts with her before she realizes who she is. This is a common trope in wuxia stories before LGBTQ subtexts became acknowledged in genre stories. The simple plot is an exercise in casual feminist empowerment fantasy with the heroines defeating a bunch of sexist cartoon villains like a fairy tale for kids. Any child could easily watch and enjoy this film and get its message. The sisterhood will kill creeps.
Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters had its North American debut at the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest, and its 2K restoration keeps its place as a minor classic.