Some films simply look so odd that you have to track them down and check them out. Zhang Ying’s The Fantasy of Deer Warrior (1961) is a case in point: it is a Taiwanese children’s film, produced in black and white, and follows a range of forest animals engaged in a series of incidents and adventures. It is not an animation, however, nor does it utilise puppets or the like. Instead it is populated with very human actors in animal costumes.
The films sees the rivals Sika Deer (Ling Yun) and Elk fighting over the beautiful Miss Deer (Pai Hung), a conflict of which the sultry and manipulative Foxy takes advantage for her own gain. Meanwhile the entire forest appears to be under threat, with the arrival of Bloody Wolf and his carnivorous minions. Half of the film comprises these struggles, while the remainder is taken up with smaller vignettes and short scenes based on folklore and fables. The film also includes the occasional song, lengthy comedic debates over the right of predators to eat their prey, and even some surprisingly blunt moments of violence. It would be easy to exaggerate the film’s unusual nature, but it does shift about an awful lot. One minute the film is recounting the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, and the next Bloody Wolf and Foxy are flirtatiously dancing to the Champs’ “Tequila”. In a few oddly harrowing moments, the arrival of the wolves in the forest is accompanied by air raid sirens.
It is not difficult to see some adult satire hidden among the seemingly child-centric antics. The film was produced in Taiwan in 1961, and somewhat unusually is performed in Taiwanese (a form of Hokkien) rather than Mandarin Chinese. The protagonist is not simply a deer but a sika deer indigenous to Taiwan. Do the air raid sirens reflect the over-shadowing threat of the People’s Republic of China? Do the wolves? Some critics have even suggested the wolves represent the ruling Kuomintang government, whose decades of martial law followed a widespread massacre in 1947. There is a lingering sense of maturity, and a few too many elements pointing to the forest being an analogue for Taiwan. Whatever the film’s hidden purpose, it always feel just slightly off-centre of what a mainstream children’s adventure should be like. The result is something oddly hypnotic, and remarkably addictive. At 87 minutes, it does not risk outstaying its welcome either.
The entire movie was shot on location in Beitou, a mountainous region north of Taipei. While its production values seem modest (it was actually a prestige product for Taiwan’s cash-strapped film industry), it makes good use of some beautiful scenery. Musically the film is an unexpected sort of magpie: small animals frolic to “Jingle Bells”, while more dramatic scenes feature the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” and Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
Zhang Ying and his lead actress Pai Hung went on to greater success with The Best Secret Agent. This strange oddity has been recovered and restored by the Taiwan Film Institute, which is a remarkable thing; these kinds of family-oriented confections would usually be overlooked in favour of more adult fare. It is a strange, wonderful gift. Wonderfully charming, wonderfully weird. It seems unlikely you will find another film like it.