The Goddess Of Mercy (1966)

Guanyin origin story
Reviewed by Simon on 2023-10-15

THE GODDESS OF MERCY provides an origin story for the Buddhist deity Guanyin, known as the Goddess Of Mercy. In this version, the pious daughter of a vicious warlord meets a vanquished prince who practises Buddhism and is impressed by his virtue. She tries to persuade her father to be more magnanimous now that he has triumphed in the war, but he just wants to enjoy the spoils of victory.

The film presents a rather simplistic vision of Buddhism... Princess Miao Shang is faultlessly compassionate whilst her father and two sisters are unfailingly nasty. No explanation is given why she has turned out so differently, growing up in the same environment, it just seems to be their nature. As such there's little growth or discovery (on either side) and her "conversion" to Buddhism is just her meeting a Buddhist and thinking "seems cool".

The first half of the film is therefore a little dull as it tries to show us this, as there's not much there to show. Eventually she ends up attempting to free the captured slaves and escort them to a safe land, and things pick up a bit. The picture of Buddhism it paints is still very simplistic.. when the group are in danger Miao Shang prays to Buddha and they are miraculously saved by divine intervention. If it's that easy, why does Buddha need to be prompted to take action?

Things do get more interesting after this point though, as there are some developments that are less trite, culminating in a final act that actually gets pretty nuts (and briefly features one of Lily Li Li-Li's first appearances). It's sort of "too little, too late", but by the end of the film I was actually starting to enjoy it.

Guanyin 9

I don't believe this is the canonical origin story for Guanyin (rendered here by DALLE-3), who is the feminised Chinese version of the bodhisattva Avalokitasvara, but as a salacious advert for Buddhism I guess it could have been of interest to audiences of the time.

Apparently there is a Korean version with a different actress in the Li Li-Hua role, which must have required a lot of reshoots since she's in most scenes (the Korean actor who plays her dad is just badly dubbed into Mandarin here). I'd be interested to see it, as Li Li-Hua's performance was rather hammy, and one of the film's weakest points.